The fact that we are about to land the largest most complex and powerful rovers ever to land on mars is exciting for anyone with even a passing interest in space exploration. The Mars Rovers have been some of the most popular missions as seen by the web sites for NASA which are some of the most popular at NASA. However, the nuclear-powered MSL mission’s price tag is no small potatoes. So far the rover has cost $2.5 billion, including $1.8 billion for spacecraft development and science investigations and additional amounts for launch and operations.
NASA has a yearly budget of approximately 17.7 billion dollars. Therefore MSL represents about 15% of one years budget. In comparison the James Webb Telescope will run about $8.7 billion and the new Space Launch System is estimated to run $41 billion. The cost to each U.S. citizen for the Mars Rover is about $8 each, about the same cost as a meal at McDonald’s. There is a lot of talk and dreaming but the reality is that we will most likely not put a man on mars in our lifetime. When looking at future missions to Mars the best we can hope for is a sample return mission some time in the future. This means that this mission and others like it will be critical to our understanding of the red planet.
The total NASA budget is so small when compared to other government agencies it is at times amazing such good missions are still possible. NASA represents about 0.5% of the total U.S. Government spending. It is hard to put a price tag on the knowledge and understanding we gain from the missions NASA executes but it seems like when looking at the Mars Science Laboratory it is well worth the cost of a little more than an McDonald’s happy meal.