What's 10 feet long, nine feet wide, seven feet tall, and weighs 2,000 pounds? NASA's Mars Curiosity. The rover was launched on Nov. 26, 2011, from Cape Canaveral and successfully landed on the Red Planet's Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012. With a price tag of $2.5 billion, there's been a lot of criticism and skepticism about Curiosity, with the media and public questioning why it cost so much and whether the money was well spent. This article looks at the mission and the costs surrounding this part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program.

Key Takeaways

  • NASA's Curiosity rover left Earth in November 2011 and landed in August 2012.
  • The mission was to last two years but was extended indefinitely.
  • The rover came with a $2.5 billion price tag, a cost that's being spread over a number of years.
  • According to NASA, space technology continues to be utilized in various economic sectors for non-space applications.

The Mission

The Mars Science Laboratory mission is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program which aims to explore what NASA calls the most accessible planet. According to the mission's webpage, Mars is a unique planet because it has an atmosphere and climate, but its geology is also very complex—just like Earth. Curiosity's assignment is to "investigate whether conditions have been favorable for microbial life and for preserving clues in the rocks about possible past life."

The rover traveled silently through space for more than 350 million miles—a trip that took over eight months—before reaching the Martian atmosphere. This marked the entry, descent, and landing (EDL) phase of the mission. This phase, dubbed "seven minutes of terror," was a guided entry. Its descent was both parachuted and powered, with a sky crane bringing the rover to a soft landing on the surface.

Curiosity uses its advanced payload of scientific gear to collect and analyze rock and soil samples to determine if conditions are favorable for microbial life on the planet. The rover sends Earth high-resolution images and video using radio relays via existing Mars orbiters and NASA's Deep Space Network of antennas here on Earth, albeit with some delay since the signal will travel an average of 48.75 million miles.

The mission was originally supposed to last only two years. But NASA extended it for an indefinite period of time in December 2012.

NASA extended the deadline for the Curiosity mission indefinitely.

The Costs

It's difficult to hear or read about Curiosity without mentioning its price tag. While $2.5 billion is not a small chunk of change, it's important to consider that NASA spread the costs of the Curiosity mission over a period of time while it explores Mars. The budget covers a variety of expenses, including the rocket used to launch the spacecraft—a two-stage Atlas V-541 launch vehicle provided by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, accounting for about 20% of the costs—and salaries for a team of highly skilled engineers, programmers, managers, scientists, and independent contractors from around 20 states in the U.S., as well as Canada, Denmark, and the U.K.

The $2.5 billion averages out to about $312 million per year—or one dollar for every person in the U.S.—between 2012 and 2020. Just to set as a comparison, Americans spent almost $96 billion on pets in 2019. That's about $290 per person. This comparison does not imply that we shouldn't spend money on our pets but serves to illustrate how little money has been spent on the Curiosity mission.

Is It Money Well Spent?

Though we don't have the technology yet to travel at warp speed like the fictional Starship Enterprise, some of our most important technological advancements have been the result of U.S. space exploration. In his 2012 book "Space Chronicles," astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson lists a host of technologies that can be attributed to space exploration, including (but not limited to) kidney dialysis machines, aircraft collision-avoidance systems, LASIK eye surgery, GPS, hydroponic systems for growing plants, digital imaging, cordless power tools, and athletic shoes.

Technological advancement is a primary source of economic growth. Space exploration and technology continue to be utilized in various economic sectors for non-space applications. NASA states: "The ancillary benefits of the space program (are) its ability to stimulate the economy; its applications to the solutions of earthbound problems; its contributions to international cooperation; and its creation of tens of thousands of jobs for our highly skilled scientists, engineers, and technicians."

The Bottom Line

Looking at the numbers, every person in the U.S. spent about $8 total—less than it costs to go see a movie—to get an advanced scientific spacecraft safely to Mars. Sure, space travel fulfills our innate need to explore and to help understand our place in the Universe. However, the ancillary benefits of the space program, and the thousands of technological advances that have been funded and discovered because of it, also have to be considered when deciding if missions like Curiosity are wise expenditures.