How does NASA plan to pay for a Mars mission?

There is a growing sense that NASA might be alone in its Mars ambitions. But a few foreign nation and private partnerships might prove cheaper and more effective.

Twentieth Century Fox/AP
In this photo provided by Twentieth Century Fox, Matt Damon as Astronaut Mark Watney finds himself stranded and alone on Mars, in "The Martian." Actually sending an astronaut to Mars will require financial output from multiple sources, analysts say.

Space may be the final frontier, but if NASA tries a cowboy-style, lone frontiersman approach to a Mars mission, cost could quickly bring it back to Earth.

Analysts predict a $100 billion to $1 trillion price tag for the Mars mission. NASA's 2016 budget is $19.3 billion, hardly a modest sum, but the cost of the Mars venture would outstrip it, Justin Bachman wrote for to Bloomberg.

That is a large price tag for a NASA mission in America's post-Cold War space exploration budget, but the lack of a space race could actually prove an advantage if it led to savvy compromise on cost among governments and the private sector.

“I think everyone expects that a multinational coalition is going to be involved at some level,” Casey Dreier, advocacy director for the Planetary Society, a nonprofit that promotes space exploration, told Bloomberg.

The European Space Agency (ESA) may not want to send its own spacecraft to Mars, but it is not averse to collaboration with NASA that "will actually lead to having a European astronaut on a future space mission,” Nico Dettmann, head of ESA's development department, told Bloomberg at a collaborative event for the Orion program Nov. 30.

Orion is NASA's deep-space manned space project – a stepping stone to a Mars mission – that the agency plans to spend $6.77 billion on from 2015 to 2033 to build two new capsules. The ESA covered the $470 million-plus tab to build the initial module, with the work performed by Airbus Group in Europe.

Russia and China are also space-capable and could help sponsor a Mars mission. But Russia is reducing space spending, and the US has had trouble partnering with China in space. China has been barred from the International Space Station since 2011, when the IS Congress passed a law prohibiting official American contact with the Chinese space program due to concerns about national security, notes

Any deals with international powers could also make it harder for President Obama's successor – or the president after that – from deciding that missions to Neptune or moon colonies serve the nation's interests better than a manned Mars mission.

"NASA isn’t going anywhere without private and international partners," Eric Berger wrote for The Houston Chronicle. "It simply can’t begin to afford an Apollo-like, go-it-alone, brute force mission to Mars."

Foreign governments and their deep pockets are an important option to consider, but the private sector may also become a key player. Several companies are rapidly coming up to speed on what it takes to launch a spacecraft, and they may be able to do it more cheaply than NASA or the ESA by NASA's 2030 mission goal.

The 2015 launch – and more importantly, safe landing – of a reusable rocket by SpaceX (and a test launch by Blue Origin) represent options for less expensive space travel. Reusing expensive rocket parts to fly another day has been a NASA goal for 30 years, but private companies are finding ways to do it.

This proves that American excitement about Mars could give companies the interest and flexibility to contribute to a Mars mission. There is evidence that space enthusiasts such as Elon Musk and Jim Bezos are already be thinking in that direction, wrote The Christian Science Monitor's Pete Spotts:

Privately-owned aerospace companies owned by wealthy visionaries are taking up the challenge, free of Wall Street demands for quick returns on investment or of the intense scrutiny of annual federal budget cycles. SpaceX founder and chief designer, Elon Musk, has indicated that reusable rockets could cut the cost per pound to between $10 and $500 per pound, depending on the number of launches a year.

It wouldn't be another space race, but NASA might fly to Mars less expensively with the good wishes – and cash – of other nations and private companies.

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