NASA Budget vs US Military Defense and Medicare/Social Security Outlays - OMB 1960 to 2016

Manned Mission to Mars

What would it take to send a manned mission to Mars?

For one thing it would require a large sustained investment. The chart above was drawn using data from the US Office of Management and Budget. It shows the outlays or spending by NASA in green, by the US Department of Defense on military programs in blue, and by the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Social Security Administration on Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security in red. The chart plots the percentage of total US Federal government outlays made in each of these three major areas for 1960 through 2016.

Overall, NASA is a relatively modest portion of US Federal government outlays.  During the 1960s space race, the US increased spending on NASA up to almost 5% of federal outlays - the small peak in the green line that shows the NASA budget.  For that decade NASA averaged 2.5% of all federal outlays.  Today, the US allocates only one-fifth that level or 0.5% (one half of 1%) of federal outlays to NASA.

It's difficult to estimate the total life cycle costs of a manned mission to Mars.  On the one hand, our technological capabilities are signficantly greater today than 50 years ago when the Apollo spacecraft went to the Moon.  On the other hand, planet Mars is a much harsher environment and is significantly further away from Earth.  If a manned mission to Mars needed the same proportionate amount of the Federal budget as the 1960s mission to the Moon, then the NASA budget would need to be raised from under $20 billion per annum to around $100 billion per annum and it would probably need to average that level for a decade or longer.  It’s hard to see how this could occur given competing demands for government spending.

For NASA, it’s not competition with military spending that is the issue.  While NASA outlays are currently a tiny 3% of US Department of Defense military outlays, both have seen their relative share of federal spending decrease over the past decades due to the rising needs of the Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security programs.  This can be seen in the chart by the downward trend of the green and blue lines compared to the upward trend of the red line.

So it would probably take a major unforeseen event to strengthen the political imperative to invest in a manned mission to Mars – to create another small, sustained rise in the NASA budget.  In the 1960s, the successful Sputnik program of the USSR motivated the US to significantly increase spending on space.  What type of events might lead to a reinvigorated desire to explore Mars or other bodies in our solar system and beyond?

One possibility could be the discovery of evidence of life on Mars.  For example, the next Mars Rover, the Mars Science Laboratory, arrives on Mars in 2012 and could find evidence of past microbial life.  If this occurred, it would certainly be a major scientific breakthrough and may provide the impetus for making resources available for a manned mission to Mars.

There are a number of other possibilities for finding extraterrestrial life beyond Mars over the coming decades.

- A future mission to one of the gas giants, Jupiter or Saturn, could discover evidence of life on a moon such as Europa, Titan or Enceladus.

- Continued research on newly discovered exoplanets could identify a planet or planets that have many, if not all, of the requirements we believe can lead to the development of life.

- The SETI Institute could identify a signal indicating the existence of an advanced extraterrestrial civilization.

In the past, the US government has spent five times as much of its budget on space as it does today.   Potentially, one of these events could create the political motivation to once again make a significant and sustained investment in exploring space, such as a manned mission to Mars.