The Mars Prize
Newt Gingrich was right to propose it.

Daybreak on Mars (NASA/JPL-Caltech)


Robert Zubrin

In August 1994, I was invited to have dinner with House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich. At that time, I was a senior engineer working for Martin Marietta Astronautics in Denver, where I had been responsible for inventing a new plan called “Mars Direct.” By radically simplifying the mission architecture and making bold use of Martian resources starting on the very first mission, this concept offered the potential to reduce the cost and schedule of a human Mars-exploration program. NASA analysis had confirmed these advantages, and word had leaked to Newsweek, which featured it as the cover story of its July 25, 1994, issue celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. “A manned mission to Mars?” the editors asked. “The technology is already in place. And at $50 billion — one tenth of previous estimates — it’s a bargain.” Gingrich had read the article and wanted to know more.

Thus it was that I found myself in a closed room in a Chinese restaurant a few blocks from the Capitol, providing a detailed briefing on Mars-mission design to the future Speaker of the House.

Gingrich listened to me closely and became enthusiastic about the possibilities. “I want to support this with legislation,” he said. “But I want to do it in a more free-enterprise kind of way than just gearing up the NASA budget to go to Mars.” I countered by saying that while Mars Direct might cost $30 to $50 billion if implemented by NASA, if done by a private outfit spending its own money, the out-of-pocket cost would probably be in the $5 billion range. Thus if a prize several times this amount were put on offer for the first crew to reach the Red Planet, it might be possible to ignite a privately backed space race. Newt liked the idea and assigned an aide to join me in developing the details. We did so. But a few weeks later, Newt took the House, and amidst the hectic revolution and competing priorities of the Contract with America, our draft bill never saw the light of day. Last week, however, in a speech at Kennedy Space Center, Newt finally put the idea squarely in the center of the political stage by calling for the establishment of a $10 billion prize for the first private organization to successfully land a crew on Mars and return it safely to Earth.

In the context of current realities, here is how the concept would work. Starting immediately, 10 percent of NASA’s budget would be put aside yearly to accumulate a prize fund. There would be at least two prizes: a $5 billion prize to develop and demonstrate a heavy-lift booster capable of lifting at least 100 tons to low Earth orbit, and a $10 billion prize for the first human mission to Mars. In addition, the winners of these prizes would be given contracts for the purchase by NASA of an additional five copies of their flight systems at a recurring cost of 20 percent of the respective prize per copy.

So to start with, NASA would save a good deal of money by having a heavy-lift booster developed for $5 billion, less than a third of the $18 billion it currently plans to spend over the next six years on its Space Launch System — which would deliver only 75 tons to orbit and which is unlikely to ever be completed in any case, as it is being developed in isolation from any payloads or missions that might use it. The nation would have heavy-lift capability — a matter of considerable military utility — and the competitor would be in the black, operating the single most important flight system needed to reach Mars. The team could then move forward to reach the Red Planet, recouping much more than its remaining development costs by raking in the $10 billion prize, after which it could expand its business base by selling to NASA repeat copies of its Mars-mission flight system, thereby allowing the agency to engage in a sustained and economical program of human exploration of the Red Planet. The total cost of the program, including both prizes and all the recurring missions, would be $30 billion. Spent over 20 years (ten until the first Mars mission, plus ten more years for the five follow-ons), this would amount to less than 10 percent of NASA’s budget.

This is a novel approach to human space exploration, which up till now has been entirely run by government. It has a number of remarkable advantages. In the first place, this approach renders cost overruns impossible. Not a penny will be spent unless the desired results are achieved, and not a penny more will be spent beyond the award sum agreed upon at the start. Success or failure with this approach depends solely upon the ingenuity of the American people and the workings of the free-enterprise system, not upon political wrangling. The tactic not only guarantees economical results, but it also promotes quick and smart results. When people have their own money at stake, it’s a lot easier to find and settle on practical, no-nonsense solutions to engineering problems than is ever the case in the complex and endless deliberations of a government bureaucracy.

There are other advantages to this approach as well. Economic growth would be spurred, prior to any government expenditure. Moreover, posting multibillion-dollar prizes for breakthrough accomplishments in space would call into being not only a private space race, but a new kind of aerospace industry, one based on minimum-cost production methods. The existing aerospace industry does not work that way. Rather, the major aerospace companies contract with the government to do a job on a “cost plus” basis, which means that whatever it costs them to do the job, they charge the government a certain percentage more, usually 8 to 12 percent. Therefore, the more it costs the major aerospace companies to do a job for the government, the more money they make. For this reason, their staffs are top-heavy with layer after layer of management bureaucrats, whose sole function is to add to company overhead. Of course, since the government needs proof that the expenses claimed by the aerospace companies are actually being incurred, vast numbers of accounting personnel are also employed, to keep track of how many labor hours are spent on each and every separate contract.