Politics & Policy

The Mars Prize

Daybreak on Mars (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Newt Gingrich was right to propose it.

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.

The prize system would change all that, because the company’s profit would be the value of the prize, minus their costs, period. They would have no incentive to run costs up. Quite the contrary, they would have every reason to drive costs down. Furthermore, their actual base costs would be lower, since their accounting and documentation burden would be much less onerous. By creating new aerospace companies based on these principles, or forcing the existing ones to reform themselves, the Mars Prize would end up saving the government and the commercial-satellite industry billions of dollars, as they soon would be able to get all of their required space and launch-system hardware much cheaper.

No doubt there would be many people who would be skeptical that a manned Mars mission could be flown for $5 billion — but that wouldn’t matter. If the Mars Prize bill were passed, the only thing that would matter was whether a few investors thought it could. Those interested in making the attempt wouldn’t need to convince a sustained majority in Congress that a humans-to-Mars program could be done cheaply; they would only have to convince a Paul Allen or an Elon Musk. The level of acceptable risk would also be much higher than is currently the case. Both of these are crucial: The private sector is often vastly more innovative than the government because a consensus is not necessary to start something new, and it is willing to dare the risks required.

But if nobody takes up the challenge, what then? In that case the whole exercise would have cost the taxpayers absolutely nothing.

Would offering the Mars Prize damage NASA? I don’t think so. Rather, it would result in an infusion of private capital into the best groups at the various NASA centers, as well as into both large and small aerospace companies and university and national-lab research groups, as the private consortia chasing the prize sought to subcontract expertise in particular areas of interest. This would have a very healthy influence on the technologists at NASA, as they would then be driven to develop systems that those seeking to fly a Mars mission actually want, instead of indulging themselves with research into technologies that are not relevant.

The American manned space program has not gone anywhere in nearly 40 years, and currently it intends to spend yet another decade mired in low Earth orbit, achieving nothing, at a cost to the taxpayer on the order of $100 billion. In contrast, for a small fraction of such a sum, the Mars Prize would unleash the courage and inventiveness of the American people, mobilize our technology, grow our economy, inspire our youth, and endow us with great new space capabilities, new knowledge, and a new world and a new frontier of unknown but vast potential. The American people want and deserve a space program truly worthy of a nation of pioneers. In setting forth the Mars Prize, Newt Gingrich has finally put one on offer.

— Dr. Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Astronautics and of the Mars Society. His book, The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must, was recently updated and republished by The Free Press.


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