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stacks of money
While the new exploration initiative may be expensive, the trillion-dollar figure quoted in many articles has no basis in fact. (credit: iStockPhoto)

Whispers in the echo chamber

Why the media says the space plan costs a trillion dollars

There is an old children’s game that teachers occasionally inflict upon their students as a morality play. A group of children are placed in a circle and then one of them is told a story that they are to whisper to the person to their right. That child is supposed to whisper it to the person on their right and so on until they reach the originator, by which time it no longer resembles the original story. Distortions are introduced by miscommunication or deliberate fraud. The lesson is that you should not believe everything you hear.

We saw the modern media version of this game recently when rumors emerged that President Bush was about to unveil a new space policy that called for a return to the Moon and an eventual human mission to Mars. Media reports quickly declared that this plan would cost a trillion dollars or even more. That number was widely repeated within the modern media echo chamber, often by supposedly reputable sources. It may have already done substantial damage to the Bush space policy, creating public opposition to what is perceived as a massively expensive program and scaring away any possible supporters.

The $1 trillion cost estimate is wrong. It is based upon a completely inaccurate reading of historical data and deeply flawed mathematics. But the problems are worse than this. Not only was an inaccurate number repeated endlessly by the media without confirmation, but the flawed calculations were repeated again and again by various people with their own agendas. Reporters also appear to have ignored or evaded obvious weaknesses with the original source of the information, preferring to repeat an inaccurate number that they saw repeated endlessly rather than seek out better information. The story of the $1 trillion cost estimate raises some troubling questions about how modern journalism is conducted.

The birth of a number

There was no secret that the Bush administration was formulating a new space policy in the fall of 2003. However, the details of the policy were shrouded in secrecy until a January 7 article carried by wire service United Press International. That article reported that President Bush would unveil his new space plan the following week and provided a few details, some of which were later proven false. The story contained some budgetary figures indicating that large increases in the NASA budget would not occur, but did not provide an overall budget figure for the plan. It also made clear that a return to the Moon, not a human mission to Mars, was the primary emphasis of the new plan.
Not only was an inaccurate number repeated endlessly by the media without confirmation, but the flawed calculations were repeated again and again by various people with their own agendas.

On January 8 Paul Recer of the Associated Press reported on the new space plan. In his article, Recer stated: “No firm cost estimates have been developed, but informal discussions have put the cost of a Mars expedition at nearly $1 trillion, depending on how ambitious the project was. The cost of a Moon colony, again, would depend on what NASA wants to do on the lunar surface.” Note that according to Recer, the trillion-dollar figure is only for a single Mars expedition, not for both the Moon and Mars, which the UPI story stated were part of the new plan. Outside observers could naturally assume that a plan for both Moon and Mars missions would be more expensive than a Mars mission alone.

I was able to contact Recer on March 4 and ask him where he had gotten the $1 trillion cost estimate for a human mission to Mars. Recer stated that he had gotten the information from “industry sources and people I talked to.” He said that none of the information was provided by government sources. He said that his sources told him that in 1989 Congress—not NASA—had produced an estimate of $400-$500 billion for a mission to Mars as proposed by President George H.W. Bush. Recer had adjusted for inflation, which would have produced a range of $640-$800 billion. He had then rounded up by at least $200 billion to produce the estimate of “nearly $1 trillion.”

There were major problems with these conclusions. In 1989 President George H.W. Bush had indeed proposed a Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) that included both a Moon base and a human mission to Mars. NASA initially estimated the total cost for both of these efforts at approximately $400 billion over 30 years. The cost of the Mars mission alone was $172.9 billion, plus $13.85 billion for precursor probes, or a total of $186.75 billion. The lunar base was estimated to cost $209.46 billion. By late 1989, using slightly different baseline assumptions, NASA had produced another cost estimate of $541 billion for 34 years of lunar and Mars operations, also roughly split in half. After this, the media often reported that the costs of Bush’s plan were either $400-$500 billion, or $400-$550 billion. Often the press erroneously reported that these costs were for a single mission to Mars, rather than for thirty years or more of operating bases on both the Moon and Mars. (See “Aiming for Mars, grounded on Earth: part one” February 16, 2004)

There is no viable way to adapt these SEI numbers to current day space exploration proposals, because the cost estimates were based upon ways of doing things that NASA no longer uses.

The Space Exploration Initiative received no significant funding and was completely dead within three years. But the huge cost estimates acquired a sort of permanence, in part because they were easily accessible via a search of media reports using such tools as the LEXIS/NEXIS search engine. Reporters on deadline will often do their research by looking at what other reporters have written. Few people, particularly reporters, have the inclination to ask whether those media reports themselves were accurate and to search out the original information. For instance, it was widely—and incorrectly—reported in the early 1990s that these large costs estimates were only for a human mission to Mars, a mistake that Recer and others repeated over a decade later.

These $400-$541 billion cost estimates had many problems even in 1989. For starters, SEI was an extremely ambitious program that called for a permanent lunar base almost from the start of operations. It projected costs not only for the initial goals, but also for decades of operations. The plan also included many other projects that were not necessary for the President’s goal. There was no reason that the plan had to include all of the assumptions or elements that NASA used in its estimates. There were also dubious parts in the plan, such as a totally unrealistic space shuttle flight rate.

There is no viable way to adapt these numbers to current day space exploration proposals, because the cost estimates were based upon ways of doing things that NASA no longer uses. For instance, the robotic Mars missions preceding human flights would have used expensive Titan 4 rockets and the spacecraft themselves would have been expensive. However, NASA switched its Mars and other planetary missions to cheaper Delta 2 rockets in the 1990s and adopted the “faster cheaper better” philosophy where missions cost only about $250 million apiece, rather than the billion-dollar missions proposed in the late 1980s. Some of the projects proposed for the Space Exploration Initiative have already been accomplished, and do not need to be done again. In addition, all SEI transportation costs were based upon using the space shuttle and shuttle-derived launch vehicles rather than cheaper alternatives. Simply put, the 1989 estimates are not applicable to the way that NASA operates in the twenty-first century.

Recer’s unnamed sources had completely misinterpreted the history… When informed of this, Recer paused for several seconds and finally answered, “oh well.”

In addition to all of these factors, it is also worth noting that NASA and other entities had produced much lower cost estimates for less ambitious lunar and Mars exploration plans. For instance, NASA’s 1992 First Lunar Outpost proposal had a projected cost of $25 billion (see “The last lunar outpost”, March 15, 2004) and some other estimates of human Mars missions were in the $40 billion range. There was no reason for reporters to pick the big totals from 1989 rather than the much smaller figures other than the fact that it was easier for them to find the big numbers.

Recer’s unnamed sources had completely misinterpreted the history—the $400-$550 billion cost estimates produced in 1989 were not produced by Congress, and were for three decades or more of both lunar and Mars exploration, not a single Mars expedition. They had also completely exaggerated the effects of inflation. When informed of this, Recer paused for several seconds and finally answered, “oh well.”

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