Curious About Curiosity
If you've been following NASA's Curiosity mission to Mars, you can't help but cheer the success of it. Given the high percentage of failure of Mars missions, I was sure that Rube Goldberg skycrane thing would get tangled up and make a $2.5 billion crater for the orbiter to photograph. This vehicle weighs a ton and it's the size of a Camry. You can't heave something like that at another planet and expect it to work.
But it did. And the photos coming back are just stunning. The fact that this happened amidst a great showing for the U.S. at the Olympics makes for a nice bright spot in an otherwise dreary, election-year summer. Cheers for NASA.
Still, I wonder if such a mission as this can (and will) be done more inexpensively by a private consortium of some sort. In this blog, I wrote about Elon Musk's SpaceEx and how it appears that this company is truly delivering on launch costs much cheaper than NASA or the military can offer. If you use the same formula SpaceEx seems to have developed, then the Curiosity mission would have cost not $2.5 billion, but about $750 million or less. It probably would have been less gold plated, but perhaps just as successful, even acknowledging that a simple launch into earth orbit isn't near the technical feat of plopping something on Mars without breaking it into little pieces. That $2.5 billion, by the way, is about 14 percent of NASA's budget. A lot of eggs in one basket.
So why didn't the private sector step up? For one, it wasn't asked to. This is a JPL science project. Second, the capability isn't quite there, but it soon might be. Exploration missions like Curiosity lack the profit motive that private investors want in return for risking their money. The best you could hope for is a fixed-cost contract with good cost control and bonuses.
But that's not to say the private sector isn't proposing things other than thrill rides into near-earth space. How about mining asteroids for high-value metals? That's exactly what this consortium of tech billionaires wants to do. On the face of it, it's just daft, but they probably said that about PayPal and e-bay, too. Basically, they want to send swarms of robots to distant asteroids, plant them on the surface and mine precious metals like platinum, palladium and iridium. The trick part isn't the physics—although that's challenge enough—it's economics. It's not practical to haul ore back from an asteroid 10 million miles away, so one plan calls for refining the metal in situ, then flying it back to earth.
If they pull this off, it will make Curiosity look like a 1966 Volkswagen. On the other hand, when there's real profit motive at hand, almost anything is possible.