Explaining Southern California's economy

Mars Curiosity v. SpaceX: Running the numbers

Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Grant Slater/KPCC

Members of the project leadership team pass out high fives to engineers from mission control before a press conference at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Sunday night. At $2.5 billion, the Curiosity mission equals what NASA has given to SpaceX in funding.

KPCC reporters had been talking to Southland scientists and engineers and counting down the days until NASA's most ambitious rover yet — Curiosity — prepares to land on the Martian surface. Follow the series online.


The spectacular success of JPL in landing the Mars Curiosity rover on Mars last night followed hot of the heels of SpaceX's stunning demonstration that a commercial spaceflight company — and a startup, no less — could do what only governments had been able to do: send a capsule to the International Space Station and bring it back home.

The JPL rocket scientists in their now iconic powder-blue polo shirts (not to mention mohawks) and SpaceX's engineers in their L.A. casual-cool mission control room threads formed a vivid contrast with the buttoned-up (and tobacco-friendly) NASA vibe of old. Something new is definitely in the air, er...airless void of space, and much of it is being designed and built in Southern California. SpaceX is headquartered in Hawthorne, just south of L.A, and JPL calls Pasadena home.

JPL definitely stole back some thunder from billionaire Angeleno Elon Musk's space startup. But when you break down the funding, you can see where the priorities are. It's become fashionable in Silicon Valley to refer to anything that costs $1 billion, company-wise, as an "Instagram," after Facebook's pre-IPO acquisition of the photo-sharing app for that sum. 

But if you compare the cost of the Mars Curiosity mission with what SpaceX has gotten and is getting from NASA, you come come up a similar coinage. Mars Curiosity cost $2.5 billion, and that was one-and-a-half times the cost of both previous Mars rover missions combined. There was nothing run-of-the-mill about what JPL achieved. My favorite tweets last night were collectively along the lines of "we just landed a laser-armed one-ton nuclear-powered robot car on the surface of Mars using a rocket sky crane." Yeah! Science!

SpaceX, meanwhile, simply executed something that's been done many, many times before — shooting a rocket into space, docking with the Space Station, and bringing its capsule back. For that, the company was just awarded a $440-million contract from NASA to "develop the successor to the Space Shuttle and transport American astronauts into space" (two other firms, including Boeing, will also be funded for what some are calling the new era in space trucking, post Space Shuttle). And that's on top of the $2 billion SpaceX has already received, as "seed" money (per the LATimes) and to do 12 unmanned cargo missions to the ISS.

Do the math, and you discover that Mars Curiosity is worth one SpaceX, at current funding levels.

And SpaceX also has private investors.

"Planetary science" — of which the Mars Curiosity mission is just the latest stupendous example — is on the chopping block, with cuts of 20-30 percent being requested by the Obama Administration for 2013. Overall NASA funding is already down.

NASA has to keep the Space Station going for a while, so if SpaceX continues to succeed at both servicing the massive orbital platform and driving down the cost of launching payloads to an ambitiously predicted $100 per pound, it's going to keep getting funded. This will enable it to mature its technology and become something of a full-service space provider, expanding its footprint in the lucrative satellite-launching business.

Ironically, this could be beneficial for JPL in the long run. As SpaceX makes getting to orbit cheaper — for NASA and everybody else — funding could be freed up for more deep-space exploration and planetary science, for which the return in investment is far less obvious.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter. And ask Matt questions at Quora.

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