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I am looking for a cost estimate for a manned (return) mission to Mars. There is a similar question asking for the cost of the Mars One proposal, but I would be happy with a cost estimate for any type of human mission to mars. I need something substantiated and ideally citable, e.g. from someone like NASA. The Wikipedia article on this says:

The cost of sending people to Mars has been the main obstacle of any mission. Estimates of cost have ranged from \$6 billion to \$500 billion for various crewed programs.

There are sources given in the article, but I am not sure how substantiated they are.

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    $\begingroup$ You might find this infographic on The Cost of Living on Mars useful. It has sources quoted towards the bottom end. Your costs will eventually depend on what you plan on doing there, how many people you send, for how long, and yes, even who's paying for all of it. It's incredible how tight people can be if it has to come out of their own wallets. ;) $\endgroup$ – TildalWave Jan 16 '14 at 10:20
  • $\begingroup$ Not to mention how you plan on getting them there... $\endgroup$ – PearsonArtPhoto Jan 16 '14 at 11:08
  • $\begingroup$ A better question would be to ask about the estimates of the number of launches from the Earth for one complete mission. Other than development and low-rate production of the flight hardware, this is going to be the main cost item (you should add launch site re-furbishment as another significant cost driver if existing launchers aren't enough). $\endgroup$ – Deer Hunter Jan 17 '14 at 10:42
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No one today can credibly provide a cost estimate for a crewed mission to the surface of Mars. That doesn't mean that you can't find estimates, but rather that they will not be useful. This is reflected quite well in the range of numbers in your quote.

The reason is that there has not been sufficiently detailed design and production planning for such a mission. Sufficient in this case would be spending on the order of 5% to 15% of the final mission cost on planning and cost estimation. That won't happen until someone says go.

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  • $\begingroup$ The interesting part is that since we don't know the final cost, the estimated cost for the cost estimate would in this case range from \$300 million to \$75 billion. $\endgroup$ – Jakob Jan 24 '14 at 8:21
  • $\begingroup$ That uncertainty goes down quite a bit as you spend that first $300M. So you'll know by then how much you need to spend on the planning. $\endgroup$ – Mark Adler Jan 24 '14 at 14:59
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While it's true that nobody can give a credibly very-accurate estimate, that doesn't mean such estimates are useless. We can look at similar engineering projects (similar in scale, timeline, and ideally similar in the regime) and make comparisons. For an international mission to Mars, two projects spring to mind: ITER, and the ISS. Both involved (or involve) a fair number of unknowns, both are decade+ international engineering efforts where lots of R&D was required up front, and both also include building large-scale structures and a consortium of partners.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is the big fusion tokamok being built by France, Russia, the United States, Japan, and others, and the total cost is estimated to be roughly $50 billion dollars, with a total timeline of approximately 20 years, give or take.

The ISS (which needs no intro here!) cost roughly $150 billion in total, and was a roughly 12-year project, not counting ongoing use of it. It's a better analog for a Mars mission in some respects, because it involved designing and building a long-duration habitat for humans in space, in-orbit construction by docking together modules, multiple launches of boosters, and solving a lot of the same life-support problems that a manned Mars mission will have to solve. The ISS has 13 pressurized modules, which is (very likely) more than needed for a Mars mission, although they're only in LEO so they're much closer.

I didn't look up the $6 billion estimate you listed in the question, but I'm hazarding a guess that this figure is for a fly-by, and not a landing and ascent. Most of the estimates done by either NASA or outside groups have been higher. One of the most recent credible estimates is by an expert panel (see this National Geographic article from April 2014) which estimates $80 - 100 billion for a roughly 20-year program. Or, put another way, about 1/10th the total cost of the F-35 fighter program ;-)

When you read these cost breakdowns, the actual rocket launches are generally not a huge portion - even if we assumed a manned mission would require 4 x BFR or 4 x SLS Block II, at something like 2 billion/launch, and a complete dress-rehearsal unmanned, that's $16 billion or so. A lot of the money will be spent designing, building, and testing the craft that takes the astronauts there and back, the Mars ascent vehicle, and solving the "Mars landing problem" (slowing down heavy payloads enough to get them on the surface safely).

While every estimate should be taken with a big grain of salt - and prices vary wildly with different types of missions, number of people, length of stay on Mars, etc - there are entire disciplines in engineering around cost estimation, so it's not impossible to generate useful estimates.

Bottom line - somewhere in the $50 billion - $100 billion range for a mission to put humans on the surface of Mars and bring them back, including R&D, and dependent on scope and ambition. I suspect that Elon Musk thinks he can do it for a lot less of course, lol.

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    $\begingroup$ Do note that the "getting back" part is the expensive one - in space, you don't get discounts for return tickets. Getting a pound of stuff back requires bringing 5-10 pounds of stuff there; so a one-way mission costs no more than 10%-20% of a two-way mission of similar size. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Nov 5 '14 at 15:24
  • $\begingroup$ Sure, but nobody is realistically going to mount a one-way mission to Mars anytime soon (Mars one will never leave the ground). Nevertheless, most of the tech we would need already exists and has been proven out. I personally think the hardest part will be developing the lander and Mars-to-orbit launcher and in-situ fuel synthesis. Both are technical challenges. $\endgroup$ – Kirkaiya Nov 6 '14 at 18:40

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