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Our view: Costs, risk don't justify Mars mission

It's impossible to watch the movie "First Man" and not feel some patriotic pride associated with the first manned mission to the moon in 1969. Millions worldwide watched live as Neil Armstrong stepped from an American spacecraft and, through a crackling radio, spoke those famous words about a "giant leap for mankind."

The movie is playing now in theaters and offers a contemporary view at an event that many Americans fondly recall. Hidden within the movie, though, are reminders of the great dangers of space travel, as well as the great costs

When the Apollo program — responsible for those moon missions — ended in 1973, the final price tag was $25.4 billion. A single launch of a Saturn rocket cost $375 million. Back in those days, NASA's funding was more than 4 percent of the federal budget; today, it's less than 1 percent.

When extrapolated forward, the total price for the Apollo program would come to more than $200 billion today.

That cost is why it's not a good idea to move forward with plans to reach Mars, which has been on presidential wish lists for years. President Obama declared his goal of sending astronauts to deep space and, possibly, landing on an asteroid by 2025, with reaching Mars a goal by the 2030s. President Trump last year declared his intent to return Americans to the moon, followed later by a trip to Mars.

"Under President Donald Trump, America will lead in space again and the world will marvel," Vice President Mike Pence said.

Americans are an adventurous lot, and we as much as anyone hold tightly to that traditional national trait. Watching the movie "First Man" further stirs that passion. But adventure movies and reality are two very different things because a ticket to "First Man" costs less than $10, but estimates show a Mars program would come with astronomical costs.

Last year, Newsweek published a report that noted how NASA has not produced specific figures of the cost of a Mars mission, but that the director of the Mars Institute — a research group that receives funding from NASA — estimates a cost of $1 trillion over 25 years. In an op-ed published on the website Space News, O. Glenn Smith and Paul D. Spudis — who have backgrounds in NASA and the Lunar and Planetary Institute — estimate the costs could be as high as $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion.

And that doesn't even consider the potential cost of human life. "As of 2018, there have been 18 astronaut and cosmonaut fatalities during spaceflight," including the 14 astronauts who died when America's space shuttles malfunctioned, Wikipedia notes. The potential for disaster in a round-trip mission to Mars that could take up to two years to complete would be exponentially higher.

The cost, coupled with the risk, don't justify a Mars program, even as the movie "First Man" stirs patriotic passions and interest in another space adventure.