Space exploration has an unusual side effect: giving us a sense of the value of money on earth.
1/ The Perseverance rover, shown touching down on Mars in the photo below, cost about $2.2 billion to design and build, and about $243 million to launch on an Atlas rocket.
2/ Now that it is on the ground, if all goes well, and it is able to operate, it will cost another $300 million to operate for two years. So that’s at least $2.7 billion overall, or about 54,000 bitcoins. Hopefully more, if the mission gets extended.
3/ For those who don’t track this stuff, it is the fifth Mars rover, not counting the early Viking missions in the 70s which were not rovers. The previous ones were Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity.
4/ Perseverance is very much like Curiosity — about the size of an SUV, and powered by an MMRTG — Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator. By contrast, Sojourner in 1997 was about the size of a lawnmower, and the MERS were about the size of golfcarts.
5/ Probably the most charismatically interesting thing about Perseverance is that it is carrying a drone helicopter called the Ingenuity, which will be a genuinely fascinating thing if it works. An aircraft on another planet — one with 1/6 the gravity, and about 0.6% the atmospheric density.
6/ So how should you think about the value of the Perseverance mission? Some people who are space-exploration positive are still kinda defensive about such things and try to make up rationalizations like R&D benefits for problems here on earth.
7/ I think this is not even wrong. When someone asks why we spend money on Mars missions when there are starving children on earth, the answer is neither to make up specious theories of how space science can lead to life-saving medicines on earth, nor to walk away saying values are different, but to talk about how money works.
8/ Money is the largest-scale coordination mechanism we have for negotiating differences in values of things, and is what allows us to define what the word “we” means. Its design has to accommodate everything humans might disagree about. Money that cannot value space exploration or art cannot value medicines or food very well either.
9/ So I think the simplest mental model is as a civilizational art project. 2.7 billion is about 0.013% of the GDP of the United States. This is actually pretty cheap by civilizational artwork standards.
10/ For comparison, at the height of the Mughal empire, the Taj Mahal cost about a billion of today’s dollars, and a double digit percentage of the empire’s GDP at the time. Possibly as high as 20-25%. According to some historians, it contributed to the bankruptcy and decline of the empire.
11/ A good question about civilizational art projects is — who is the art project for. Whether you’re talking medieval monuments or Mars rovers, it is easy to figure out who the artwork is by, but it’s not always easy to figure out who it is for.
12/ Pre-modern civilizational art projects were generally monuments to the narcissism of emperors and religious leaders. To get people to accept the fiscal burden to undertake them, you had to make up myths and religions.
13/ There is some of that in modern space programs. We still quote Kennedy’s speech about getting to the moon. But even the most powerful modern cults of personality, whether you’re talking Kennedy or Trump or Xi Jinpeng, pale in comparison to the cults of old monarchies and religions.
14/ Presidents get to bask in the reflected glory of space programs a little bit, but ultimately, they ultimately get only a small slice of the attention. If you add up all the attention we give to astronauts and Nasa, and the people who work on missions, you still get a big deficit. You’re left asking, who exactly asked for this?
15/ It’s not even national pride really. Space programs in