The Cost of Cassini at Saturn

On June 30, 2014 NASA and ESA (European Space Agency), celebrated ten years of unprecedented scientific discoveries of the planet Saturn and its moons by the Cassini-Huygens probe.

Saturn by Cassini showing the prominent hexagonal formation at the north pole. 8-18-14 Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The probe has returned well over 350,000 images of the ringed system; discovered seven new moons orbiting the planet, successfully landed the Huygens probe on the surface of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan; over four thousand research papers have been written based on Cassini’s findings; “tasted” the water from Enceladus’ geysers and will continue to send back data until 2017 when it will be intentionally flown into Saturn’s atmosphere.

When we look at all that Cassini has delivered, one can ask – is it worth the $3.27 billion dollars the mission has cost? That’s a whole lot of money!

Titan and Rhea, Saturn’s largest two moons. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

But, when you consider that the mission actually started development in 1990, the cost turns out to be about $130.8 million per year over the last 25 years. Still a lot of money. But, the cost per person in the United States is about $0.42 per person per year (based on an average populate of the US from 1990 to 2014).

The $3.27 billion is the total mission cost to date, but the United State’s contribution was actually $2.6 billion, the balance being supplied by ESA and the Italian space agency, so the per person cost for the US is actually more like 33 cents per person. The per person contribution gets even smaller when you divide the cost by the populations of the ESA supporting countries.

Yes, $3.27 billion is a lot of money, but when you look at it from the perspective of real cost over time it’s not even the cost of a pack of gum per person per year! The flip side of this expense is that the mission development and support employed over 5000 people. That is money that went back into the economy; it put food on the table, paid bills, stimulated local businesses and economies, new technology development, advanced our

Saturn’s amazing rings! Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

understanding of the Solar System and of the Saturnian system immensely. The most important contribution (albeit the hardest to quantify) was to excite and encourage a new generation of young people to pursue careers in science and technology.  This one item is so very important in today’s competitive world economy. The return-on-investment is still paying off and will so for many years to come.

As a point of reference, the US Defense Department budget for just 1989 was $389 billion dollars!  For 2014 it is $752 billion.  That works out to $2350 per person today!  $3.27 billion over 25 years doesn’t sound quite so big does it?

Saturn back-lit by the Sun with Mars, Venus and Earth. Image credit: -Caltech/SSI

Take a few moments and check out NASA and ESA’s sites for Cassini and take a look at the amazing images that have been sent back by this enduring probe.  After all, you paid for it!

Check out this video for what to expect for the rest of Cassini’s mission at Saturn.

Till next time,

RC Davison

NASA’s Proposed 2013 Budget – NOT An Investment In Our Future!

The Obama administration released its 2013 proposed budget for NASA.  A step in the wrong direction!!

If one looks at the fact that NASA’s budget of $17.7 billion is 0.47% of the proposed national budget of $3.8 trillion, and they’re proposing a cut of .3% of NASA’s 2012 budget, which works out to $59 million. Now, is that $59 million really going to help reduce the national debt—or will it just get lost in the pork-barrel legislation that seems to be prevalent? When you consider the impact it has on NASA and its plans for future space exploration and the benefits it will bring, is it really worth it? These projects stimulate employment and provide opportunities for technological spinoffs that can further stimulate the economy. And, we’re not even talking about the educational benefits by getting young people interested in and excited about science and engineering.

Speaking of education. Why in the world, with our decaying education system, would you cut NASA’s education budget? Cut by $36 million from 2012’s allotment of $136 million—26%! We have no business cutting any educational programs. If we want to save money we should be looking at how we can run them more efficiently and put more children into the programs. This is an investment in our future. Our 401K for the nation is the education of the children today. We can’t afford to let our technical edge get any duller than it is now.

Consider the benefits of raising NASA’s budget by just $59 million (.001% of the national budget). We would be joining the European Space Agency in two missions to Mars in 2016 and 2018. We would be able to expand the educational programs and further development of flagship mission that push the boundaries of space exploration. Just think about what we have learned from the Pioneers, Voyagers, Cassini, Galileo, the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity to name a few.

I know times are tough. I feel it every day as does everyone else. But, our government seems to be flailing about in a panic to leave nothing untouched in the effort to reduce the budget. Is that for the good of the country or just PR for the next elections? It seems to be Republicans pointing fingers at Democrats and visa-versa. Aren’t we all on the same team—team USA? I don’t get the feeling that we are seriously weighing the consequences of some of these cuts, the perceived benefits we see today won’t pay off tomorrow.

If we don’t carefully invest in our future, our future will be very bleak indeed…

Check this link to Universe Today for a review of the budget.

Till next time,

RC Davison