Alex Kozak is a Policy Analyst at Google.
Space exploration has traditionally been a costly endeavor. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), which recently landed the Curiosity rover on Mars to investigate climate and geology of the planet’s surface, ran a total cost of about $2.5 billion USD.
Part of the cost associated with launching a project of this magnitude results from strict project design requirements. Launching a robot into space is no simple task, and the technical components must be designed not only to weather the extreme conditions of outer space but also to minimize risk of failure. Add to that the number of components needed to reach the depths of the solar system—which require coordination between diverse and specialized teams—and you end up with long lead times and higher overall costs. Proposals for the design Curiosity rover design, for example, were developed nearly a decade before its eventual launch.
You would be hard pressed to find people who disagree with the principle of exploring space. Those who object to space exploration tend to cite the high cost of development relative to the return on investment. So what are some ways that we might consider reducing the overall cost of exploration?
NASA is exploring cheaper and faster models of technology development. Its new PhoneSat program examines how "off-the-shelf" consumer software and hardware could be used as a platform for space exploration:
NASA PhoneSat engineers also are changing the way missions are designed by rapidly prototyping and incorporating existing commercial technologies and hardware. This approach allows engineers to see what capabilities commercial technologies can provide, rather than trying to custom-design technology solutions to meet set requirements. Engineers can rapidly upgrade the entire satellite's capabilities and add new features for each future generation of PhoneSats.PhoneSat will leverage satellites that engineers can design for under $3,500 USD, rather than with a budget of millions or billions of dollars. Version 1.0 and 2.0 iterations of the program will be using Nexus One and Nexus S smartphones (respectively), both running the Android operating system.
This new model stands to change the face of space exploration. Rather than making several large bets on technical solutions with little room for error or risk, engineers could explore opportunities to rapidly prototype, iterate, and launch less costly robotics. Future space programs might make hundreds of smaller bets with individually higher chances of failure, but this would effectively lower the aggregate chance of failure over large bets designed to minimize risk within a singular technology.