ALONG with most countries around the world, Malaysia has had to spend a lot of money in the fight against Covid-19, but are these amounts excessive when compared with other things that mankind has decided to fund, rather than be forced to fund?

I thought it would be interesting to look at the amounts two countries have had to spend in the fight against Covid-19, and compare them against how much it would cost to land a robotic vehicle on Mars, which has also been a feature of news headlines in the last week or so.

Perseverance left Earth on July 30 last year, and successfully landed on Mars seven months later, on February 18 this year. This National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) robot joins Curiosity, which left Earth on November 26, 2011, arriving on Mars on August 6, 2012. Since landing on Mars almost nine years ago, Curiosity has travelled over 24km and is still communicating with Nasa. Three other Nasa robots are also on Mars, but they are no longer in communication with Nasa.

Nasa’s Mars programme can be traced back more than 25 years, and, before that, there were other programmes, such as Apollo that landed man on the moon in 1969. Nasa has also invested in other planetary missions, which are shown in Table 1.

When space stories make the news, it is inevitable that a discussion be held on the cost of these missions, their benefit to mankind and whether the return on investment is justified.

Space exploration, by its nature, is expensive. Not only do the projects require detailed planning and high levels of expertise, but they are also long-term, which require continual investment.

How much does Nasa spend?

The cost of Perseverance over the lifetime of the project is estimated to be almost US$3 billion (RM12.22 billion in today’s exchange rate). This is a huge sum of money by anybody’s measure, but the Planetary Society puts this figure into some sort of context. For example, Google makes this amount in profit every six days and Americans spend this amount on their pets every 10 days.

What about Nasa’s other planetary missions? Table 1 shows that it has invested US$25.5 billion over the past (approximately) 50 years.

Table 1: Cost of Nasa’s planetary missions. All figures are inflation-adjusted and are in US$ billions. – The Planetary Society, March 8, 2021
Table 1: Cost of Nasa’s planetary missions. All figures are inflation-adjusted and are in US$ billions. – The Planetary Society, March 8, 2021

There are other expeditions, such as the Apollo programme, which cost US$206 billion. Manned space travel is invariably more expensive as you have to return the occupants to Earth. More protection is needed for humans than for robots, and even more stringent safety is required.

How much did we spend on Covid-19?

It would be reasonable to assume that whatever we have spent on Covid-19 would be dwarfed by what we have spent on planetary exploration. After all, we have been exploring the planets for over 50 years, space travel is expensive and Covid-19 has only been with us for about a year.

In July last year, The BMJ reported that the United Kingdom government has spent US$12.7 billion on a Covid-19 track-and-trace system and a further US$19 billion on personal protective equipment (PPE).

This US$31.7 billion is an attempt to control the spread of Covid-19. This would have paid for more than 10 Perseverance missions to Mars. Indeed, it would have funded all of Nasa’s planetary missions, which totalled US$25.5 billion (see Table 1).

What Nasa has spent in the last 50 years, the UK government has spent in about 12 months and on just two aspects of the Covid-19 crisis (track-and-trace and PPEs). If we take into account many of the other costs, such as the furloughing of jobs, support for businesses and reduction in tax revenue, then the amount spent as a result of the coronavirus is significantly higher.

Last November, the BBC estimated that the UK will need to borrow £394 billion (RM2.22 trillion) for the current financial year (April 2020 to April 2021). The UK government would have expected to have borrowed about £55 billion anyway, but the additional borrowing of US$473 billion would have funded Nasa’s planetary exploration missions more than 18 times. In fact, it would have funded the entire Apollo programme twice.

The UK press are very critical of these costs. In December last year, The Guardian ran an article titled “England’s test-and-trace repeatedly failed to hit goals despite £22 billion cost”.

How does Malaysia compare?

What about Malaysia? In January, The Edge Markets reported that Malaysia has invested about RM305 billion in stimulus packages as a result of Covid-19. This is enough funding to provide Nasa with three times the amount that they have spent on planetary exploration. The money could have funded 25 Perseverance programmes.

We have to recognise that Nasa was able to plan well in advance, there was no need for quick decision-making and every aspect of the project could be considered very carefully.

By comparison, the response to Covid-19 had to be done quickly, there was little experience to draw upon and decisions were being made under intense scrutiny from the media, public and opposition parties.

The take-home messages

1. The landing of a fifth Nasa rover on Mars is credit to the ingenuity and tenacity of mankind. Hopefully, the US$25.5 billion spent by Nasa over the past 50 years will pay dividends as the human race continues to reach out from the planet we call home, in a quest to go ever deeper into space.

2. When we talk about space exploration, the assumption is that it is eye-wateringly expensive, and US$3 billion to put a small robotic vehicle on a distant planet is a lot of money.

3. By comparison though, the amount of money spent by the UK on Covid-19 could have funded Nasa’s planetary exploration programme 18 times. Indeed, it could have funded the Apollo programme twice. 

4. Even Malaysia, which is still not considered a developed country, could have funded Nasa’s planetary exploration programme three times using the funds that it has had to spend combatting Covid-19. 

5. Where there is a will, there is a way.

Nasa has been focused on space exploration for over 60 years and they have been unwavering in their commitment and ambition. They have sought out funding, I suspect through some tough times to justify space exploration, wherever they can, and they have had spectacular success. The amount that they have spent now appears more reasonable than it might have first looked, when compared to some other high-ticket items, such as Covid-19.

We have focused on the UK and Malaysia but they, along with many other governments, could have funded the Nasa programme many times over using the money that they were forced to find in order to fight the global pandemic.

Final thoughts

In the context of Nasa and Covid-19, it is very easy to cherry-pick the numbers, and present the comparisons that I have. I could carry on and do this for many other aspects of our lives and draw conclusions. That may be useful, but the main reason for writing this article is to draw out the fact that there is funding available for initiatives that we believe are valuable and/or necessary. Whether that is exploring space or responding to a worldwide pandemic. Where there is a will, there is a way.

The world faces many other problems, not least of all those outlined in the United nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals that aim to address some of the world’s most challenging problems by 2030.

However, we cannot rely on governments to fund everything that we want or need to achieve. To address some of the world’s most pressing problems requires government, corporate and personal responsibility. This is something that we want to have more debate and discussion about in the future. – The Vibes, March 8, 2021

Professor Graham Kendall is Good Capitalism Forum chief executive