Here’s a newsflash: Going to space is expensive. And it should be — second-hand or knock-off rockets seem like a pretty bad idea, no? Still, the cost of space exploration and various missions, from satellite launch contracts to manned missions to Mars, generate constant debate, especially as NASA struggles to amass a budget that will make it possible to push the space frontier. So it blows my mind — and not in a good way — to read that filming Gravity cost more than launching India’s probe to Mars.
First off, let me just say that I loved Gravity. I haven’t been that riveted in a theater for a long time — for 90+ minutes I didn’t think about my job, what I was going to do for the rest of the night, the weather. Gravity is nothing short of completely engrossing, and stunningly beautiful to boot. I also think it’s an important film — despite its factual inconsistencies, it does make audiences aware of some of the bigger truths about space, such as its dangers and its rewards, and the perspective one gets from looking at the Earth from beyond it. The price tag for the film is something around $100 million, which isn’t even all that surprising in the age of Hollywood blockbusters. But when you think about what that $100 million could have been spent on, especially when it comes to research, development, and space exploration, it’s pretty sobering.
Case in point: India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) probe, which launched on November 5, 2013 and broke free of Earth orbit just under a month later. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointed out on Monday during an Indian satellite launch that filming the movie cost more than MOM’s $73 million price tag. That amount may or may not include existing infrastructure developed for previous missions, but any way you slice it, sending a probe to Mars for less than it costs to make a space movie says something about priorities. It’s the same way I feel when I hear about politicians spending millions on their campaigns while the country flounders in debt. India’s Mars Orbiter is scheduled to reach Mars in September, and would make India the fourth space agency to successfully reach the Red Planet. In other words, lots is at stake here for the Indian Space Research Organization, and they seem to be getting the job done for less than Cuaron did.
Some people argue that there’s too much happening on Earth (like a dearth of space blockbusters) to allocate so much money to exploring space, and Neil deGrasse Tyson has a pretty awesome response to that argument — investing in space is investing in Earth, both in terms of economic gains and practical, scientific ones. NASA receives a paltry .5% allocation of the federal budget, which is shameful whether or not one compares it to the amount of money filmmakers dump into movies. At least Gravity was a good one, as opposed to, say, Waterworld, which cost more than two Indian Mars missions.