[ Listen to this post on SoundCloud
In light of Elon Musk and SpaceX’s plans for exploring and colonizing Mars, I thought it might be informative to outline how such a mission (either ongoing or limited to just a few landings and returns) while obviously very expensive, could actually make for an incredibly profitable enterprise.
Here’s the quick version
We pay for a trip to Mars through an investment corporation, capitalizing on the scarcity of Martian materials, issuing a limited edition coinage, creating a currency with an intrinsic value based on transportation costs and charge for industrial and scientific services and payloads. Along the way, Mars becomes an information technology economy like Silicon Valley or Singapore. Researchers and makers go there to find out what’s on Mars, they create value in areas especially related to space technology.
First let’s answer the question of why a mission to Mars should be profitable. The reason is simple: If it’s not profitable, or at the very least inexpensive compared to other endeavours, we’ll never go. Why hasn’t NASA already put a human on Mars? Cost. We’ve had the approximate technological capability for decades, but costs have only increased. While NASA has made great strides in recent years working with private space companies, its mission statement isn’t building business models and startups. The reality of exploration is that it has almost always been historically driven by economics (often through a mixture of private capital and state charters). This is neither a good or bad thing. It’s just a reality. We expend resources on endeavours that are most likely to recoup or increase said resources. It’s how nature functions as well. There’s no nobility never going or in spending $100 billion one-time to go to Mars when you can do it cheaper, at a profit and create an ongoing enterprise that continuously increases our sum knowledge.
Now let’s make some assumptions about this Mars mission:
1. It’ll involve humans going to Mars.
2. The mission will return samples and humans.
3. While the mission will hopefully be ongoing (back and forth), for the foreseeable future (likely never) there will never be a cost effective way to bring large amounts of Martian materials back to earth. (We won’t be mining Mars for metal ore to compete with earth commodities. The cost of processing and returning even a rare element like uranium would be ridiculous.)
4. While there won’t be a market for industrial volumes of materials, there will be an incredible market for samples for industrial research, scientific and consumer markets.
5. I’ll put the cost at $25 billion dollars for multiple missions. This is a somewhat arbitrary number based roughly on the development costs of previous technologies, launch costs and operations. It could be $100 billion or $10, but we need a number to start from. As you see the different models you’ll see how a cost range from $10 to $100 billion isn’t a dealbreaker.
6. The last assumption is that the first manned mission would launch within a decade, although this isn’t a dealbreaker, but sets up expectations on financial return for investors.
I’ve laid out the proposal based upon phases. Phase One is the preliminary period where a company (presumably SpaceX or Blue Origin) creates a consortium of investors in a separate entity. Phase Two is when the actual mission planning and construction begins. Phase Three is when humans are on Mars. Phase Four is when sample start returning to earth and we have a trade route of sorts.
Phase One: Mars Exploration Corporation (MXC)
The first step is for a credible company or entity (someone that has the financial and technical capability to actually go into space) to create a corporate entity for procuring investment capital to begin funding a mission to Mars. The first round would be private and institutional investors. The second round would be public offering.
By creating a separate company, SpaceX (we’ll just assume they’re the ones doing it, unless Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin decide to jump in front of the line) limits their economic liability. If the MXC fails horribly and starts an interplanetary war, SpaceX’s shareholders only have limited exposure. SpaceX can keep launching satellites, sending microwave dinners to the International Space Station and just going about their business.
Also, a separate, publicly held company allows SpaceX to raise the capital for a Mars mission without Elon Musk losing control of the privately held company. MXC can offer special shares and retain a high degree of control (similar to how Google had its IPO.)
The MXC allows for SpaceX to bring in strategic investment partners from the industrial and aerospace sectors. A petroleum company looking to diversify or a chemical company wanting to get in on the ground floor would be at a potential advantage to invest.
When you start adding together all the possible industrial partners that can spend $50 million or more on a partnership that has the potential for great research and awesome PR, you’re soon talking about a lot of capital to get started.
Once the MXC is publicly listed with a credible business plan (see below) they can raise a tremendous amount of capital through the sales of stock. While I can’t estimate what the actual stock sale would raise (there’s a ceiling even for irrational exuberance) it’s would have to be in the billions if the partnership looked credible and the business plan less than fantasy.
At this point, MXC, primarily owned by SpaceX, is worth billions of dollars and can start plowing money into actually building their rockets and landers and whatever the hell else they’ll need. But a stock offering isn’t a business model (well, at least it’s not supposed to be.) There needs to be a plan in place for returning money to the investors and to raise the even greater amount of capital to actually light the rocket and sent it on its way.
Phase Two: Information
Now that we have a well-funded start-up (probably the most funded one in the world) and teams of engineers hard at work building the tech to get us to Mars, what do we tell our investors our business plan is? The answer is a lot of things. We’re going to carve out a bunch of different business models that are made possible when you can go to Mars and back. I’ve grouped them by potential profitability.
It’s important to keep in mind as you look through them that the first profit made in an emerging market is based on the money spent on speculation: The money made by pickaxe salesmen in gold rush towns and landowners selling mineral rights. Even if no gold is ever found, the landowners and mining supply companies make out pretty good. Cecil Rhodes, founder of De Beers, got his start selling water to mining companies. He parlayed that into a diamond monopoly that lasted a century. Outside of industrial applications (where synthetics are often better) the global diamond market is based entirely on speculation and perceived value – they’re really just shiny rocks.
From the moment we lift off, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of valuable data with an endless amount of theoretical applications. The trip to Mars itself will have incredible potential for pharmaceutical research. Have a new osteoporosis treatment that you’re sure won’t kill our astronauts? MXC will let you conduct a limited trial as our astronauts spend six months in micro or reduced gravity. Given that a new drug costs around a billion dollars to bring to market, spending a hundred million or so on this kind of research wouldn’t be out of the realm of reason.
Besides using our best and brightest as guinea pigs, the Mars rocket can serve as an experimental platform as it makes its way to the red planet and give our astronauts something to do besides Netflix and chill as their internet signal gets weaker.
Mars is an entire planet with its own unique geochemistry and possibly biology. A billion years of natural processes makes for an incredible laboratory. While bring back anything in bulk (unless it’s extremely potent in small quantities) isn’t a feasible business model, simply understanding more about Martian materials could be a boon for terrestrial technology. Our rovers have already observed fascinating mineral formations on the surface of Mars, yet we still have no idea what else is to be found or what’s just inches or hundreds of feet below the surface.
The iPhone 20 could have a lens that’s a synthetic version of some shockproof crystal we find on Mars. The wafer that makes up the chip could be some alloy we’ve recreated after observing how certain metals behave after continuous exposure to intense radiation. Or not… The speculation phase is based on revenue generated from enterprises hoping to find some new billion-dollar application. MXC makes its revenue by providing data to companies willing to pay for access to the stream of information coming from in situ research.
Besides the things we find on Mars, there’s going to be an endless amount of information as we dig, grind up, mix and combine all the things we find there along with earth samples. What are the biological effects of reduced gravity on microorganisms? Even if we don’t find life, we might discover that terrestrial organisms adapting to varying degrees of exposure to the harsh environment might develop useful mutations. We’ve found forms of bacteria that thrive in nuclear reactors and developed useful strains of microorganisms through mutation breeding.
Clearly a mission to Mars will provide a lot of amazing research with potential benefits back on earth. Packaging a selling this information can take many different forms. Here are a few possibilities:
MarsDB is a database of all the non-proprietary information gathered on Mars. This could be information from ongoing exploration of Mars, presented in raw form. Research institutions would pay for priority access and have the ability to vote on areas of focus. Should we send a team to the dark tunnel on the side of the ravine? Or investigate the crater? Subscribing to the MarsDB get you access and a voice in those decisions.
What’s access worth? Some science journals cost $20,000 a year or more for a subscription. What’s the price on having your university and official part of the MarsDB with access for all your faculty and students? With tiered rates for corporations, institutions and individuals, MarsDB could be a billion-dollar plus business just for shared information.
Cubesats are 10 cm cubes that can be sent into space on a variety of launch platforms. The launch cost of one is around $50,000 (although this fluctuates.) While the market for cubesats is still very nascent, it’s become a great framework to plan experiments, design communication and earth sensing satellites. A MarsCube would be cubesat, but for, um, Mars. One cubic meter of cargo space on a Mars rocket could contain 1,000 cubesats. Assuming a cubesat price of $50,000 per launch (not including what MXC can charge to help design the experiment) each cubic meter is worth $50,000,000 – roughly the price of a used Falcon 9.
While it’ll be up to MXC to make the case to potential MarsCube purchases why they should buy a few (I’ve got a list of potential experiments I’m happy to share) this kind of standardized experimental space (which can be broken down even further) creates a useful protocol for conduction Mars research. There can be a business model in just sending MarsCubes to Mars and relaying the data back to earth.
Have a list of experiments, industrial applications or just some burning questions? Instead of starting your own space program, why not rent an MXC rover for a week and go investigate the planet however you please?
A good portion of a Mars mission, even a crewed one, will involve the use of robots. Some running autonomously on earth-based instructions, others controlled in real-time on the Mars by humans sitting inside air-conditioned comfort. MXC can time-share rovers to research institutions wishing to conduct their own investigations. They’d own the information they gleaned and have the right to keep it private for a period of time. The rovers would have various sensing equipment and tools for digging into the surface.
Want to conduct your own botanical experiments or develop Martian strains of terrestrial seedstock (possible only with symbolic value)? MXC could allow researchers and biotech companies to send small seed packs to be planted inside a pressurized terrarium with different soil chemistries. After several generations, the samples could be DNA sequenced and results transmitted back to earth (or samples sent back for a hefty fee.)
Martian Industrial Research Park
In addition to MXC’s research other companies could rent space to offer their own services. Want have some sample examined under a cutting edge-electron microscope or use a high-powered laser for spectral analysis? Third parties could develop research labs for speciality experiments and then sell their services. These labs could be manned or entirely automated.
Think of the pickaxe salesman in the gold rush or the overpriced hotel, there are countless opportunities providing services to other companies engaged in Martian speculation.
Maybe you think certain industrial chemicals are going to be extremely valuable or can 3D print tools and equipment. MXC makes its money by serving as a platform for these companies engaged in business to business commerce. Even if the mine is a bust, the pickaxe has already been sold.
Phase Three: Selling Mars
The previous examples only dealt with business models related to sending information from Mars to earth. While I think this is the most immediately marketable and what has the most long-term value, if you were to ask me what will be the first big economic boom, it would be the value of the things we bring back from Mars. Beyond the industrial and scientific markets, the consumer space will be as big or potentially bigger when you factor in the financial angle. Don’t think about Mars rocks in the same context as some geode you buy at a gas station gift stop and end up using as a doorstop, think De Beers. Think luxury goods. Think fashion. Think Bitcoin. Even with routine trips, Martian samples (dirt, rocks, water, etc.) will be extremely scarce. Scarcity underlies trillion-dollar markets – especially for items with no intrinsic value.
The first ton of Martian dirt brought back to earth will be worth a fortune. It doesn’t matter if we just land on Mars, open the hatch and start shoveling dirt inside the capsule and take off again, that stuff will be worth billions. It might even be enough to pay off the first expedition (I’ll explain how to almost guarantee that a little further on.)
Martian sample auction
One of the first things MXC can do prior to launch is auction off portions of the sample return to the highest bidders. I’ll explain another model once people are on Mars finding interesting things.
Who will be the highest bidders for this sample return? While ideally it would be scientific institutions, the real money will be jewelry, luxury good manufacturers and speculators. Sure it will be just dirt, but it’s dirt that can be made used to dope crystals, mixed into ceramics, embedded in metals and fused with other materials. It’ll also be the first dirt ever returned from Mars.
A few specks of Martian dust (which could look chemically exactly like terrestrial dirt) mixed with carbon and heated to extreme temperature under pressure could create a unique gem stone. Get the chemistry right and it’ll even be red. What’s the value of a diamond made from the first piece of Mars? Depends on who is buying. This Martian Diamond, or whatever, won’t have any intrinsic value, but neither does an earth diamond – but as discussed earlier, those seem to be selling quite well.
And let me reinforce the fact that the first ones will have tremendous perceived value. Take a walk through a high-end shopping plaza and look through the windows at all the intrinsically useless things being sold for ridiculous sums. If you can take a piece of Mars and make it look pretty, it’ll also have ridiculous value.
We can assume that some of the highest bidders for the first Martian sample return will be companies looking to turn a few grams of red dirt into expensive baubles, why can’t MXC get a bigger portion of that action? While trying to compete head to head with the likes of Gucci and jewelery designers on luxury goods, wouldn’t make much sense, MXC can capitalize on the most important quality of the first returned samples: It’s from Mars and there will never again be a first sample return.
MXC can take the very first kiloton of Martian rocks, grind it down into million grams – subdivide that five times into a carat (there’s five carats to a gram) and create an alloy or ceramic with the Martian powder and produce Martian coinage. While 99.999% of the coin is terrestrial metal, some part of it will be from the first Mars mission. Imagine if NASA did that with moon rocks…
What are 5 million Martian coins worth? While that’s anyone’s guess, we can come up with an approximation using two somewhat relevant data points. Let’s first assume that MXC is going to sell these coins way before the mission even launches. Maybe only a few thousand of them go up for sale initially, with the stated promise that there will never be more than 10 million produced. Each one gets a serial number and authentication url.
When Elon Musk announced the presale of the Tesla Model 3 with an expected ship date nearly two years later, in just over a day almost a half a million people laid down $1,000 for the privilege to be the first ones to buy the car when it eventually gets released. Overnight, Tesla had $500 million in pre-order deposits. That’s half a billion in 24 hours for a depreciating asset (I was one of those people, FYI).
If MXC announced it was selling Martian coins at $1,000 a pop and only had 100,000 to sell up front, they’d go just as fast. That’s a billion dollars overnight. The aftermarket would then set a new price point and MXC could release more at that price.
What’s the total market for these coins? Good question. While Tesla 3 presale isn’t exactly an apples to apples comparison, it’s a good indicator of the eagerness of some people to invest in Elon Musk’s vision. While he has his detractors, he has millions of fans willing to support him with their money.
Another comparison is the artificial currencies market (I know it’s a redundant phrase.) Currently the total value of all Bitcoins is $10 billion. Part of that valuation is based on the dark market benefit of a theoretically untraceable currency, but it’s also based on the notion of scarcity and perceived value. Martian coinage has even greater potential. Enough that I’m confident that Mars coins could cover the total mission cost – especially each one was tied into some kind of profit participation.
An interesting aspect to Mars coinage is that if there’s only one successful Mars mission and we give up after that, their value would likely increase. Their perceived scarcity would drive up the value even more (aside from the value given to any MXC participation.)
First Bank of Mars
Let’s take this a step even further and create a currency that’s tied to Martian scarcity, perceived value and add fluid transactions. Imagine that MXC announces that while they’re no longer going to be minting Mars coins on earth, they’re going to issue a brand new currency on Mars. This currency would have several unique properties:
1. It’ll be made on Mars from Martian metal.
2. Each coin’s initial value is based on the price of returning a certain weight back to earth. Think of them as promissory notes or stamps.
3. Each coin will be held on Mars in a vault unless the owner claims it or has an agent claim it on their behalf.
4.Each coin will have a unique serial number attached to it, similar to a Bitcoin block chain. Anyone can check the authenticity and ownership of a coin when presented with the serial number.
5. While your Mars coins are held by MCX, you can allow them to invest them, making loans to Martian business ventures.
6. The coins wouldn’t be under any legal jurisdiction on Earth (although some will dispute that…)
What you would have is a form of currency that has intrinsic value, is highly fluid and generates increasing value through scarcity and re-investment.
What MCX has, assuming they proceed responsibility, is their own treasury and mint. While they’ll have the monopoly on transportation until a competitor comes along, their real advantage will be that they’re the primary banking power for an entire planet.
The Martian Material Exchange (MMX)
Beyond the token value of the first Martian sample return, there will be an emerging market for all of the weird and wonderful things we will find on Mars as we continue to explore. Blueberries and vugs are just some of the strange things we’ve observed so far. Combing the surface and searching through hundreds of miles of lava tubes and other formations is likely to reveal fascinating finds. What’s the value of these objects? While you really can’t put a value on scientific research, you can figure out a market price.
The Martian Material Exchange would be a near-real-time auction house for Martian samples. As the expedition finds interesting objects, the surplus ones could be sold to earth-based bidders. We already do this with everything from produce to precious gemstones.
Buyers would be purchasing them in the hope for either a higher resale value or the potential for industrial research.
Samples meant for research could be processed on Mars or sent back to earth for a hefty fee.
After the initial fascination for Mars objects passes, there will still be a long lasting market for objects that might have research and industrial value – bearing in mind that returning large numbers back would be ridiculously expensive.
Avoiding Martian Tulip Mania
Almost 500 years ago the Dutch economy nearly collapsed when speculation on tulip bulbs reached ridiculous proportions. It’s been a cautionary tale ever since. Not necessarily a well-heeded tale, but oft repeated, nevertheless. Part of the problem with cautionary tales is that they’re usually told when there’s still much to gain from speculation and ignoring the skeptics. When dotcom and housing skeptics were making their strongest cases, there was still too much money flowing in to ignore. Yes, the skeptics were rationally right, but people were still going to act irrationally.
While MXC could pay for its mission and start an ongoing colonization of Mars through strategic stock offerings, services and creating its own coinage, its long term goal should be to foster intelligent investment in a Martian industrial base centered around information technology.
Martian-based financial instruments, luxuries and cottage industries should form as the economic foundation to help Mars become a major space technologies research center. Assuming Mars has the ability to produce fuel and do limited manufacturing (it’s got carbon, iron, aluminum and oxygen) it could eventually become a staging ground for exploring other parts of the Solar System (It’s reduced gravity would allow for much larger payloads to launch from the surface than Earth.)
Although we don’t know if the research into Mars itself will ever pay back all of the investment spent getting there, the previously mentioned low hanging fruit could not only pay for initial exploration, but finance Mars into becoming a significant information economy. We don’t need a breakthrough material to be found on Mars to justify the cost (and that may not actually even be advantageous.) If the Martian economy continues to grow and become self-sufficient where it’s cost-effective to do so, it’ll provide consistent return on investment, not only recouping initial investor money, but grow exponentially.
Summing it up
We pay for a trip to Mars through an investment corporation, capitalizing on the scarcity of Martian materials, issuing a limited edition coinage, creating a currency with an intrinsic value based on transportation cost and charge for industrial and scientific services and payloads. Along the way, Mars becomes an information technology economy like Silicon Valley or Singapore. Researchers and makers go there to find out what’s on Mars, they create value in areas especially related to space technology.
Besides the models I mentioned, there are dozens of other areas to generate revenue from an ongoing Mars expedition. I’ll run through some of them here and a few that have been proposed but I don’t think make as much sense.
Yes. Of course. Going to Mars could be like the Olympics. But the total cost to Mars (assuming even a lowball $10 billion) is much more than the $1 billion the Olympic committee gets paid for using its logo. I think corporate sponsorship will be an important aspect to financing a mission, but it’s a small percentage compared to the cost. There are only so many ad dollars to be had.
Live coverage of the Martian landing would be the most-watched event in the history of the planet if there’s any justice in the world. While the launch and updates from the crew on their way will be of interest, the real show begins when they enter orbit and land on Mars. The TV and streaming rights for this would be worth a lot. Probably in the multi billion-dollar range. After they land, there will be a week of good television as we watch them explore. Then we’ll get bored. But I don’t underestimate the value of the lead up and landing.
What I’ve heard bandied about, but think is silly, is the notion that some kind of reality show based on going to Mars could pay for the expedition. Reality television thrives on chaos and flawed personalities in conflict (I say this as the star of my own reality show). Those are two qualities a mission to Mars does not need. A successful mission (excluding the landing and initial exploration) would hopefully make for boring television.
That said, I think that there would be enough content for a dedicated Mars channel after we land. You could create an entire slate of programming on different aspects of Martian exploration. I’m not saying it’ll get Game of Thrones number of viewers, but okay cable channel numbers.
Regardless of how much entertaining content there is to be derived, like advertising, there’s an upper limit to the total dollars to be made from this. I’ve seen some estimates from people very knowledgeable about space, but ignorant of television production, that far exceed the revenue of all the broadcast and cable channels combined, also ignoring the cost of actually making the programs.
What about tourism?
If you want a high-growth economy that’s future-proof and ideally information based, you don’t primarily base it on sending rich people into space. Ever notice that some of the best tourist destinations in the world are in countries with lots of poor people? The two things are not mutually exclusive. Tourism is one of the lowest-rated forms of economic development. Tourism boards aren’t interested getting more young people to go to technical schools. They want low-cost service personal and just enough jobs to go around to keep crime rates low. This is not what we want Mars to become.
And even for just the initial missions there’s not enough well-qualified, sane billionaires you’d want to put on the first few flights.
How about Mars as a tax haven?
If your goal is to get the nations of Earth to support your endeavour to colonize Mars, it’s a good idea not to openly plan to defy their taxing authority – at least not at first.
What about mining and materials?
Sending things from Mars back to Earth will be very expensive. Eventually fuel costs will go down as we shift into a solar/fusion energy system and hydrocarbons lose their value. But sending things to Earth from Mars will still involve creating fuel on Mars and it’ll be very, very expensive. Anything we decide to bring back and sell will derive its value from the fact it’s from Mars and not because it competes with an Earth resource.
Making money on Mars doesn’t involve an sexy new discoveries, magical materials or some fantasy tourist economy. The reality, finance, investment, speculation, incremental advancement and information technology is quite bland. Sure, there’ll be a market for Martian wines and trade goods, but the real money is the boring money. The same way our Earth economy works – but hopefully managed by people a little more responsible.
Check out my space action thriller Station Breaker!
Updates and responses
Why do you hate space tourism so much?
I don’t. I just don’t see it as a foundation for building a space-faring civilization. While I think space-tourism will be a billion-dollar industry, space exploration will be a trillion-dollar one.
In the ladder of economic development, tourism is about as close to the bottom as you can get. Like pulling minerals from the ground or farming, it does very little to increase the knowledge base and skill set of the population beyond developing the initial technologies.
Ideally, we want people going to Mars to become knowledge workers and not low-skilled labor. There will be all kinds of jobs, but the ones that maximize human potential are ideal. As a center of scientific exploration, Mars can become an information technology powerhouse in multiple fields – not just because of whatever Martian discoveries are to be made – but because of the benefits derived from putting so many scientific and entrepreneurial people in one place.
Do you really think collectible coins can pay for a trip to Mars?
It’s a little more complicated than that, but currently the total value of Bitcoin and all the Bitcoin related investment would probably fund a trip to Mars. Of course, the total value of a market isn’t the same as the value or profit of one company in the marketplace, But MXC, with an essential monopoly on an entire planet *is* the market. Coins and digital currencies tied to that market would have tremendous value. They have initial novelty value but they build intrinsic value as the Martian economy grows.
What if we never find a killer Martian technology or resource with Earth applications?
We don’t need to. In fact, centralizing the Martian economy around the yield of some rare material would be counterproductive in the long run. Countries that are primarily dependent on their natural resources have painful boom/bust cycles and ultimately crash when those resources lose their value or are depleted. Meanwhile, countries that are resource poor, yet invest heavily in information technology (like Singapore, Hong Kong and certain US regions) have steady growth that outpaces mineral rich countries.
If the Martian economy is based on information technology, why bother even going to Mars?
Sometimes the essential ingredient to create a new, thriving economy is a fresh start. This was true of the founding of America and can still be seen today. In the 1970s, California became the center for computing and information technology for a variety of reasons, many of which due to the fact that it attracted so many entrepreneurs and technically skilled people looking for more freedom.
Besides that, a central reason why Mars can become an information technology powerhouse is because of the ancillary benefits from all the money spent on speculation. While the dotcom bust erased a trillion dollars of value, the spin out companies and lessons learned created an even bigger economy. Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon saw their biggest gains years after the burst.
How can I invest in Mars?
Beyond a public offering from a credible company, I don’t have a clue. While there will be plenty of opportunities to invest in schemes early on, most of them will just be schemes.
How can I get involved in the Martian economy?
For the average person, the single best thing you can do is invest in skills.
Once we start sending missions to Mars on a regular basis, there’s going to be a deluge of data flowing back to earth as we start scouring the planet with explorers, robots, automated labs and sensing equipment. There will be far more people doing Mars research and industrial development on Earth than the red planet for several decades.
Startups running their own robot labs will be eager find new materials and develop space technologies. Existing companies will be looking at how expand their business to Mars – this could be everything from software to plumbing equipment.
So explain to me again where exactly does the money come from?
1. Investment money used to pay for exploration.
2. Money spent on Martian sample returns (biggest sector being luxury items.)
3. Science and industrial data access
4. Materials for research
5. Martian one-time mission currency (the coins)
6. Martian financial instruments (Martian money with a digital element) used to finance more research.
7. New Martian technologies (inventions, software and services created on Mars.)
Isn’t it sad that the only way we can go to Mars is by turning it into a business?
Not from my point of view. In a world with finite resources and human hours to devote on projects, ideally you want to make sure that the endeavours that increase the amount of available resources outnumber the ones that merely consume them. You want to produce more than you consume. This is how nature works too. It pretty much boils down to physics.
When the Vikings couldn’t make a colony work in Greenland during the Little Ice Age, the packed up and went home and forgo the credit and opportunity for opening up the Americas to European exploitation.
We stopped going to the Moon because it was too expensive. Our technology created to get use their was meant to do so quickly and not to be the foundation for economic development (as has much or our space program.)
The Space Shuttle was prohibitively expensive for private corporations to use for meaningful research. The same can be said for access to the International Space Station.
If you want a sustainable endeavor, you have to have fairly direct return on your investment. Venture capitalists don’t care for spin-off technologies if they’re not invested in the spin-off. Likewise, NASA can tell Congress as much as it wants how it benefits the economy, but that return isn’t visible on a balance sheet (and if it was, ultimately NASA would be self-sufficient like Amtrak of the Post Office...um...nevermind.)
Why can’t this be a NASA mission?
Parts of it could be. But given the current way funding works and the increasingly sprawling mission of NASA, it’s hard to see how they could see this project through in a timely and cost-effective way. Right now they’re committed to spending $20 billion on the SLS, a non-reusable rocket that may eventually, possibly take us to Mars – assuming they get another huge cash infusion. This program was a lower-cost replacement for the Constellation program which was projected to cost at least $230 billion dollars over its lifetime – and still be non-reusable and do nothing to lower the cost of access to space.
Ideally, the first missions will involve space agencies from around the world. The more, the merrier. This should feel like a world achievement (and it will be.)
A young girl watching the landing from Sri Lanka should take just as much pride as kid living near Cape Canaveral. The first flag planted on Mars should be a picture of Earth (one hemisphere on either side), not a political flag, not a UN flag (a really political flag), but just a photo of where we came from. A photo we can all go outside and smile for.
Can private enterprise really take us to Mars?
It took us to the Moon. It sent Columbus to America. While the *money* for those expeditions largely came from the state, the Apollo rockets and lander were built by private enterprise under direction from NASA and Columbus’s fleet were all privately owned vessels.
A Mars expedition and colonization initiative will rely heavily on the expertise of NASA and other public institutions, the capital and overall mission plan should come from private enterprise. The government can write checks and pick winners, but it’s a poor substitute for the marketplace when it comes to figuring out what the best bets are.
Also, something to consider is that we may have reached a rate of technological pace where a government organization can’t keep up with private companies. Their layers of bureaucracy and requirements to report to Congress may put them at such a disadvantage that they’ll keep falling behind in certain areas. A NASA commissioned study revealed that had they tried to develop the Falcon 9 rocket it would have cost three times as much and taken at least twice as long (and this is being charitable.) While NASA has some of the best and brightest people in the world working there, similar teams working with less resources, yet greater freedom have made amazing strides.
Isn’t this a risky and dangerous endeavour for a private company?
So is cancer research. If pharmaceutical companies had yielded that only government funded labs, we’d have a higher death rate from cancer. Developing new drugs is expensive and potentially life threatening, yet we do it because the government can’t and shouldn’t try to do everything.
We haven’t even left low earth orbit in forty years. Forget about Mars for a moment or returning to the Moon, as I write this, it’s been 44 years since a human left Earth orbit. 44 years! That’s almost half a century. Clearly this government model isn’t working.
Where does the $10 billion dollar cost of a Mars mission come from?
I think that’s way too low. But it has been thrown around. Going to the Moon cost $24 billion in 1973 dollars – about $110 billion in today’s money. Half of that went to developing the rockets to go there which were single-use and basically built from the ground up (and incredible achievements.)
The rockets used to go to Mars will be largely reusable and considerably cheaper to develop. SpaceX is already developing the methane engines for going to Mars. This won’t be cheap, but it also won’t be NASA dollars. And unlike the Apollo mission, these costs are recoverable. NASA makes one-time disposable rockets that cost a couple billion dollars a launch. SpaceX and Blue Origin are trying to make airliners that can keep going back and forth. With reusability, he cost of going to Mars drops considerably after you’ve done it once.
How do we prevent private companies from owning everything?
Short answer: As long as it serves our interests, does it matter? Long answer: Having the government run things doesn’t exactly stop that from happening either. Until SpaceX came along, there was only one company in the entire country that got to bid on Air Force contracts. Governments often do more to entrench existing companies than to disrupt them (think “too big to fail”.) Consumers benefit when there’s a healthy mix of competition and reward for risk.