If you could write a check for a spaceship to Mars, would you?
That’s exactly the situation we have right now. There are over a hundred people on Earth right now with personal wealth weighing in at over $10 billion dollars. Gates has over $60 billion bucks available. Any one of these people with any interest at all in putting a colony on Mars, basically, owning Mars, could do so within a decade.
Robert Zubrin, an advocate of a unique mission profile, stated in an article, “…while Mars Direct might cost $30 to $50 billion if implemented by NASA, if done by a private outfit spending its own money, the out-of-pocket cost would probably be in the $5 billion range.” Wow. Five billion. And his mission profile advocates bringing people back, unlike the Mars One group from the Netherlands who wants to do a one-way mission to colonize the planet; of course, now you’re paying to take enough food and infrastructure for people to stay there.
The key point of this is that, given the will of one person (one very rich person), we could be standing on Mars in 10 years time. We could be living on Mars. The Mars rover, Curiosity, just did a radiation measurement that indicated levels are “not a showstopper”. About the same as low-Earth-orbit. Woo-hoo!
And most important of all, if this rich person has a brain, they can make money on the effort. Richard Branson ($4 billion) or Elon Musk ($2 billion) seem to already be heading this direction, building the infrastructure to get to space on their own terms and making money at it as they go (via Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX). The Mars One people talk about turning the mission into a media extravaganza, a reality show to beat all reality shows, an advertising blitz to beat all others. What would Pepsi pay to have their logo on the first manned lander? What would the first returned samples from Mars be worth to collectors? Can you imagine what actual fossils would be worth if they find them?
And you don’t even have to spend a cent developing the rockets to get you into Earth Orbit. Elon Musk has already done the design work; you can launch 10 Falcon Heavies for a billion dollars, delivering a half-million kg of fuel and hardware to low-Earth orbit.
Let’s look at the potential returns on this for a billionaire entrepreneur;
1. It’s been suggested that a $5-10 billion NASA X-Prize be offered for a private manned mission too Mars. Fine, but likely with lots of strings attached. Still, there it is; your entire mission paid for if you’re successful.
2. Advertising. This starts the moment you actually commit to the project. Just the televised weeding-out process for wannabee astronauts could bring in millions of dollars as a reality show. Competition between countries for seats on the rockets, Olympic fervor and excitement. That could last years. Licensing for games, the official mission logo plastered on every product on Earth, books, autographs from the team members, photo ops, speaking gigs (hey, you own those astronauts, part of the contract), product placements, donations for a variety of perks, or just donations…the list just goes on and on. If I were in advertising, I could make back the $5 billion in the 5 years before the first rocket left the launch pad. How many million-dollar stickers could you get on the side of your lander?
3. Building the rocket to get there, assembled in Earth orbit offers more advertising, more excitement, pay-per-view.
4. The trip there, of course, would be televised. Interviews would be sold. Unlike NASA’s model, nothing is free. Perhaps a bit more reality show programming and product placement advertising. Nothing like a Mars bar when you need a break from your EVA, is there?
5. And when you land, what is that worth? Renting out the copyrighted footage from the first manned landing? Aforementioned ad-space on your hardware? Commercial breaks? The knowledge that you’ll be getting royalties off this footage for the lifetime of the copyright? And the check you got from the country (or company, or person) that paid you off so their guy would be the first on Mars?
6. Experiment space could be sold for your arrival on Mars. Personal items or human ashes carried there and buried there. Designer bacteria could be taken along and tested in the Martian environment. Designer plant species, lichen and such, patented and ready for the colonists to spread around. If the colony was set up inside one of the many known lava tubes on the planet (such as those near Pavonis Mons), with solar collectors and solar pipes channeling the light inside, the colony would be surrounded by rock and safe from radiation. Lava tubes could provide huge living quarters with very little preparation.
7. And once you’re settled? Rent out your colonists. Tell us where you want to go, what samples you want collected, where you want that pickaxe swung. We’ll hop on our Martian bicycles and go check it out. Now that you’re there, anything you sell is just a bonus for you. For that matter, rent out little rovers with cameras. Sure, it’ll take 4 to 20 minutes for Earth-commands to go back and forth, but you know folks would rent time on them. Why stop there; super-light-weight flyers can be programmed to see all sorts of interesting things.
8. Property. Oh yeah, barring international agreements which won’t really apply to you since they can’t reach you, you own Mars. You want to buy 20 acres on Mars? We’ll sell it to you with a deed. It might be underwater when Mars starts to warm up, but that’s the risk you take. Lava tubes, now those are premium property! Create your own Government for your colony and claim it all. Work out deals with Earth governments so they don’t try to steal it all back. Better yet, sell them large swaths of Mars.
9. Sell support services for other colonists and countries. Once you prove it can be done, others will follow, and you can sell some of your infrastructure services (like a communications satellite, if you left one in orbit, you can rent bandwidth. Or a berth in your colony, if the new arrival wants to rent or buy a place to stay). Once they find out you’re trying to claim Mars for yourself, well, there won’t be any lack of newbies clamoring for a piece of the action, and they’ll all be paying you rent for your existing infrastructure.
10. Propellant; assuming you’ve tapped off of some of Zubrin’s brilliant ideas for making propellant from the Martian atmosphere, you can sell that to potential customers. Hey, we have water and propellant for sale! Come as you are. We have the supplies to send you back. For a price.
11. Patents on new minerals, compounds, and materials, and if you’re very, very lucky, microfossils. Unique gemstones on Mars? Who knows. Getting them back to Earth is a problem, but once your infrastructure is in place, heck, that’s a mission you could pay for with pocket change and make your money back ten-fold. Take stamps to Mars and ship them back.
12. And it gets stranger…once your colony is pressurized to 0.5 Earth-atmosphere in 1/3rd G, it’s time to pull out your sports-wings and fly around inside your 200-meter wide lava tube (yeah…they’re huge). You get to start your very own Martian sport. Which team will you bet on? Which Earth-network is going to pay to broadcast it? And Superbowl advertising for $4 million dollars per ad? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Okay, sure I forgot some things. Let me know. Point is, we can go to Mars now; all we need is a billionaire with a dream and a marketing team that makes sure he remains a billionaire. After all, you’ll want to have money left over for that next colony.
UPDATE: Elon Musk (the Paypal billionaire) spoke at the Mars Society Convention in Pasadena last week, and expressed his interest in colonizing Mars, and making seats available for $500,000 a head for would-be colonists. Go, Elon! I might be too old to make the trip by the time this happens (being a spry 58 now), but at least I can make the trip vicariously! If you want to have your spirits bolstered by what he says, you can watch it here. Skip the Zubrin introduction – it’s lengthy.