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A new approach that, ironically, does not emphasize human Mars exploration may be needed to find sufficient support to eventually send humans to the Red Planet. (credit: NASA)

Funding humans to Mars


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The subject of funding human Mars missions has been my focus—indeed, my obsession—for over seven years, as the dream of a future on Mars and in space hits the real world “wall” of lack of funding and all that it entails. I have read many different ideas, from the traditional government funding model to selling sponsorships on a private voyage to Mars to a lottery-style “Mars Prize”. All contain some elements of value, but as many of the non-government ideas are never really backed up with anything other than opinions, it is hard to say if any of them could accomplish anything to fund humans to Mars.

In 2012, the reality is that rockets are still very expensive, engineering the unknown is still as costly as ever, and the physics of getting into space remain unchanged. The fact is, space is hard, and getting to Mars several orders of complexity harder still.

There is no evidence that a billion-dollar private project where no customers exist, where the engineering is still conceptual or unproven, and where the real risks are unacceptably higher than other industries can be or has ever been funded.

Keeping humans alive and healthy on a round-trip or one-way program remains an unproven milestone along the road to Mars, with radiation mitigation, microgravity, and dust issues still without practical and proven solutions, just to name a few. It seems, then, that funding such a program, for the private or public sector, is still too risky, still too full of unknowns, and ranks far behind more relevant projects that can be done here on Earth.

There have been varying cost estimates for a private mission to Mars, from $5 billion to $30 billion, but of course these estimates are subject to change as engineering challenges along the way may inflate these costs. For private investors, this is simply unacceptable.

Most of the billion-dollar private projects we can think of involve the building of large skyscrapers, toll roads, transportation vehicles or networks, or other large-scale infrastructure projects that are then marketed to the general public for their use and payment. There is no evidence that a billion-dollar private project where no customers exist, where the engineering is still conceptual or unproven, and where the real risks are unacceptably higher than other industries can be or has ever been funded. Indeed, the relevance of the entire idea of sending humans to Mars is still very much in question: it is not a “practical consideration” such as a water reservoir or shipping canal might be. It doesn’t “make sense”, as similar multi-billion-dollar projects do.

So when the suggestion of a privately funded Mars mission for humans comes up, it is, of course, often met with laughs and expressions of incredulity.

Thus, we must first come to a “necessary solution”. Before we get to the funding of this project, we must first see if it makes sense. We must try to solve some of the logical roadblocks, like rockets that are too expensive and human life support factors that are still unknown. This may involve discussions, studies, and practical field research, but it needs a cohesive, structured direction, and it can’t be based just on the opinion of any individual engineer or single group of engineers, unless backed up with hardware research and development proof of concept studies.

That is where the concept of a “Mars Consortium” comes into focus as a potential solution at this stage in history. This consortium should start out as a research-oriented think tank made up of academics, enthusiasts, industry experts, and aerospace professionals, to see if we can indeed find solutions to many of the roadblocks and unknowns for a Mars mission for humans.

This consortium effort may take us in unexpected directions—perhaps even away from Mars initially—but as long as the more fundamental roadblocks are being dealt with, is that such a bad thing? For those of us who do want to see humans on Mars, in the end, it must make sense, or it will simply never happen. There are plenty of mission designs for sending humans there, but all remain theoretical concepts and all contain large gray areas of unknowns. None of them give us a reason why to go in the first place. None provide a common-sense answer as to how this can be done sustainably or affordably. In the post-2008 global financial crisis world, financial considerations are now more than ever our biggest obstacle to reaching Mars.

However, if a human mission to Mars could be done with rockets and space vehicles 10 or even 100 times cheaper than today’s vehicles, and if we had shown how humans can survive and thrive in those hostile space environments for periods of time 50 times longer than the old Apollo missions, and if we had actually identified prime sites for a human expedition on Mars and we had done the research on how to land safely and take off again, and if the costs were clearly identified and the profits were well researched and demonstrated, I have no doubt that we could have humans on Mars within a decade.

What we need to do is to move this whole subject from the realm of opinions, maybes, and debate, to facts and hard data. To do this we need to start somewhere. We need to move beyond conferences and talks to real research of some kind.

So I’d like to propose a call to action for this purpose: to investigate the technologies, requirements, financing, and revenue potential for a humans to Mars program, looking beyond government funding as the only solution. There may well be a government mission in the next 30 years, but as history has shown with all government space missions, it will not be sustainable and it will not lead to anything more than a short exploration effort, and it still won’t make sense to the rest of the world. To explore an entire planet with the surface area of Earth’s continents combined will take decades of in-depth scientific exploration; for a place like Mars, so far away and currently so expensive, this will require some kind of permanent outpost or settlements. This kind of consortium can also have a direct impact on how we can send humans to the Moon or other destinations in space if it demonstrated itself to be a viable model.

Maybe the concept of “cheap reliable access to space” will become a must for a sustainable future on Mars. Maybe there are medical issues that are showstoppers right now. What we need to do is to move this whole subject from the realm of opinions, maybes, and debate, to facts and hard data. To do this we need to start somewhere. We need to move beyond conferences and talks to real research of some kind.

But is this goal of humans to Mars worth this kind of effort? In a word, no. That may sound surprising, but as the single focus of this consortium, Mars may be a waste of time and resources for a variety of reasons. That is why this consortium will be investigating all of the issues surrounding this type of program, and one of the biggest is the creation and importance of cheap space access. Other areas may include the value of micro-scale robotic exploration, life support advances, medical solutions with spinoffs to the health sector, energy supply technologies that can be marketed here on Earth before they work on Mars, and so much more. None of these areas are “worthless”. All contain very important rewards if achieved, even without a humans-to-Mars program as the end point. Indeed, a privately funded program will demand a return on investment whether humans get to Mars or not, and that is the challenge.

This consortium would focus on the technological hurdles first, and how to generate revenue from them. Then, as these come into existence and some of the most fundamental technical hurdles are overcome, a human program for Mars may start to make sense, and be affordable, with investors then stepping forward. To help kick this effort off, you can contact me via email at frank.stratford@marsdrive.com, or support our Mars Expo event next year where we plan to show the general public all the exciting advances in private and government space efforts and also begin a dialogue on sensible ways to get humans to Mars.


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