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Humans on Mars
Can SpaceX send humans to Mars as a private, or even a commercial, effort? (credit: SpaceX)

Is there a business case for Mars?


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A sense of inevitability has emerged regarding human missions to Mars. Such missions are no longer considered to be hypothetical in nature, or to put it another way, in the realm of “if,” but rather are now firmly in the realm of “when.” We are now asking ourselves, “Who will be leading humanity to Mars?” and “How will those missions be accomplished?”

For the past several years, NASA has been advocating its Journey to Mars program, with the goal of landing astronauts on Mars beginning in the 2030s, and has been developing launch and crew systems aimed toward achieving that goal.

Musk proposed several funding options, including the prospect of a huge public-private partnership. As such, these would be private Mars missions, but could they truly be called commercial if no profit is likely?

Yet there are now active discussions about potential commercial and/or private missions to Mars. It remains to be seen, however, whether proposals for missions by the private sector are truly realistic in nature or merely speculative. For example, several years ago Mars One proposed colonizing Mars entirely through private means: that is, raising funds though advertising and a reality television show. This particular organization was successful in generating a tremendous amount of publicity as well as enormous excitement about Mars, but its proposal lacked substance both in mission architecture and in workable funding mechanisms. As such, it has faded from the public consciousness. However, the fact that this particular construct has failed to move forward does not mean that all such efforts will be unsuccessful.

Most notably, on September 27, SpaceX announced its long-awaited plans for sending humans to Mars. Indeed, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has long vowed to get to Mars, famously stating that, “I want to die on Mars, just not on impact.” Clearly, SpaceX is in an entirely different category from Mars One, but important questions do remain. What will the funding mechanisms be? How will the many technical and physiological challenges be overcome? Will SpaceX’s Mars strategy be funded primarily by private sources or will it be funded entirely or largely by governments?

Musk proposed several funding options, including the prospect of a huge public-private partnership. In this case—if it relies on NASA or other government funds—would such a mission strategy no longer be considered a “private” one? Even if SpaceX can obtain sufficient private funding for its Mars missions, it is highly likely that such missions will be driven by vision and passion rather than by the profit motive. As such, these would be private Mars missions, but could they truly be called commercial if no profit is likely?

We need to ask if there is a business case for Mars. This topic was the subject of a recent panel discussion held at Explore Mars, Inc.’s Humans to Mars Summit in May 2016 in Washington, DC. There is little doubt that at some point in the future, when humanity is already established on Mars, there will be many opportunities for businesses and individuals to make profits, as such is the nature of capitalism. But it is also unlikely that, in the near term, any company attempting to mount independent initial Mars missions will make a profit unless these missions are funded at least in part, if not substantially, by government entities.

Nevertheless, there are many potential near-term business opportunities connected with human missions to Mars with significant potential markets for the associated technologies and capabilities required for creating a sustainable human presence on the surface of Mars. These include innovations in life support, agriculture, radiation shielding, energy, in-situ resource utilization (aka living off the land), filtration, and many other necessary technologies and capabilities. Many of these technologies would not require the massive level of investment for development that large mission elements like heavy-lift rockets, crew vehicles, propulsion, and habitats require. With the proper stimulus and the necessary entrepreneurial innovators, these technologies could be developed in a competitive manner, and they also likely will have application to improving life on Earth and therefore also have a significant market on Earth—thus making them particularly attractive to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and others.

With the proper stimulus and the necessary entrepreneurial innovators, key technologies could be developed in a competitive manner, and they also likely will have application to improving life on Earth and therefore also have a significant market on Earth.

Now that SpaceX has revealed its Mars plans, it has joined the growing number of companies, such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Aerojet Rocketdyne who have released their own Mars architecture plans. Although these proposals vary from one another in scope, timeline, and focus, they are united in their aim to make the vision of humans on Mars in the 2030s (or earlier) a reality. As the inevitability of human missions to Mars builds, the potential for innovation and entrepreneurialism also builds. But to stimulate this process, NASA and other players need to establish programs and processes that utilize the strengths of the private sector, and builds on the proven successes of past public private partnerships, with the commercial cargo program as but one example.

Whether humans reach Mars through a government effort, a commercial model, or a combination of the two, there are remarkable opportunities that will accompany that journey. These opportunities are not only for discovery but also for innovators, entrepreneurs, and others to create new or better products that contribute to the sustainability of humans on Mars and also benefit people on the planet Earth.


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