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NSRC 2023

Mars base
Can human settlements on Mars be achieed through a consortium of governments and private entities? (credit: NASA)

The Mars Consortium approach

Government-funded Mars exploration with a private twist

Traditionally governments propose space missions and then seek out private aerospace companies to build the hardware to take them into space. The Mars Consortium approach from MarsDrive aims to turn this model on its head by utilizing a private consortium as the initiator of a humans-to-Mars program leading to permanent settlement of Mars. The difference with this method is that the private consortium will not just “advocate” or preach to governments the virtues of human exploration of Mars, they will in fact force the issue ahead of its time by sending their own small-scale robotic missions to Mars and technology demonstration projects as a foundation for human missions. The other advantage of this approach is that the consortium will approach not just one government for funding but all governments and interested private entities. The mission will be designed to appeal to government “face saving” priorities by not requiring funds until various steps are first taken. In short, as a largely government-funded exercise it will rest upon a record of in space demonstrations and successful missions, not just rhetoric.

There is no single method that will achieve humans to Mars; it will take a combination approach on all fronts.

Governments have demonstrated that Mars is a scientific target worthy of significant investment, but despite informal plans for long-range “2030 and beyond” missions the status of human missions is still quite low on their priority scale here in 2009. The Mars Consortium approach is designed to cater for this low level of interest by only requiring extreme low levels of investment. For example, if 30 governments budgeted $100 million per year for 15 years, this would equal $45 billion: more than enough for a privately-controlled Mars program. Getting them to do this won’t be easy, but there is always that potential. It could be the aim of this consortium to get humans to Mars in as little as 10 to 15 years. for example. The scale of government investment in this program ideally could be in the 80 to 90% range also, with private revenue sources at the smaller end. It won’t just involve a consortium of companies and individuals but a consortium of funding sources and ideas.

There is no single method that will achieve humans to Mars; it will take a combination approach on all fronts. But the good news is that Mars advocates can play a major role in this type of program from start to finish. We no longer have to sit on the sidelines with wishful thinking while we wait for possible government missions of the far-flung future. With the Mars Consortium approach humans could be on Mars by 2020. That part is up to us.

While many Mars enthusiasts support efforts to see a NASA Mars mission happening in the short term, and we will keep on holding out hope for a potential private billionaire funding source, this consortium program is designed to operate without either of these options. Our greatest resource right now is ourselves, and it is from these beginnings we will start on the road to a human future on Mars.

While some have said that there is no direction or investment in a human mission to Mars this is not actually true. On a very small scale groups like the Mars Society, MarsDrive, and The Mars Foundation are all working on plans and spending resources for these future missions. Certainly our level of investment is tiny when compared to NASA or large aerospace contractors, but it is in progress and every year these ideas and technologies are being developed in whatever ways we can afford. In regards to the Mars Consortium strategy there is no reason for the Mars community to wait around any longer. This is something we can do now. Many ideas for privately funded Mars missions have been proposed before, but most of them rely far too much on an “all private” approach. Most of them never get taken very seriously as a result of relying upon unproven and nebulous “revenues” to pay for the mission. The difference with this approach is that it is a mostly government funded program but controlled by the private sector. Another advantage of this program is that it does not rely upon any single government for 100% of the funds: the burden of cost is spread around and ultimately designed so that even if all governments refused involvement it could still be paid for and turn a profit.

In the past, space missions involving multiple governments have been difficult to pull off and, as the ISS has shown, many things can and do go wrong. So let’s clear that problem up from the start. This program is not a government partnership in the traditional sense. Governments will be paying customers for their part of the program benefits and nothing more. Competition will still exist but in a much more narrow sense. The private consortium will conduct and control the program, not governments. That is another difference here. Governments will be allowed access and given whatever benefits their investment is entitled to, but that is as far as their involvement goes.

The concept of public-private partnerships is somewhat related to this model but there are some distinctive departures, such as the low buy-in for governments and the private sector doing the original proposals. Unlike needed infrastructure or health-related projects of clear benefit to a state, a human Mars program is of limited value, and that is why the private consortium approach works: it takes a minimalist approach and expects only small investments from multiple governments to match their low level of interest at this time.

Phase 1: The Mars Consortium working group

The Mars Consortium working group could be made up of high-level paid engineers, scientists, and other experts required to design and take charge of various aspects of the program. To build this group will take resources both human and economic.

It has been often mentioned that “if only” we could find a wealthy individual to pay for a Mars mission all our problems would be solved. But another saying says, “If you want something done, do it yourself.” We need to apply that same philosophy to the current Mars enthusiast community. The theory is to set up a system for members to help each other improve their own financial status, and give members access to discounted professional financial advice also. The goal is to increase the wealth of Mars enthusiasts so that we can indeed fund the early stages of a private humans-to-Mars program ourselves, at least from an organizational perspective. Another aspect of this phase is to develop and sell our own brands of goods and services in the space and non-space sectors as an ongoing revenue stream.

Self-funding is also the only working model of how private space companies and programs are starting up right now and into the foreseeable future. Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Robert Bigelow, and Jeff Bezos are all examples of this philosophy in action. While we may not have such people to call upon, the combined donations or investments of members will perform the same function as one wealthy backer. Will this pay for an entire mission development? Mostly likely not, but it will help in the important work of forming the Mars Consortium working group.

It has been often mentioned that “if only” we could find a wealthy individual to pay for a Mars mission all our problems would be solved. But another saying says, “If you want something done, do it yourself.”

Non-profit space groups are filled with enthusiasts and experts in a range of fields and are well suited to be the driving force behind this program. While political and even private programs might get sidetracked, a driving and organizing force behind it made up of true Mars enthusiasts is the ideal foundation for a Mars program of this type. Volunteer efforts can be the missing link in a program of this complexity and we want to give it its greatest chance for success and so must use as many resources as we can find. This sector will serve to keep the program on track and be an independent review body as well.

Phase 2: private consortium initiated

The goal here is to help create a consortium of private companies and investors, both for-profit and non-profit, who together can control all aspects of this program, especially the parts that require initial seed investment. It is this consortium that can pitch the program to prospective customers in a credible and professional manner. Some of these members should include aerospace companies that already have decades of experience in building hardware for space missions. The first step in the formation of this consortium would be for the working group to bring potential players together in a conference to start them talking to each other and to formulate a plan that makes economic sense to interested parties. The entire process may well fail in this step but it will still succeed in clarifying what ideas will work or not and remove obstacles in our thinking, one way or the other.

A private consortium will be open to drawing in as many forms of program funding as possible, both government and private. Many ideas have been investigated over the years from sale of samples and media rights to patent spinoffs and sale of crew spots, and it will be the job of the private consortium to develop as many of these revenue ideas as possible. This is something a government agency is not allowed to do and for that reason is a superior model.

One of the weaknesses of previous attempts to initiate human missions to Mars (like the Martin Marietta attempt with Mars Direct) is that they only appealed to one government for funding. In 2009 there are over 30 nations with some form of space program or research going on and it will be from this list that a private consortium will have its most ideal candidates to pitch its mission plan to. This primary list of 30 will be supplemented with all other nations as potential customers. The benefit to these customers will be scientific, with exclusive access to data and samples, and financial, from mission development activities occurring in their nations where possible. They will not be “working together” with other nations in the traditional sense. The only thing that they will have in common with other nations is that they will be co-funding the program’s development. Astronaut places will be sold to the highest bidder also. For example, with six crew slots we could raise potentially $12 billion just from this aspect, and spread over ten years among several governments, the buy-in cost is low. Funds could be held in trust until there is mission success (or other criteria is met) so that these governments avoid the problem of funding a failed mission.

Phase 3: missions and settlements

The private consortium will, as required, launch a series of small robotic missions and technology demonstrators to establish credibility, test systems, and gather valuable data for a human program. This is what will set them apart from previous private attempts. The upside to this step is that if the original consortium players are already experienced aerospace contractors that have already sent hardware to Mars for past government programs, they won’t need to convince any governments of their credibility. They won’t just be “advocating” or “pitching” a mission plan, they will be investing substantial amounts in it to ensure that governments can trust them with a complex human program. This may include such ideas as a for-profit sample return mission in the early stages.

Human settlement is the ultimate goal. Self-sufficiency will be the goal of all early missions to Mars and there will be a build-up of settlers and materials in this time. A self-sufficient Mars is the best way to ensure it becomes a viable player in the new space economy of coming years.

This consortium idea is something NASA could take the lead in, but isn’t required if they won’t.

By having governments involved in a unique mission like this earlier than planned, it will open the door to larger government-funded missions and investment in this area of space exploration. Nothing speaks like experience and with a human mission achieved there will be no more excuses from governments about not having enough information to succeed. The Mars Consortium is like many other ideas: something that “could” be done but it’s not something on the minds of many people right now.

Most projects of this size and complexity look to governments for the lead and in that respect I would like to add a final twist here. This consortium idea is something NASA could take the lead in, but isn’t required if they won’t. They would give it the credibility it needs and be able to add their considerable experience to the mission while avoiding the political barriers of high cost to the tax paying public. With the incoming Obama administration looking to potentially change direction with NASA, the consortium idea could fit quite well into their own agenda to minimize government costs yet still maximize the return from any investment in space missions of this type. I have heard outgoing NASA administrator Mike Griffin speak several times of “international cooperation” for a manned Mars mission, so maybe now it’s time NASA took this thought one step further. Would it conflict with the Constellation program in any way? With NASA in control I am certain they could find ways around this. We could be on the Moon in 2018 and Mars in 2020. They just have to say the word, but after 40 years of inaction on the Mars issue, even if they don’t this is something we can do.