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Humans on Mars
Is the private sector able and willing to make preprations for their own human expeditions to the Red Planet? (credit: ESA)

Mars: open for business?

Is Mars really open for business, or will it remain a difficult, mocking utopia, rich in resources and land but too hard to travel to or live on? Most of us already know the rocky history of unmanned Mars exploration and it has not been very inspiring for those of us looking to send people there someday soon. If a rough road leads to the stars, Mars is a good example of how rough that road really is, with only 14 out of 35 missions to date a success. It is a planet that seems to hold many of the elements we need for a long-term human presence but, after five decades of unmanned missions, it still seems a bridge too far. Despite all this, a case can still be made for why the private sector should consider Mars.

If the private sector is to capitalize on Mars from the earliest stages it must start sooner rather than later. There are many nations and possible competitors to think about in the effort to make Mars viable, and, like with any business venture, if the competition gets there first, they can easily corner the market. ESA, China, Russia, and other nations intend on making it to Mars in the next few decades. Businesses would be wise to consider this in respect to Mars as well. Mars will not lay empty of human endeavor indefinitely. We should never take that for granted. There are many plans on how to get to Mars, some ranging from $2-billion one-man shots right up to $500-billion government programs. None of us know with certainty which plan will be used first, but the options are out there for any entrepreneurial businesses to take advantage of what is currently a wide open market.

If the private sector is to capitalize on Mars from the earliest stages it must start sooner rather than later. There are many nations and possible competitors, and if the competition gets there first, they can easily corner the market.

The Vision for Space Exploration and hopes of getting to Mars in 20 or 30 years would have to survive unscathed through multiple administrations to ultimately succeed, and if history is anything to go by, the situation does not look promising on many fronts. If we cannot be certain of NASA or anyone else going in the near term with a manned mission to Mars, what other alternatives are there? The new private space industries that are starting to rise up all over the world have received much hype and media attention over the last few years as being a possible way forward and indeed the future for human space travel. NASA is also beginning to stimulate this industry. Therefore, it is time we started to consider what could be done by the private sector towards a future on Mars.

If there are ever going to be private missions and settlements then it stands to reason that there will need to be some level of unmanned exploration and infrastructure on Mars provided by the private sector. From site-specific data to environmental observations, communications systems, and supplies for human missions, once the decision is made by the private sector to go to Mars all of this will have to be addressed. These sorts of precursor missions will have to be conducted by the private sector as they too learn their own path to Mars as NASA did. Of course, they could simply rely on past robotic missions and whatever data NASA has gathered to date, but if private companies are to protect their investment in Mars they will need to take seriously the tasks of conducting their own unmanned missions first.

I believe that in this way a private company or consortium could begin a serious drive to Mars, one that is inexpensive yet will ensure everything is tested properly before a human mission is sent. Mars is a big planet and much of it is still unknown despite our sporadic exploration of it over the years. Private companies will not take the chance of something going wrong with manned missions when simple unmanned missions will pave the way first, as they have with NASA.

These sorts of missions, and scaled-down human missions, will all be necessary for obtaining a long-term and viable human presence on Mars, especially from the private sector. But one question still remains: how can private companies make a profit from Mars? Image and reputation is important in business and can be directly related to the success—or lack thereof—in any private enterprise. How customers and the public perceive private companies is always important when it comes to the bottom line. In the first steps towards sending humans to Mars, by sending unmanned probes to Mars, this would mainly be through sponsorship, much like sponsoring a sports team. Those companies involved in cutting-edge technological projects like sending the first private probes and robots to Mars would receive great media attention as a result and increased consumer confidence in their own brand, just like with sports sponsorship.

We have five decades of unmanned missions to build on, and in that sense the foundations have already been laid for the private sector to come in and make this planet their own. The word “imagine” gets used in some ineffective ways sometimes, but in the area of private Mars missions all we can do is imagine because it has not happened yet. So imagine the first sample return mission from the private sector. Here is one possible scenario: assume it costs $500 million to capitalize and build—a significant amount, but not beyond the capabilities of a private consortium. Let’s say it takes three years to develop, and the mission time is 2.5 years on top of that. Let’s also assume 500 kilograms of Martian soil is returned.

So the probe comes back, and we have the soil. Now, if we can sell it (to researchers, private citizens, etc.) at about $5,000 per gram, we’ve just made $2.5 billion, for a $2 billion net profit.

Now, let’s assume 50% of that was pre-sales held in escrow, and it took you two years to sell the rest (jewelry, anyone?)

The rate of return would then be:

(1+R)^(3 yrs + 2.5 yrs + 2 yrs) = 2.5/0.5

R = 24% ROI! That's better than almost any terrestrial investment, and it also will have proved most of the key technologies needed for a manned mission (like in situ propellant production) right there, along with the fact that any private company investing $500 million into a sample return mission gains patent rights to all the technology they develop and use in the mission—but only if they are first! The patents alone could easily be worth billions in new product spinoffs. Also, doing a cheap human mission ups the ante and the benefits since many spinoffs of a human mission are even more applicable to everyday human life on Earth. On top of all that, such a mission also sets a very high price ($5,000/gram) on extraterrestrial resources. Plus, in this scenario you’ve got $2.5 billion on your tax return.

What would this do for a company’s bottom line? The science value alone would be unprecedented as universities, scientific establishments, individuals, and industry scrambled to get a piece of Mars from such a mission.

Mars will always be Mars. It will remain spinning in its orbit waiting for us to take that next step. Mars is also an opportunity: a rare, and yes, a costly opportunity for the private sector to open up a genuinely new frontier.

Investing serious amounts into nonprofit Mars organizations can also give any private consortium an early boost to assist them in conducting these missions, especially with the human capital such groups can bring to these sorts of projects. This lowers tax fees, taps into a wealth of human resources already skilled and dedicated to reaching Mars, and raises publicity for any company involved, just as an initial benefit. Donations to nonprofits are, after all, fully tax deductible. Then there are the media coverage rights to various aspects of the ongoing programs; the development and marketing of dual-use technologies to other emerging private space companies who might be trying forge their own path into space through tourism, mining, or other ventures; merchandising; the sale of technologies and discoveries to interested institutions and industries; and the inevitable spinoffs that new exploration always brings.

So why and how can any of this happen? Mars will always be Mars. It will remain spinning in its orbit waiting for us to take that next step. Mars is also an opportunity: a rare, and yes, a costly opportunity for the private sector to open up a genuinely new frontier. But in a world of decreasing market share and increasing competition on all fronts, a new frontier that has not been touched offers all of us a new avenue of growth that doing business on Earth could never truly rival. There are many ideas for making profits from Mars out there similar to the Mars sample return one mentioned here. What we need now is someone willing to take that first step and to recognize that those who get to Mars sooner will have a big head start on any competitors in the future.

The construction of private settlements, sale of land or other property, and mining rights can all be future methods of making going to Mars a profitable endeavor. However, it all has to start somewhere. It could start today. The first companies to step up will obviously be the first to profit, and those who sit back might think they are being wise, but when we are talking about the founding of a new world and a whole new realm of business possibilities from Mars it may not be so wise to sit back after all. Sending humans to Mars may—or may not—be many years away, but there is no reason private companies can’t find a way to start their own exploration of the Red Planet right now, and with that experience will come the ability to conduct successful human missions. Mars has always been open for business: it just takes someone willing to make an attempt. When will someone step up and start the drive to Mars in earnest from the private sector?