Could a Human Mars Mission Be Funded Commercially?

by Nancy Atkinson on October 7, 2010

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An artists illustration of a manned mission to Mars. Credit: NASA

What will it take to actually get humans to Mars? The best answer is probably money. The right amount of cold, hard cash will certainly solve a lot of problems and eliminate hurdles in sending a human mission to the Red Planet. But cash-strapped federal space agencies aren’t currently in the position to be able to direct a mission to another world – at least in the near term – and seemingly, a trip to Mars is always 20-30 years off into the future. But how about a commercially funded effort?

At first glance, a paper published recently in the somewhat dubious Journal of Cosmology appears to have some merits on using an independent corporation to administer and supervise a marketing campaign – similar to what sports teams do to sell merchandise, gain sponsors, garner broadcasting rights and arrange licensing initiatives. The paper’s author, a psychologist named Dr. Rhawn Joseph, says that going to Mars and establishing a colony would likely cost $150 billion dollars over 10 years, and he lays out a plan for making money for a sustained Mars mission through the sale of merchandise, naming rights and even creating a reality TV show and selling property rights on Mars.

Could such a scheme work?

Not according to former NASA engineer Jim McLane, who has a fairly unique scheme of his own to get humans to Mars: a one-way, one person mission.

For years, McLane has been a proponent of getting humans to Mars as quickly as possible, and his plans for a one-way mission are outlined in a very popular article Universe Today published in 2008. So, what does he think of a commercially funded effort?

Artists impression of a future human mission to Mars. Credit: NASA

“I am a vocal proponent of an early settlement on Mars,” McLane replied to a query from UT, “ So I should have welcomed Dr. Joseph’s proposal to establish a colony in 10 years with private funds and clever marketing. Regrettably, after reading the details of his scheme I believe the good Doctor should stick to peddling his patented herbal sexual dysfunction treatment and refrain from speculating about technologically intensive endeavors like a trip to Mars.”

For starters, McLane wonders about the costs that Joseph proposes. “It’s questionable,” he said. “One cannot propose a cost without first devising a technical approach and he has not done that. He justifies the large investment by alleging that there will be significant financial returns, for example the investors might be able to claim the mineral wealth of the entire planet. However owning such an asset is of dubious value since there is no way to send anything valuable back to Earth.”

Unlike ancient Spanish treasure fleets loaded with silver that sailed every year from the New World, McLane said, nothing on planet Mars will ever be worth the expense of shipping it home. Plus, selling real estate on Mars might not even be a viable option. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits governments from making extraterrestrial property rights claims, and even though some especially ambitious entrepreneurs have tried selling real estate on the Moon and Mars, ownership of extraterrestrial real estate is not recognized by any authority. According to current space law, any “deed” or claim on another extraterrestrial body has no legal standing.

McLane was also not impressed with Joseph’s statement about the wastefulness of spending on the US military as a justification for spending money on a Mars mission. “It is not as if one program could be substituted for the other,” said McLane. “But, substitution is not what Dr. Joseph proposes. He feels inclined to speculate on the wastefulness of current wars even though this is an essay on Space.”

Some of the ideas Joseph outlined for marketing does have some validity, McLane said. “Long ago NASA should have realized that the image they cultivate of nerdy, ethically and sexually diverse astronauts does not inspire the tax payer nearly as much as the early astronauts who we expected to be risk taking, hell raising test pilots,” he said.

In respect to finances, McLane said he agrees with Joseph that there is a place for private capital, but not in regards to the venture capital proposal.

“Private money could jump start a manned Mars mission,” McLane said, “but persuading billionaires to invest based on some speculative financial return is doomed to fail. I believe rich folks might be willing to help pay to put a human on Mars, but the motivations would be philanthropy and patriotism, not financial gain. Several wealthy citizens might contribute seed money (say a quarter billion dollars or so) to finance a detailed study of the design options for a one way human mission – a concept that thus far NASA refuses to consider. Such a study would reveal the technical practicality of the one-way mission and the relative cheapness of the approach. The study would probably show that a human presence on Mars would cost little more than a human moon base assuming the same 10 year time span for accomplishing both programs.”

Dr. Joseph concludes his paper by asserting that several foreign countries “are already planning on making it to Mars in the next two decades.” McLane said this seems highly improbable since the funds spent today by these nations on manned spaceflight are a tiny fraction of what the US currently spends.

Artist concept of a future human Mars mission. Credit: NASA

While Joseph – and seemingly the current President and NASA leaders favor an international effort to get to Mars, McLane believes this is short-sighted for two reasons.

One, there would be enormous technological returns from a human Mars landing that would greatly stimulate business and the economy. “Why should the US share these large returns with foreign countries,” McLane asked? And second, an all American effort could potentially take advantage of classified US military technology.

McLane did say previously, however, that the world would be excited and unified by a mission to Mars. “The enthusiasm would be the greatest effect of a program that places a man on Mars, over and above anything else, whether it makes jobs, or stimulates the economy, or creates technology spinoffs. We’re all humans and the idea of sending one of our kind on a trip like that would be a wonderful adventure for the entire world. The whole world would get behind it.”

McLane has written a recent article in The Space Review that Mars is the key to NASA’s future.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Jon Voisey October 7, 2010 at 11:17 AM

Great story Nancy. I’d already glanced at a few the articles in that “journal” and found their “peer-review” process woefully lacking (see: http://angryastronomer.blogspot.com/2010/10/why-i-laugh-at-creationists-thats-not.html). I hadn’t had time to look over more, so it’s nice to see that my first impressions weren’t far from the mark.

Aqua October 7, 2010 at 11:35 AM

Who’s to say what minerals and chemical compounds are yet to be found on Mars? OR what quantity of Nickel Iron meteorites lay on the surface? (Dirigible borne magnetometers anyone?)

Lawrence B. Crowell October 7, 2010 at 12:11 PM

The cost creep would push this at least 10 times the cost estimate here. Private companies are not going to invest in this, period. The only prospect I see for private investment in a large space venture is with solar power satellites.

As for this “Journal of Cosmology,” I’d say it looks a bit dodgy. However, people who do actually know something can in effect take it over. If higher quality papes are published there it might tend to raise the standards.

LC

Dark Gnat October 7, 2010 at 12:28 PM

I’m pretty much convinced that we will never reach Mars in my lifetime. (I’m 31).

padawan October 7, 2010 at 12:41 PM

It’s too bad private companies won’t be able to do more. I’d love to see someone other than NASA putting people in space.

A mission to Mars is the sort of thing that would rekindle people’s enthusiasm for space. Really, we haven’t been doing much that would get a normal person excited. But I was under the impression that returning to Luna first would be the most practical plan. Wouldn’t it be easier and less expensive to launch from the moon than from here? I figured Mars wouldn’t be quite so unreachable from the moon.

Jon Hanford October 7, 2010 at 12:55 PM

RE “Journal of Cosmology”

I came across this pub a year ago after seeing a paper appear on arXiv by R Schild and C Gibson describing their “theory” of hydro-gravitational-dynamics (HGD). Several others have also made their way there (Here’s a recent paper by Schild band Gibson: http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1004/1004.2016.pdf )

Although I’m sure these papers withstood the scrutiny of peer review for the journal, I found it interesting that Schild is the Ed in Chief and Gibson and frequent HGD co-contributor N Wickramsinghe are listed as Exec Editors of The Journal of Cosmology. With JofC and viXra around, how hard is it to get alt-science published, again?

Vonbrucken October 7, 2010 at 1:21 PM

I don’t see why Mr McLane assume that there will be nothing worth the expense of shipping it back home. Until we dig under Mars surface there is nothing sure and we could even find valuable things on its surface. Regarding the international efforts I think they are useless the first mover should take the best of it, this is why the outer space treaty is useless, it has been signed by lot of nations that are not even capable of building a plane so let’s be serious there. Some are still discussing in which direction they should slaughter animals .. I highly recommend this excellent article entitled “Still crazy after four decades: The case for withdrawing from the 1967 Outer Space Treaty” http://www.thespacereview.com/article/960/1
The nation or the group of people coming there first, should establish permanent settlements to claim land sovereignty The “world” itself is not going to get behind this project for obvious different cultural, religious or ethical approaches . Those divisions on earth are a chance because it will create a real incentive for people to leave and to create a new civilisation based on their own moral and scientific principles. Of course the real problem is money, but I don’t think it would be a good thing to build a new kind of Babel Tower on Mars…

Lawrence B. Crowell October 7, 2010 at 2:06 PM

I looked at http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1004/1004.2016.pdf and I am not enough of a galaxy structure maven to say whether this paper really works. It does not look like complete crap though. Thsi journal seems to exist a bit in the “grey zone.”

LC

pink October 7, 2010 at 3:09 PM

“I’m pretty much convinced that we will never reach Mars in my lifetime. (I’m 31).”

I’m pretty much convinced that we WILL reach Mars (or Europa, etc.) in my lifetime and yours! :( (I’m 19)

Olaf October 7, 2010 at 3:39 PM

No companies are going to invest in this. Companies might invest on LEO technology which is pretty guaranteed to have some profit but that is all it is.

PrometheusOnTheLoose October 7, 2010 at 8:13 PM

I think we should first think about setting up shop on the moon . . . not only because it will help us learn more about what we need to know to live on mars, but also, it is much more commercially viable. The long-term gains would outweigh the lack of a near-future trip to Mars. Our probes are doing a fine job, so just how much extra science for the dollars spent would we get out of sending a human to Mars? I think we would get a much better bargain of science for $$$ by focusing on the Moon first.

Roen October 7, 2010 at 8:39 PM

One thing you can always count on is a corporation to get behind a timely return on investment. R&D is the biggest cost in any major endeavor like this and no company is going to put up their precious disposable incomes on high risk ventures. Thus this is not a timely ROE for them; and for that I am thankful.

It is also a bad idea to scrap the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. I know, I know… y’all hate me when ever I say this, but I frankly don’t really care. Someone has to voice the concern. Keeping tight reigns on the corporates has been a great idea and will continue to be a great idea. Even if corporations got the go ahead, and saw a benefit worthy of the R&D, and got a colony of their own set up, there is no way then to police them. The dubious comments of Dr. Rhawn Joseph should have raised the alarms I’ve been sounding all along. It will always be more about the money for them and less about the science and the adventure.

Let nations settle Mars first. Let nations establish rule of law there first. Then, and only then, should the corporates be tentatively allowed to enter the picture.

lars October 7, 2010 at 9:23 PM

Too bad the myopic criminals running this country would rather give $800 Billion to criminal banksters than spend it on something good, like the space program.

That said, when and if we ever go to Mars in our present human bodies, we would do well to seek shelter underground, as Mars’ atmosphere is virtually nonexistent and allows full force any solar CME’s and other electrical particle storms to impinge the surface unmitigated. Meteors as well. The Martian surface is actually quite dangerous over the long term. Ten meters underground would solve many problems, and be worth the effort of construction.

In other news, we will actually need to exchange our present human body for ‘the download’, that electronic transfer of a person’s mental essence into say, a flashdrive, and couple that to a computer and a robotic body. Only then will humans be fully ready to go to the stars or other planets. The dozen or so problems of ‘high maintenance’ bodies being solved. Food, water, air, warmth, radiation, acceleration, excretion, bathing, exercise, bone loss, etc etc etc. too many problems and expenses of going in a human body to justify not doing the ‘download’ first. But we are a ways away from perfecting ‘the download’ at present ! Tho every month I read news articles about more and more aspects in which we are acheiving small steps toward that goal.

Tony Trenton October 7, 2010 at 11:28 PM

With the deadly radiation problem It will be a one way trip.

Uncle Fred October 7, 2010 at 11:47 PM

Lets be realistic.

Do we REALLY want to live on Mars?

If so, why don’t we move to Antarctica, or live in the Gobi dessert? Lets face it, few if any of us would move to these places. Both would be more friendly places to live then on Mars. Since such projects costs billions – if not trillions – the public must have a desire to fund such national projects. Living on Mars is a tough sell.

It’s obvious that the expenses involved are beyond the means of corporate sponsorship. Billions or trillions is the realm of government investments. I would argue even top economies could ill-afford such projects. An international effort may be the only way forward (sorry US).

Still. I do not see any logical reason for setting up a colony there. The place frankly sucks for living. Our robots provide a good bang for buck value. They also don’t require n extreme effort in galvanizing the minds of the public.

We want to send humans to Mars so we can claim the pride of an Apollo style mission. Otherwise such a trip seems like a bad investment on returns. McLane needs to move on too. No 1-way possible suicide mission isn’t going to inspire the public. If an Apollo style adventure is the only way to justify a Martian landing, then no need to go there again. Frankly, most people don’t even know that there were multiple lunar landings. A lot of people tuned out after the first one. This is sad, but the reality we must face up too. One trip is enough to satisfy our explorer needs.

Personally I feel we should stick to scientific research with probes. It’s a tough and unpopular stance with many space enthusiasts – but I feel it’s the high road on this one. One day when we are realistically able to consider missions to Earth-analogs then we might have a place were humans could live full lives.

Until such a time as when we can explore other Earths, we have imagination and science to keep us busy.

Lawrence B. Crowell October 8, 2010 at 5:06 AM

Uncle Fred, I agree. Living on Mars would be a daunting task. There is also a low fault tolerance involved. A very small error or problem can result in death. Also this would not accomplish much. There is nothing, short of the unobtanium of the movie “Avatar,” on any planet which can economically recover the cost of getting there to mine it.

LC

IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE October 8, 2010 at 5:54 AM

Could a Human Mars Mission Be Funded Commercially?

Yes, but the resulting establishment on Mars will probably end up like a cross between scenes in Total Recall and Paint Your Wagon. ;-)

Olaf October 8, 2010 at 11:18 AM

Uncle Fred, people already live on Antarctica and the deserts.

Spoodle58 October 9, 2010 at 5:51 AM

Lucky for humanity Uncle Fred, we don’t all share those views, if we did, we would still be in Africa trying to figure if walking would be good for us or if its safe to leave the trees.

That may be harsh but my hunger for seeing people on Mars is massive, I see it as more important than any other goal we can set for ourselves. You may argue that its cheaper to send 100 probes than 1 person to Mars, but that 1 person will do more 100 times more work than all those probes. It will get the public excited in ways a probe could never do, thus generating more funds for space exploration.

I have been to Antarctica and I loved it there, I can’t wait to get back, I miss not been there more than anything, I would permanently live there if I didn’t have other commitments.

Mars means excitement, adventure, exploration, the unknown, mineral riches and the hope of a new beginning for humanity.

Could a Human Mars Mission Be Funded Commercially?
Yes, and the investors could earn a fortune, and humanity could enrich itself.

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