The Space Review

 
Mars exploration illustration
The future of human expeditions to Mars—American or otherwise—may be linked to commercial efforts to lower the cost of space access, thus making Mars missions and other efforts more affordable. (credit: NASA)

Which way to Mars?


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When considering how a human Mars expedition might be funded, there are two “umbrella” methods that encapsulate all ideas on how to fund this program. One way can be called the “miracle gift” method, and the other is a “step by step” approach. In the miracle gift method we have concepts from sudden government funding to billionaire philanthropy to more fanciful ideas such as corporate sponsorships, funding from gimmick ideas and events, or reality TV programs. While some of these methods do have merit in isolation, their fundamental weakness is that they fail to adequately address the elephant in the room, which is the complex nature and unknown costs of any humans-to-Mars design.

The flaw in this government funding idea is that, in regards to human Mars missions, no government anywhere has yet to fund such missions and it remains a theoretical concept at best.

Unknown cost increases and high risk factors in the development and execution of a Mars mission mean that, by definition, a funding plan that is rigid and narrowly focused cannot account for these risk and cost factors. Set budgets, or trying to raise a set figure, cannot address the unknowns of a human Mars program such as loss of hardware or crew in various phases of testing, unexpected failures, and unexpected development hurdles similar to those faced by NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, with costs increasing by over 100%. In both government and the private space sector, there have always been and continues to be unknown development challenges that can stretch or break set budget plans.

Just as the technology for pulling off a successful humans-to-Mars campaign must be ultra-robust, so too must the funding plan. This is the main reason most people believe that only governments are strong enough to keep such a program moving forward even in the face of failures, as the alternative private plans would, in their minds, abandon a “lost cause” if costs increased too much.

The flaw in this government funding idea is that, in regards to human Mars missions, no government anywhere has yet to fund such missions and it remains a theoretical concept at best. While there is no doubt that many national benefits would result from starting a humans-to-Mars program, they are insufficient to convince the cynical politicians of 2012 or their voters that this is a worthy goal in and of itself. Critical responses to this article will likely prove my point there. Those same critical responses actually represent a majority view, unfortunately, and do contain some merit. Funding human Mars missions from a government perspective in 2012 must compete with a thousand and one other, more important government spending priorities and, because of this, the unknown costs and risks combined with vague “benefits” places any proposal for human Mars missions using solely government funds on very thin ice.

Absent the Cold War logic of beating the Russians in space for the military high ground, human Mars exploration is, in reality, viewed from government funding perspectives as just another budget item competing with many others. And with the prevailing view from government leaders that the technology isn’t available yet to go to Mars, any human expeditions to Mars is viewed as the ultimate goal of step-by-step exploration programs, from the Space Exploration Initiative to the Vision for Space Exploration to the Obama Administration’s “Flexible Path” model.

I recently consulted with the creator of the “Survivor” TV shows and was shown that in order to raise $6 billion from reality TV and media content, any effort would actually need to gross over $25 billion.

All of these programs allow the government to gradually step up to humans-to-Mars in a technical and fiscally conservative way, which actually fits with the era of busted budgets we currently live in. They allow for failures and risks within a wider phased program. Yet hardcore Mars advocates still demand that governments buck the budgetary trends and embark upon this “bold adventure” with total disregard for other budget priorities, risks and cost overruns. The fact is, this fantasy will never happen. If and when governments do fund humans to Mars, it will still be a part of a phased approach, whether Mars advocates like it or not.

If we want speed up the process, though, and see humans on Mars in the next decade or so, can we do it better privately? If we got some donations, corporate sponsors, or built some revenue streams based on it being a worldwide media spectacle, could this overcome the great “unknowns” that governments seem too conservative to face?

The private sector does have more flexibility and options than governments in regards to funding models, but how would they deal with cost overruns and setbacks in a humans-to-Mars program? A recent plan from the Mars One group claims they can carry out a one-way human Mars mission on a budget of $6 billion. However, getting quotes and expressions of interest from space hardware companies is one thing, but paying for a development program filled with unknowns is quite another. While they have convinced many in the general public that their plan is simple, those of us with knowledge of how space missions come together are not so easily fooled. The fact remains that failures will happen, unexpected challenges will arise, and people may die. No one knows the true final cost of any mission design, one way or round trip.

Trying to fund the first mission from novel revenues like reality TV, corporate sponsors, and sample return sales may some value, but is ultimately flawed because, to be able to account for the great unknowns, it must continually increase revenues, and even if successful would require a never-ending revenue stream to pay for multibillion-dollar resupply missions. I recently consulted with the creator of the “Survivor” TV shows and was shown that in order to raise $6 billion from reality TV and media content, any effort would actually need to gross over $25 billion. Even if successful, all TV shows have periods where viewers lose interest. So the reality is that only a small portion of funds will come from this approach, and nowhere near enough to cover the unknowns or later missions.

The same principle applies to all similar private funding ideas that focus on capitalizing on the history-making aspects of the program. They are one-time fundraising programs that, even if initially successful, will eventually run out of steam, leaving the dreams of Martian settlement cut short. They also ignore the more fundamental issues that could enable long-term Mars settlement, such as the development of low-cost space access. In a world with very deep structural financial problems, the idea of sustaining multibillion-dollar Mars programs indefinitely cannot ultimately succeed for governments or the private sector.

That is why the other method of fundraising within a step-by-step program, one that addresses the low-cost space access challenge and honestly tackles the technological challenges with an incremental testing approach (for both the technologies and funding models), will succeed where governments or private gimmick programs fail. With this approach, mission costs come down, safety levels increase, and a sustainable financing model can be constructed. It takes into account the financial constraints of our world, and creates a new, stronger model that can withstand failures, unknowns, and development challenges.

The point is far bigger than a Mars program. It’s about opening up space to all, at an affordable and sustainable price with technologies and financing plans that work. With that goal reached, all space missions can be a success.

Where can we see this approach in action today? Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson exemplify how this phased approach will actually work. They have strong sources of real, non-space revenues that help them self-fund their programs while they work at low-cost space access technologies. They have dreams of Mars too, but are smart enough to know what priorities must come first. They don’t outsource the work, rather, they own the process. They know that when space flight costs come down to $1,000 or $100 a kilogram or less, Mars can be reached, the risks can be accounted for, and trips to Mars won’t break them. This model is already underway. It is happening right now while others flounder around with trying to fund monolithic, multibillion-dollar Mars plans.

Can others get in on this model? Can others emulate this path? The answer is easily “yes.” The MarsDrive organization I head up is already on that path. It may be “Mars Indirect,” but when we get there it will open up space to all commercial ideas where Mars can be a central part of the strategy. Getting humans to Mars must fit within our current political, social, commercial, and financial reality if it is to happen. We are already on the path, a path that is flexible because it enables many other space ideas. Musk, Branson, Bezos, and Robert Bigelow are leading the charge to a sustainable economic future in space, and there is no reason others can’t emulate this on different scales.

The old dinosaur ways of trying to justify multibillion-dollar space missions is no longer effective and, like the dinosaurs, is becoming extinct. But if more of us join the new “Musk/Bezos” model, there can be no doubt that we will reach Mars much sooner than we think, along with achieving many other space dreams. Some critics, like those dinosaurs of old, will only see things in terms of black/white, success/failure with space missions, but this is not the point. The point is far bigger than a Mars program. It’s about opening up space to all, at an affordable and sustainable price with technologies and financing plans that work. With that goal reached, all space missions can be a success.


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