Millionaires and billionaires: the secret to sending humans to Mars?

By Keith Cowing
August 30, 2001
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The Mars Society held its fourth annual convention last week at Stanford University. Meeting attendance was the lowest since the organization was formed. Despite public statements by the Society’s president that membership was now 5,000, the society actually only has 1,900 paid members.

Yet despite the sagging attendance and membership numbers, the passion – and diversity among the presenters was much the same as it has in the past. Moreover, by the time the meeting was over several million dollars had been donated to one of the society’s projects – and talk of mounting an actual space mission began to materialize.

Success to Date

Mars Society President Robert Zubrin opened the meeting as he has in past years by giving an overview of who and what the Mars Society is. With a tight focus on placing humans on Mars, the society seeks to do outreach, perform political mobilization, and lastly, to actually perform scientific and technical projects that advance the cause of sending humans to Mars.

The most notable Mars Society project to date is the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station located (FMARS) on Devon Island in the Nunavut Territory of Canada. Operated in cooperation with the long-standing NASA /SETI Institute Haughton-Mars Research Project, the FMARS is in its second field season this year. What is involved is a functional mockup of a Mars lander that has been used to perform a variety of research tasks in an extreme, remote, dangerous and alien environment in a fashion that is deliberately tailored to be like Mars.

This past season included the use of several spacesuit mockups wherein a variety of field research tasks were performed. While these suits were really simulations, they did provide an accurate demonstration of the arduous and tedious way in which tasks will be performed on another planet. It is hoped that the outcome of this simulation will be useful not only to real spacesuit designers but also to mission planners.

The success of this arctic station has led the society to construct another Habitat – the Desert Research Station. This second habitat is scheduled for deployment in Utah this coming November. Right now the habitat is part of a popular exhibit at Kennedy Space Center – one that Zubrin says is the most popular among all the items on display at the Space Center’s Visitor Complex.

The Next Big Thing

Zubrin has his eyes set on grander projects. According to Zubrin the society should now look to doing a mission in space – one he has dubbed “TransLife”. The core of the concept is to place an Apollo-shaped vehicle in Earth orbit for several months. Inside a donut-shaped habitat will house a number of mice. The spacecraft will spin about its long axis to simulate the gravity of Mars (0.38g). According to Zubrin, these mice will be allowed to grow and reproduce for sufficient time so as to demonstrate whether terrestrial life (at least mice) can thrive and reproduce in a Martian gravitational field. The implications to the human potential on Mars are obvious.

He also sees this mission as a way to demonstrate the validity of using artificial gravity on a mission to Mars so as to alleviate the physical deconditioning that humans undergo in weightlessness – even if they exercise religiously while in space. Zubrin described many of the lessons learned on Devon Island and the amount of strength and agility required. He thinks that sending humans to Mars in zero gravity and expecting them to perform would be similarly unwise to sending an army to a conflict zone after 6 months of constant bedrest.

Given the current problems with the International Space Station program, the large Centrifuge Acccomodations Module may not reach space until 2008 – at the earliest. As such, the proposed TransLife mission takes on additional importance since it offers the potential to answer some of the ISS Centrifuge Facility’s core questions (vertebrate adaptations to fractional Earth gravity) nearly a decade before they can be answered on the ISS.

Where’s the Money?

While Zubrin’s stated reasons for this mission are sound and of great potential applicability to the question of sending humans to Mars and then allowing them to settle there, he was somewhat short on the details of how this TransLife project would come about – the financing of the mission being the most obvious omission. Toward the end of the meeting, the society’s Steering Committee voted to formally endorse the concept – but did not provide any additional detail as to how the mission would be paid for.

At one point in his presentation, Zubrin mentioned conversations he had with dot com millionaire and philanthropist Elon Musk who was quickly added to the Mars Society’s Board. Zubrin noted that he had been talking with Musk about the potential participation of Musk (and his funding) for TransLife Zubrin said that Musk has funded a feasibility study and that he may be in a position to deploy resources to make it happen.

Eager to transform Musk’s enthusiasm in the Mars Society’s next project, Zubrin said “We need to participate in every way. I think the Mars Society should seek to be a partner on this mission at every level – Technical expertise, Fundraising. And so on, We need to participate – we want to join this. We should not allow Mr. Musk to do this all by himself. We need to be part of this kind of mission such that we can be in a position as an organization to undertake things that go far beyond this.”

Elon Musk: White Knight ?

Zubrin was immediately followed on the podium by none other than Elon Musk. Musk gave a quick overview of how he got to his current status in life having sold a business to Compaq in 1999 for $300 million in cash. This money has given Musk, in his own words “some resources to do interesting things.”

Putting his interest in doing something in space into context Musk said “Of all the things that we can do that are important – creating a human civilization on Mars and helping humans go from being a one planet species to multiplanet species is very important. A million years from now, when most of what we see is forgotten, the point at which humans were no longer limited to one planet will be remembered.”

Musk described his initial impression – one shared by most people – of the feasibility of mounting a space mission – was that it was something that only NASA could do and that it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. He did not take NASA’s capabilities for granted however – or as being sacrosanct noting that “there are many great people at NASA. However, the organization today is not healthy nor is it an effective user of taxpayer dollars.” Musk went on to note that “you can do things for a fraction of what current [NASA] costs are using Russian technology – converted ICBMs. That is what my group and I are doing.”

When asked to expand upon costs, Musk said that he had been talking with Russian engineers and that a low Earth orbit mission using a converted ICBM could be done for around $10 million. A mission wherein a mission was sent outward, perhaps to Mars, would be possible for around $20 million. Musk also mentioned the possibility of using several of the piggyback payload options available on an Ariane V launch to place 25-40 kg of payload on the surface of Mars. SpaceRef has learned that Musk has consulted the same group of Russian engineers who are supporting the Planetary Society’s COSMOS-1 solar sail project launch using a submarine-launched converted ICBM.

On the day before Musk’s presentation the Planetary Society decided to go ahead with an orbital version of their solar sail project despite a suborbital test failure. This mission would also be launched on a Russian ICBM with substantial financing from another dot com multi-millionaire (Joe Firmage). SpaceRef has learned that Musk has been in consultation with the same Russian firms that have been supporting the Planetary Society’s efforts.

Elon Musk: Competitor?

Musk referred to the “TransLife” project Zubrin has mentioned noting that he preferred to call this the “Life to Mars” mission. Musk went on to suggest that follow-on missions such as a “Mars Transit” mission – sending a vehicle with mice out to a distance of 1.5 Astronomical Units (1.5 times the average distance between Earth and the Sun), and one where life might be sent to the surface of Mars – as being logical follow-ons to his initial mission concept. He also referred to a “Mars Oasis” mission wherein some sort of fuel generation technology demonstrations might be attempted on the Martian surface.

Musk’s interest in doing space missions has led him to bring together a group of individuals – a group Musk said would be part of a “Life to Mars Foundation” (http://www.lifetomars.com/) that he was in the process of forming.

While Zubrin had made repeated references to his desire for he Mars Society to participate in this mission (presumably with Musk’s financial support), Musk was curiously silent in that regard. Only when asked after his formal presentation by an audience member whether the Mars Society would have a role, did Musk address the issue – or even mention the Mars Society.

Musk shied away from saying “yes” to overt Mars Society participation preferring, instead, to say that there might be a role for the Mars Society – or other organizations (his website lists Mars Society, Planetary Society, X Prize Foundation, Babakin Space Center, and BioServe.)

Musk noted that “being inclusive” is preferable in such endeavors so long as this does not create a situation where too many participants begins to hinder the performance of the mission itself. As Musk completed his presentation he invited people to send him thoughts and ideas at elon@muskfoundation.com.

Millionaires to the Rescue?

As Musk ended his presentation, two things became rather clear. First, the non-governmental exploration of space is no longer just a fantasy. Second, when you have the ability to marshal the financial resources such as Musk can do, you can pick your team members as you wish – and create a new organization if the existing ones don’t meet your needs.

The notion of people deciding to ignore their government’s lack of interest in sending humans to Mars and exploring deep space now has an outlet for action. Many of them in fact.

During the question session, Musk made mention of Dennis Tito’s flight noting the immense amount of publicity it had generated – often eclipsing the press coverage associated previously with the International Space Station. He expressed some exasperation at how NASA, “in its wisdom, sought to fight this”.

Prominent examples of private interests exploring space include Dennis Tito’s self-financed vacation in space, the financial backing behind COSMOS-1, the $1 million-plus of private capital already raised to support the Mars Society’s Research Habitats, and the fact that the SETI Institute has mounted a sophisticated private Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (after the government abandoned the effort to fend on its own) and now operates on donations from several of Microsoft’s founders to begin the construction of a new generation of SETI antennas.

The Foundation for the International Non-governmental Development of Space (FINDS), backed by an endowment from telecom millionaire Walt Anderson, has also been very active in providing seed money for various efforts including a $100,000 donation to the Mars Society’s Mars Arctic Research Station.

Later in the Mars Society’s meeting it was announced that Apollo Energy Systems was donating $2 million to the Michigan Chapter of the Mars Society for its pressurized rover project. In addition, the company will also provide the Mars Society with whatever fuel cells and batteries were required for the Mars Arctic Research Station and the Society’s Desert Research Station.

This recent flurry of interest is, of course, preceded by decades of amateur radio satellites placed in space by a variety of launch vehicles – yet these efforts, as successful as they have been, have regularly relied upon heavily subsidized launch opportunities. The new privately-funded ventures appearing on the horizon seek to should most – if not all of the cost.

Who Should Be In Charge?

Another question that emerges from these recent events has to do with who should be funding these missions – individuals or organization – or both? A range of approaches is already in place. Dennis Tito used his own money, used several small companies as intermediaries, and then wrote a check for a ticket to visit a government-supported space station. On the other end of the spectrum, the Planetary Society acted as an overall mission integrator and planner for the COSMOS series of missions which use surplus military (government) hardware

In his repeated pleas for the Mars Society to be included in Musk’s proposed mission(s) Zubrin suggested that Musk “should not do this alone”. Musk, on the other hand, seems to think that he can. While the range of approaches used by non-governmental space missions spans a broad spectrum, one thing is clear: there is more than one way to do this. Indeed there are probably as many – if not more – ways to do a space mission without the overt participation of government as there are to do one with it. Which method – or approach – is the best is yet to be demonstrated since do few of the privately financed space projects swirling about have actually put something into space.

One thing is certain: interest in privately funded space ventures is growing. Curiously, this philanthropic interest seems to be growing at a time when dot com ventures and other aspects of the “new economy” are languishing. Even though ego certainly plays a motivating role in the lives of these well-heeled donors, it is quite clear that underneath the persona that generated all of these millions there are people who want to see humans expand outward from this one planet. The major difference between them – and you and I – is that they have the resources at their command to actually take a stab at making this happen.

The span of a year or so has seen millionaire interest in private space ventures augmented by multi-millionaire interest. Now a multi-millionaire is willing to show up at a meeting such as the Mars Society’s and talk about funding a space mission. If this trend continues at the same pace, billionaires should be showing up on the podium rather soon.

Given the sad state of affairs with the International Space Station it is unrealistic to expect a huge government-backed mission to Mars any time soon. And were such a mission to be proposed, only a fool would expect NASA to do so at anything less than a truly astronomical cost. That leaves one alternative: don’t depend on the government to get us there.

Forbes magazine recently identified 538 billionaires in 46 countries with an average net worth of $3.2 billion. The richest, Bill Gates is worth more than $50 billion. If you believe Robert Zubrin’s numbers (or even if you don’t but feel that there are cheaper ways than the NASA way to get there), then there may be a way to send a human mission to Mars for a fraction of the net worth of one of these people.

It only takes one of them to show up at one of these meetings.

Related Links

  • 30
    August 2001:
    Mars Society Launches Translife Mission Project, press release

    “At its Stanford convention, the Mars Society resolved to commit its resources to initiate the Translife Mission as its first spaceflight mission project. The Translife mission will consist of a Mars-level (0.38 g) artificial gravity spacecraft carrying a crew of mice (and possibly other animals and plants) in low Earth orbit for a period of roughly two months. During this period, the mice will be allowed to reproduce and the young will develop into adults. The spacecraft will then be brought down to Earth, and both the original crew and their progeny will be examined.”

  • SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.