The business case for Mars

1 March 2013 by Steve Blum
, ,

At least we have each other. And a deodorant sponsor.

Dennis Tito wants to send a middle-aged married couple to Mars and back. No landing, just once around the Red Planet and home. He’s a multimillionaire who began his career as a genuine rocket scientist then applied his math skills to investing, where he made his fortune. He spent some of it becoming the first space tourist in 2001, and he plans to spend even more on a privately funded Mars mission.

He’s quick to point out he needs more money than he has, and he’s planning to get it from other wealthy donors and by selling off sponsorships and media rights. The feasibility study for the project lacks financial details, but there’s nothing wrong with taking a wild guess at revenue and expenses. Just for fun.

It’ll cost $100 to $150 million for the Falcon Heavy rocket he wants to use, assuming he just needs one. Except for one tiny problem, the spacecraft itself is pretty straightforward. It needs super-reliable life support for two people for 501 days, communications capability and a small engine for (hopefully) minor course corrections. The launcher will provide enough kick to get to Mars and a gravity slingshot around the planet will send it home.

The problem is designing a capsule that’ll take the heat of a very fast re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere – faster even than Apollo – and deliver a survivable landing. The Inspiration Mars engineering team thinks it can be done. Let’s say the design, testing, fabrication and integration work might cost as much as a big communications satellite. Call it $400 million, to make the hardware total an even half billion.

Tito says he has enough money to fund the project for the next couple of years. Looking at the time frames in the feasibility study, that’d be the initial design and testing work and probably a head start on construction. A couple hundred million bucks? The remaining three hundred million (just guessing, of course) would be spent over the following three years, giving him a two to five year window to raise it.

Crew selection, training and systems testing is another big expense, but it could also be the profit center that helps fund the hardware. It’s a reality TV show where couples compete with each other for the mission slot, spend months cooped up in simulators and run through rigorous space and land survival training. When things slow down, bring in the mission control crew to liven things up. Read between the lines of the feasibility study: X-Factor meets Real Housewives.

Once en route to Mars, the lucky couple will spend seventeen months in a high-tech VW bus. Ad revenue will pick up when they loop around Mars, and again when they return, with the drama of landing a sure ratings winner.

Red Bull is reckoned to have paid several million dollars just for a ten minute parachute jump from the edge of space last year. Tito is pitching a six and half year long drama, for the price of a couple of Star Trek movies. Not completely crazy. Not completely.