There are several private companies vying to set up the first human colony on Mars, and so far not one of them seems to have the financial backing to make it happen.
This is not surprising, according to famed astrophysicist and host the new StarTalkTV show on National Geographic Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Private companies don’t lead the way when the stakes are this high, Tyson told Business Insider.
“Governments do big expensive things first that have no obvious immediate return on investment,” Tyson said. “Governments can take those risks, so governments go to Mars.”
Then and only then does private enterprise follow. Private companies like Mars One, which made headlines last month with the announcement that it selected the top 100 candidates it wants to send to the red planet, have to rely on investors. And no one is going to invest in a company planning a life-threatening mission with a huge risk of failing that’s going to cost billions of dollars.
Tyson said any investor is going to ask if the mission is dangerous (yes), if people will die (probably), how much it will cost (a lot), and what the return on their investment will be (quite possibly nothing).
“So you (a private company) ask ‘who’s with me?’ Answer: No one’s with you,” Tyson said. “Maybe I’m just out of it, but I just don’t see a business model to sustain journeys to Mars.”
Government programs like NASA have tax payer dollars and don’t have to worry about recruiting financial backers, even though NASA’s budget has been continually slashed. Government has to pave the way and identify the dangers first, Tyson said.
“Once the costs are understood, the risk factors are contained, then you can establish whether that’s something you can make money on,” Tyson said. “Now if NASA wants to go to Mars and they pay SpaceX for the space vessel, sure,” Tyson said.
The key, Tyson said, is that government goes first.
SpaceX’s Elon Musk said that by the end of the year he’ll announce his own Mars colony plan. So maybe the SpaceX plan will have a more impressive business model.
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