Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Reader Comments On NASA's Slow Walk To Mars

I appreciate very much the reader comments left on this site. There were two reader commentaries on NASA's slow walk to Mars that I wanted to highlight. Micheal Mealing wonders what the business plan would be for sending a private manned mission to land on Mars. He believes private-government cooperation is the way to go and that NASA changing from cost-plus contracting to fixed-price contracting would go a long way toward speeding up advances in space technology.

This is a point that was made several times at the Space Access Society Conference in Phoenix this year. Cost-plus contracting puts creative people to work figuring out ways to increase the expense of not making things whereas operating under a fixed-price forces creative people to actually make things and do it cheaper. Mealing seems to be on to something with his comment.

Like Mealing, I too wonder what the business plan would be for a private mission to Mars. Space exploration advocates worry about the prospect of a government mission to Mars that is nothing more than a flags and footprints mission in which astronauts go to Mars, plant some flags, leave, and never come back. Sort of like Apollo.

I wonder if private missions to Mars, or even the Moon, could end up being nothing more than "boots and billboards" missions (to coin a phrase) without any plans for follow-on missions either. Perhaps it's my own limited imagination but I find it hard to envision a realistic business plan for profitable private space missions to the Moon or Mars in the near future. Anybody have a suggestion or two they'd like to share?

Science fiction author Brian Enke looks at the cost side of the equation rather than the benefit side and says he'll list some ways to reduce the cost of missions to Mars on his own website ( His comment about the expense associated with current technology reminds me of a point I've heard made by Dr. Michael Caplinger, a scientist at Malin Space Science Systems ( here in San Diego. Caplinger makes the point that given current technology we won't be sending humans to Mars unless we have a really good reason to justify the expense of sending people there, or we'll send humans when we have a propulsion method cheap enough to operate that we can go there for no reason at all. I'm hoping for something somewhere in the middle and sooner rather than later.


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To look at this in detail get a book by Clayton Christensen called "Seeing What's Next". It covers things like innovation theory and value chain evolution. Its a good introduction to how disruptive innovation happens and how it changes things.

With that said, IMHO, the business model for lunar and martian businesses is dependent on the development of infrastructure and flight rates. Unless there is some extinction level event you're not going to get enough money together for anything other than an F&F mission (Flags & Footprints). Throughout history great accomplishments like that happen for 4 reasons: Religion, War, King and Money. If either God or King demand it, it gets done. If the enemy does it then you either stop them or do better. If it makes money, then do it.

The first three only produce F&F projects. The last produces societies and economies. So the question becomes one of lowering the price to the point where it becomes profitable, not coming up with some new idea that justifies spending billions (only oil and gold justify that).

With all of that in mind, I think you _are_ going to see for profit, tourist class missions to the moon by 2020 and for profit Mars missions by 2030. The key being a) large amounts of fuel production and storage capability on orbit and b) a high flight rate from earth to LEO. I think both of those things are going to happen in the next decade. We might slip a little while we figure out _real_ on orbit operations. But I think once the fuel is there and the cargo flights for bringing up parts for a Mars ship is there, that the rest is just engineering. I suspect the cost of a Mars mission in 2030 based on these assumptions to be around the $300 million price tag. Well within the reach of a joint public/private project (if done RIGHT!)
"Fuel production... on orbit"????

Details, please.
Sorry, badly worded. I meant fuel production in space (I.e. lunar oxygen plus some hydrogen from earth, etc) and then storage and access to that fuel in orbit. The point being to negate the costs of shipping fuel up from the earth's surface. Sometimes my typing gets ahead of my brain....
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