Could Elon Musk’s Mars colony turn a profit?

When SpaceX CEO Elon Musk speaks about making humanity a multi-planet species by founding a Mars colony, he gets positively mystical about his desire to “preserve the light of human consciousness.” 

However, as a capitalist, Musk has to know that his dream of expanding human civilization to Mars has to turn a profit. Unlike the moon and asteroids, the answer to that question is not immediately obvious.

The economic case for going back to the moon resides in the opportunities to mine its abundant resources. According to Gizmodo, lunar resources include water, which future moon colonists could use for sustenance and rocket fuel, and helium 3, which could fuel future fusion reactors to create clean, emissions-free energy.

The asteroids have an even greater economic case. One such asteroid, 16 Psyche, is said to have $100,000 quadrillion dollars’ worth of metals. Its actual worth will be determined by a robotic space probe, due to arrive at the asteroid in August 2029.

The economic argument for going to Mars and founding a colony there is more complicated. Robert Zubrin, the author of “The Case for Mars,” has recently published a new book, “A New World on Mars.” He devotes an entire chapter seeking to establish how a Mars colony could be a profitable enterprise.

The initial way that a Mars colony will start to make a profit will likely happen by selling licenses to Earth companies for technology developed by the colonists. Just to survive, not to mention thrive, Mars colonists will have to become masters of innovation in a wide variety of areas, including food production, recycling, robotics, power generation and AI. In a way, the Mars colony will produce technological spinoffs in the same way NASA has since the beginning of the Apollo program.

A Mars colony could also become a profitable concern through:

  • “Mars tourism,” by which Zubrin means providing a base of operations for government and private explorers and not so much rich people on a years-long adventure vacation.
  • Real estate, which could consist of developing Martian land for commercial purposes.
  • Luxury goods, which could be created on Mars and would gain value by being made at the Mars colony.

Eventually, Zubrin envisions a triangle of trade developing between Earth, Mars and the asteroid belt. Earth would provide Mars with expensive, high-tech goods that can’t be provided locally. Mars would provide lower-cost goods and services for miners working in the asteroid belt. Asteroid miners would ship metals and other resources back to Earth.

Developing interplanetary trade will depend on transportation between Earth, Mars and the asteroid belt becoming relatively cheap. Zubrin thinks that Elon Musk’s Starship, currently being developed at the SpaceX Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas, could be like the sailing ship, that opened up transatlantic trade between Europe and the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries, but for the 21st century.

The vision of an interplanetary society bound together by trade ties is compelling. Add to that vision mining the moon and Earth-approaching asteroids to feed Earth-orbiting industries — plus maybe lunar helium 3 for fusion generators — and the future based on Mars colonies would be one of abundance. Surely such a future is better than one based on scarcity caused by fears of climate change and dwindling Earth resources.

A program to send humans to Mars has traditionally been seen as a purely government affair. The idea was to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to send a crew of astronauts to the Red Planet to raise the flag, do some good science, and then return to the accolades of a grateful world. No wonder, until now, NASA has never been able to get the authorization or the funding to go to Mars.

Enabling Mars colonization to turn a profit by unlocking the inner solar system’s riches would be another matter entirely. It would be the project of not just one but of many nations, not to mention private companies such as SpaceX, taking decades. 

But at the end of it, if Zubrin and Musk are right, the age of economic scarcity will have been brought to an end. The grandchildren of Gen Z people living today could grow up seeing human civilization spread to the moon, then Mars and then beyond.

Mark R. Whittington, who writes frequently about space policy, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and, most recently, “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. 

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