When we hear about private companies wanting to send the first humans to Mars, we can make the argument that their goals seem a little far-fetched. While we certainly can’t rule out the possibility of companies such as SpaceX or Mars One could send people to Mars, there are certain realities we must consider, namely the return of investment.
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“The delusion that relates to private spaceflight isn’t really what you’re describing. They’re big dreams, and I don’t have any problems with people dreaming. Mars One, let them dream. That’s not the delusion. The delusion is thinking that SpaceX is going to lead the space frontier. That’s just not going to happen, and it’s not going to happen for three really good reasons: One, it is very expensive. Two, it is very dangerous to do it first. Three, there is essentially no return on that investment that you’ve put in for having done it first. So if you’re going to bring in investors or venture capitalists and say, ‘Hey, I have an idea, I want to put the first humans on Mars.’ They’ll ask, ‘How much will it cost?’ You say, ‘A lot.’ They’ll ask, ‘Is it dangerous?’ You’ll say, ‘Yes, people will probably die.’ They’ll ask, “What’s the return on investment?’ and you’ll say ‘Probably nothing, initially.’ It’s a five-minute meeting. Corporations need business models, and they need to satisfy shareholders, public or private.”
Tyson relates this back to the voyage of Christopher Columbus. While few private companies did help fund the journey, it was primarily public money that enabled Columbus to go. It was only after Columbus assured the rest of the world that the land was valuable that the Dutch East India Company invested in it.
Tyson believes that SpaceX could be very beneficial in routine tasks, such as sending cargo to the International Space Station. But when it comes to the galactic leaps of faith, it’s up to NASA to take the risk.
“You don’t need NASA to move cargo, you get NASA to do the things that have never been done before. And then when they do it enough and there’s a routine, then you farm it off to private enterprise, which can actually do it more efficiently than you can, and presumably make a buck for having done so.”