Catch-22 of Space Ventures

Recently, the Mars Society Convention had a debate between the Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp and two of the company’s critics from MIT. Gizmodo had a summary piece with some op-ed. I think the writer came off a bit mean, but I get where she’s coming from. To make sure we’re all on the same page, Mars One is a commercial startup venture that plans to send humans to Mars by 2024 and then every 2 years or so in order to build a colony. They’re probably most famous for their open call for astronaut and the subsequent down-selections that have been going one for a few years now. Now Mars One is a one-way trip, no returns. So these people are knowing volunteering to dedicate the rest of their lives to this mission. That has a certain amount of inspiration, though not everyone agrees. Last year, graduate students at MIT conducted a systems and feasibility analysis of the Mars One plan. Their findings say the astronauts will quickly perish on Mars, whether from starvation, dehydration, destruction of the habitat, break down of equipment, and various other grim scenarios. So as you can imagine, there’s some heated debate and antagonism between the company and the academics. This report is directly hurting the ability of Mars One to raise money to support the development of the necessary technology to prove their goal, which builds confidence and get more funding. And there’s the catch-22 for Mars One, or any commercial technology venture: they need money to develop the technology, but need the technology to build investor confidence so they’ll give money.

For any commercial entity who’s business is based on a product, whether it’s physical or digital, you need something to show potential investors in order to get their confidence. Investors are obviously looking for a return on investment, thus the name. They can invest in established products like toilet paper, but there’s probably very little gain to be had there. In the riskier markets like technology, the internet, and space, there is a greater potential for profit if the company succeeds. But they need to believe you will succeed, and not believe in a take-my-word-for-it manner, but in a data-backed-and-sound-business-strategy manner. That’s what’s currently hurting Mars One, the data is not going their way.

If we’re talking space ventures like Mars One, Planet Labs, Planetary Resources, Rocket Labs, Firefly, etc, then product or service is or requires some advanced technology, like a launch vehicle. Rockets and spacecrafts aren’t cheap. They’re probably one of the most expensive items you can buy that you don’t get to keep. Fancy houses and artwork go for hundreds of millions of dollars, but they get to be enjoyed for years. A rocket costing $50 million is used and lost in a day. And if the first rocket fails, that’s a lot of money down the drain, and no return on investment. So investors are logically wary of such a high risk venture. To help alleviate those fears, the company ideally wants to have the technology developed and tested, a clear plan for moving forward, an existing customer base, and knowledge of what’s the return on investment. But, real life is not so easy. Mars One is missing in all those categories. The necessary technology for in-situ resource utilization, habitats, food growth, and parts manufacturing on Mars are still a ways from being ready. They do have a plan forward, but it’s highly dependent on the technology. I don’t think there is a customer for the trip, since it is one way and they’re not bringing resources back. Thus I don’t know how investors would get a profit.

I don’t know if Mars One will fail or not. I don’t wish for them to fail, for they’re putting a goal out there. And difficult goals is what drives innovation and civilization. But theirs is a cautionary tale for other aerospace startups, especially in the commercial space business. To get funding, you have to demonstrate capability and a high probability of success. Before asking for money, develop the technology, at least part way, to show the potential you have. Of course you need money to do the development. Chicken and the egg problem all over again. The solution? I don’t really know. The best I can come up with is government funding as the government is not in the business of making money. So they can and do fund small enterprises to get them off the ground.

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