Your ticket to Mars will cost only half a million dollars

Illustration for article titled Your ticket to Mars will cost only half a million dollars

You could go to Mars for just half a million bucks. That, at least, is the latest big proclamation from SpaceX entrepreneur and private spaceflight pioneer Elon Musk, who says a round-trip to Mars could be within reach of the "average" person in as little as 30 to 50 years.

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Of course, let's clarify a couple of key points there right away. For the purposes of this discussion, the average person needs to have $500,000 available to spend on the trip. Considering the median household income in the United States is currently about $50,000 per year, Musk's definition of an average person may be a little different from, well, reality's.

That said, a trip to Mars isn't exactly a cruise vacation, and $500,000 would mean that even a decently well-off non-millionaire could, by making some serious financial sacrifices, actually afford the interplanetary trip of a lifetime. In this scenario, a trip to Mars might be pretty much the only luxury item a person buys in their entire lifetime, but I could totally see how that might be worth it.

Then there's the question of timing. Musk has previously said he wants to use SpaceX's Falcon 9 launcher and Dragon capsule - or at least their successor technologies - to put astronauts on Mars in twenty years. If that actually happens - and yes, that's about the biggest if I've ever used on my time writing for this site - then Musk says they could begin selling tickets for commercial flights to Mars almost immediately.

The price would start out at a figure much, much higher than $500,000, but Musk says it would take just ten to fifteen years for the system to be mature enough that the price could come down to that relatively low number. As such, the first $500,000 ticket might buy you a seat on a launch in around 2040, with say 2060 being the upper limit if this all actually happens but hits some snags and delays in the process.

Obviously, these are big, big proclamations, and SpaceX hasn't yet established a track record that even remotely guarantees that it's up to the task. Still, for anyone who is still a fan of human exploration of space - not to mention the still nascent field of space tourism - these sorts of ultra-lofty ambitions are a lot more exciting than whatever it is NASA is supposed to be doing these days about a crewed Mars mission. In an interview with the BBC, Musk offers some basic details on how regular commercial missions to Mars could work, with a more complete plan promised for late this year or early 2013:

"My vision is for a fully reusable rocket transport system between Earth and Mars that is able to re-fuel on Mars - this is very important - so you don't have to carry the return fuel when you go there. The whole system [must be] reusable - nothing is thrown away. That's very important because then you're just down to the cost of the propellant. We will probably unveil the overall strategy later this year in a little more detail, but I'm quite confident that it could work and that ultimately we could offer a round trip to Mars that the average person could afford - let's say the average person after they've made some savings. Land on Mars, a round-trip ticket - half a million dollars. It can be done."

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According to Musk, the big key here is to make it so that a ticket pays just for the price of fuel, not for the entire spacecraft. SpaceX's whole stated plan right now is built towards creating completely reusable rockets, which would essentially make them the equivalent of airplanes that just happen to travel between Earth and Mars instead of New York and London. Indeed, looking at it that way, a $500,000 ticket to Mars is a steal - for a $750 round trip ticket between those two cities, you end up paying about ten cents per mile. Musk's ticket to Mars would only cost about you about a third of a cent for each mile traveled. Musk talks some more about this airplane analogy:

"If you had to buy a new plane every time you flew somewhere, it would be incredibly expensive. A 747 costs something like $300m and you'd need two of them to do a round trip. And yet people aren't paying half a billion dollars to fly from LA to London, and that's because that 747 can be used tens of thousands of times. We must get to the same position in rocketry. That's really what's critical; in order to get a two orders of magnitude improvement beyond Falcon Heavy (in other words to get down to the $10 or $20 per pound to orbit range), you have to have high levels of reusability. You need to be in the position where it is the cost of the fuel that actually matters and not the cost of building the rocket in the first place."

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For more, check out BBC News. Image by SpaceX.

DISCUSSION

DavidRStewart
DavidRStewart

I think most of you folks commenting are missing the bigger picture and not considering the type of folks who are likely to take advantage of something like this.

First off, I know quite a few people who are not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination but have qualified for 300 - 400, 000 dollar mortgages. I'm going to suggest that banks would happily lend the half a million to almost anybody who was healthy and at least halfway intelligent.

Why?

Because there are thousands of people who would leave tomorrow, and do it with no intention of coming back. And the moment that you are a pair of hands, feet, eyes and ears on the surface of another world you are worth scads more than the measly half a mil it cost to get there. Just think of how many research institutions, corporate, Government, and Academic would be eager to pay you to run an experiment, collect a sample, do some prospecting, or a thousand other things I'm to thick-headed to anticipate. If you have enough of such contracts signed and sealed while you are earthbound . . . You won't have much need of cash where you are going so most of the money you are paid would be committed to paying the loan down; the loan would be paid off so quick that the banks would be arguing for slower re-payment schedules so they could scam more interest. The surplus and the income that is generated after the loan is payed off, gets spent on supplies to be sent on future ships.

And at some point, I don't know know how many thousands of settlers, but the settlements could become self-sufficient a lot quicker than they did when the Americas were settled because they would have all sorts of smart technologies that the pilgrims never had.

I think Mr Musk knows exactly where this is headed. Smart man.