In less than 10 years from now, SpaceX may or may not beat NASA in the race to Mars. Astrophysicist, Hayden Planetarium director, and host of the National Geographic Channel's StarTalk Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is placing his bet on "not."
"The delusion is thinking that SpaceX is going to lead the space frontier. That's just not going to happen..." Tyson said in an interview with The Verge. Tyson laid out his arguments for why fans of a solo SpaceX trip to Mars suffer from a "delusion." According to Tyson, there are three main reasons SpaceX cannot go to Mars on its own.
Reason 1: Cost
"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,'" Tyson said in the interview.
Tyson says it's "very expensive" to go to Mars. How expensive? Some estimate $30 billion, but a bill of $160 billion isn't out of the question, and critics in Congress charge that the total cost could reach $500 billion.
Reason 2: Risk
"They'll ask, 'Is it dangerous?' You'll say, 'Yes, people will probably die,'" Tyson told The Verge.
Sitting atop a cylinder full of volatile chemicals, setting it on fire, and then riding the resulting rocket into the sky is a dangerous endeavor. Add the later risks of mechanical failure, radiation, starvation, or asphyxiation (and let's not rule out death by angry Martian), and you have one hazardous mission on your hands.
Reason 3: Profit (or the lack thereof)
"They'll ask, 'What's the return on investment?' and you'll say 'Probably nothing, initially,'" Tyson said.
This, said Tyson, will be the real reason Elon Musk gets kicked out of any bank loan office. "Corporations need business models," and Tyson doesn't see SpaceX as having one. Corporations also "need to satisfy shareholders, public or private," says Tyson. And he doesn't think SpaceX can do that, either. While exploring and colonizing Mars may be admirable goals, they might not carry especially high profit margins.
Even at a cost of only $30 billion, Musk would have to round up 100 billionaires to serve as passengers aboard his planned 100-seat Mars Colonial Transport and convince them to ante up several hundred million dollars each. Finding so many billionaires willing and able to go might be difficult.
Tyson's points that Mars is expensive and dangerous are inarguable. The question of how to turn a profit is also apropos. Ticket sales won't do the trick. (Later exploitation of the resources of a colonized Mars is another question -- the answer to which will depend on what is found there.)
Tyson concludes that only a national government can muster sufficient resources to invest, and hold a long enough time horizon for investment, to support a manned mission to Mars. SpaceX might develop the tech that would permit a Mars mission, but only the government can muster the funds. Bluntly put: If SpaceX ever goes to Mars, it will do so as a subcontractor to NASA.
Is he right?
The business model
Let me first concede: Tyson probably is right about that. The most likely scenario for SpaceX going to Mars is by proposing a technical solution (Mars Colonial Transport) that beats out whatever Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) can work up over at United Launch Alliance.
But there's still the remote possibility of a third way. Independent of NASA, and Tyson's hypothetical "venture capitalists," SpaceX could still get to Mars on its own... with a little help from you. Here's how:
Musk has been called the 87th richest human on Earth, but the precise amount of money at his disposal depends on the day of the week. This is because his wealth largely takes the form of ownership stakes in two publicly traded companies, solar power provider SolarCity and electric car maker Tesla Motors, and in SpaceX itself.
According to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence, Musk currently owns 22.3% of all SolarCity shares outstanding (a stake currently worth about $580 million), and 22.4% of Tesla ($6.7 billion). Musk probably owns about a quarter of SpaceX shares as well, a stake we estimate to be worth perhaps $3 billion at SpaceX's $12 billion market valuation.
Add it all up, and Musk is probably worth $10 billion and change.
Making that money stretch
Is $10 billion enough money to take Musk to Mars? Maybe... barely.
According to its published prices SpaceX is able to launch rockets into space for about $60 million, whereas the lowest possible price that rival United Launch Alliance can offer is closer to $200 million. Bear with me a moment, and take the following logical leap: Anything United Launch Alliance can do for NASA, SpaceX can do for one-third the price.
To date, the cheapest estimate we've seen published for the cost of a manned Mars mission is $30 billion. At one-third that cost, Musk's personal fortune of $10 billion might cover the bill for a Mars mission.
On the other hand, we've also seen estimates of a Mars mission costing as much as $100 billion, or $160 billion, or even... $500 billion. Even applying a 66%-off SpaceX-discount to those prices leaves sums that even Musk would struggle to raise on his own.
The IPO scenario
But what if SpaceX conducted an IPO? If you recall, when Musk IPO'ed Tesla in June 2010, the shares sold initially for just $17 each. Since then, these shares have appreciated nearly 1,300%. If a SpaceX IPO performed similarly, SpaceX's current market capitalization of $12 billion might rise as high as $160 billion -- enough to pay for a Mars mission -- and within the 10-year time frame Musk has posited for such a mission.
That probably would be enough money for SpaceX to pay for a Mars mission. And by selling the shares to investors already infatuated with Musk, SpaceX might not face so many inconvenient questions about "Where's your business plan?" and "What's the return on investment?" After all, Tesla isn't profitable, and that hasn't prevented the stock's meteoric rise.
Long story short, Tyson is right. The most likely scenario is for SpaceX to go to Mars in cooperation with NASA. But SpaceX could also go to Mars without NASA -- but with help from investors. But only after an IPO.