First of all, commercializing Mars is not the point – colonizing Mars and becoming multiplanetary is good in itself.
That being said, anything that’s self-sustaining and self-replicating grows exponentially to fill all available space. In the case of space, that’s a lot of space.
So while profitability isn’t a necessary condition for settling Mars, and for it to be a good idea, it helps make the colony develop and reach self-sufficiency faster. (Take that, anti-capitalists)
The question of commercialization of Mars is therefore important.
Commercial uses are also going to provide a big PR boost, and shut up the anti-human league on Earth, which sees space as a waste of resources.
Here are a few options:
Physical goods for sale to Earth
Elon Musk is right that trading physical goods between planets is pretty much insane. The basic materials are much the same everywhere. Unless Mars has unknown deposits of something super special, or there are radical improvements in launch and vehicle costs (i.e. mass market spaceships), there’s no point exporting anything from Mars.
There are exceptions: especially at first, Martian rock will sell for a fortune on Earth as a collectible, status item and exotic decorative material. The first few kilos on the private market will command essentially arbitrary prices.
The very first samples will of course go to research institutions, where people will immediately start figuring out how to turn Martian rock and soil into a farming substrate (nod to Mark Watney’s poop), building materials, and useful resources. But beyond research, there’s going to be strong private demand – jewelry, watch faces, artwork etc.
If we find precious gems on Mars, especially ones not found on Earth, those are going to be worth vast fortunes for a very, very long time.
It’s not just small items – don’t underestimate the market for Martian rock kitchen counters, bathrooms and mantelpieces. You just know some guy in Saudi Arabia will build a patio out of the stuff, and his extravagance will pay for the construction of a Martian hospital. This is going to happen at some point.
The question is whether the rock can be decontaminated, because the Martian surface is drenched in perchlorates. If not, that would reduce the scope of possible uses, but certainly not to zero. You can still have a slightly toxic rock from Mars in a glass dome on your desk. Plenty of people will be ready to pay millions for one.
It’s mostly a one-time boost in the beginning, but potentially worth billions of dollars.
This is probably going to be the big one. There’s nothing quite like going to another planet. You can cram people into 3m2 sardine cans and they’ll still cherish it as the experience of a lifetime and pay you good money. The funding, as well as the demands, of luxury tourism is likely to help make Martian accomodation roomier and more comfortable. I’m starting to sense a theme of luxury spending paying for the development of crucial infrastructure and building a “launch pad” for Martian self-sufficiency.
Mars is going to be a scientific goldmine. There’s a bunch of geology, possibly even xeno(paleo)biology, materials research in low gravity, and of course research into human habitation beyond Earth.
Of special interest is the medical research, including the long term effects of low gravity on the human body. In the future, most humans will probably live in space habitats off planets – it’s just safer for immortal cybernetically augmented beings. No plate tectonics, storms, or mosquitoes.
The conditions necessary to keep humans healthy will determine the rotational speeds and diameters of artificial gravity centrifuges. I’ve been drafting a concept of a toroidal Mars-Earth cycler for months, but I don’t want to out-Elon Elon, so let’s get to that later.
Mars will have to make its own fuel for return trips. We can make methane and oxygen on Mars from CO2 and water, both of which are there, using the Sabatier reaction. That’s why SpaceX is designing the Raptor engines for the Big Falcon Rockets to run on methane and oxygen. The reaction is not too shoddy in space for a bunch of other reasons either.
Once the fuel is made, getting it into orbit is a lot energetically cheaper than on Earth, because Mars has a much weaker gravity. Together with its position between Earth and the outer system, this makes Mars the natural location for a refuelling depot, logistics support and staging ground for missions to places like the asteroid belt, the Moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and as far as Pluto (which is possible with current or very near-future technology), a sort of red stepping stone to the outer system.
Barring massive breakthroughs in propulsion, Mars will naturally become the solar system’s gas station and truck depot. Which brings us to…
Shipyards and heavy industry
In the medium-to-long run, Mars is ideally located to be the solar system’s shipyard and industrial zone. In addition to the location, it has a bunch of raw materials and low gravity. By the way, in Star Trek, Starfleet’s main shipyards are on Mars, and for good reason.
Heavy industry on Mars also has the added benefit of helping with terraforming – what’s pollution on Earth is an elixir of life for Mars.
There are sure to be unknown unknowns. Who knows what we’ll find there, and what might become useful in the future. We don’t know what’s on Mars to begin with, and then we don’t know all the possible uses even of the stuff we know about. Oil fields were pretty useless until recently. 100 years from now, Mars will probably have entire industries we can’t even imagine yet. Only one way to get them…
Now imagine if we find life.
Media and entertainment
The first bloggers/podcasters/youtubers/pornhubbers (you know I’m right) on Mars will be mega-celebrities generating vast fortunes, with millions of daily views possibly suprassing even the traffic to this article. At first, there will only be so much to buy on Mars, so they will mostly be funding the development of the colony. Speaking of which, if you like my stuff, you can contribute here to send me to Mars. If not, you can contribute here to send me to Mars. Win-win.
I would advise against turning the colony into a reality show. Reality shows need drama, which is the last thing you want in space.
We will also surely invent a bunch of new sports in space. Heck, I came up with like ten already (another article soon). Low and zero gravity offer amazing new possibilities. You may have Olympic games on Earth, but just you wait for the Olympics at Olympus Mons.
To wrap up, making Mars economically self-sustaining helps make it materially, technologically and ecologically self-sustaining. Which is the absolute priority. Profitability isn’t the point, much like it isn’t the point of having children. It is about issuing forth, creating life, contributing to the great story of consciousness, and hopefully seeing them succeed where you fucked up.
But making Mars profitable is a good way to make it grow bigger faster
The plan is not for an expensive outpost on a permanent umbilimbical cord, the plan is for self-sustaining human civilization in at least two places. As a backup, it would by definition be worthless if it depended on Earth for survival. The day may well come when Mars rescues Earth.
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