Jul 20, 2019 | Updated: 08:51 AM EDT

Neil deGrasse Tyson Throws Shade at Elon Musk's Mars Plans

Jun 28, 2017 08:56 AM EDT

Neil deGrasse Tyson
(Photo : NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

Neil deGrasse Tyson is not one to attack space dreamers. So why is he so down on Elon Musk and his company, SpaceX being the first to colonize Mars? 

If you haven't been paying attention recently, Elon Musk, the billionaire owner of the company SpaceX, has stated that he will attempt to colonize the planet of Mars using a 100 seat spaceship. But Tyson says it just isn't feasible. 

What Tyson questions is the private company's plan to raise the money and gather the investors and volunteers that it will take to successfully complete a mission to Mars. It was thought by many that the mission to Mars would, at the cheapest, cost $30 billion. Congressional critics of the government's plan to go to Mars have said that the cost could exceed $500 billion.

Though these are huge numbers, Musk isn't exactly poor. Even so, Tyson feels that private enterprise will not be able to absorb the risk entailed. Private enterprise works on a business plan. They need to know what the return on investment might be. What are the costs? What are the risks? 

"Corporations need business models," and Tyson doesn't see SpaceX as having one. Corporations also "need to satisfy shareholders, public or private." 

Everything about the Mars mission creates a bad answer for all of the previous questions. This is why governments do this kind of work and private enterprise takes a back seat until all of the risks are ironed out. Private enterprise can step in and make a business out of going to Mars once all the kinks have been worked out. 

Tyson makes a beautiful analogy when he says that the first Europeans to discover the New World in the 15th century were not the Dutch East India Trading Company. It was governments who were able to finance that kind of risk and supply the ships and men and maps and handle the risk of sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to America. 

The mission to Mars is a lot like the mission to discover the New World. It is fraught with danger, unknown cost, and unknown rate of return.

Let's start with cost. Would you want to be the venture capitalist that keeps funding this project when it starts to triple and quadruple in cost? Not likely.

Now the second question. What is the return on investment? The answer according to Tyson: Probably nothing. We could get to Mars and find out that living there is next to impossible. We may be able to survive and get back to Earth, but who would want to be on the second mission if the prospects are merely survival? Even with a successful trip to Mars, it is not like you will be able to sell tickets to the public anytime soon. So the ROI is basically nothing in this lifetime. Private investors invest to get paid. Only governments invest to further the next generation.

Now the obvious third question: What are the risks?  

"They'll ask, 'Is it dangerous?'" Tyson says. "You'll say, 'Yes, people will probably die. 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 you have one hazardous mission on your hands." 

Nobody is going to underwrite this risk. No bank loan officer is going to be able to finance a mission that would most certainly kill people. Try being the insurance company that wants to insure the lives of 100 billionaires who strap into a rocket heading out into space for years. It's a losing proposition. 

So while it is admirable that Elon Musk would like to take us to Mars, it isn't likely to happen before NASA does it. The risks and costs are simply too unknown for any private company to take on by itself. For some things you need government. Just ask Columbus who he had to thank for his journey to the New World. 

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