By Peter Griffin 01/08/2017 1


In December I was invited to a meeting at Carter Observatory of The Martian Trust, a charitable organisation set up in New Zealand to “build a self-sustaining research base on Mars”.

I’m passionate about space and science, so I was intrigued to hear how the trust, founded by former Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Dr Charles Polk, planned to achieve such an ambitious goal.

I mean, the key space players from NASA to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are gearing up to colonise Mars, a vastly expensive and risky endeavour. Could the Martian Trust make a meaningful contribution to space exploration alongside these giants?

Not long into that meeting in the Carter Observatory’s gorgeous boardroom cum library, I came to the conclusion that the answer was  a resounding ‘no’. As I walked home in the pouring rain (there wasn’t a cab or Uber available in Wellington that evening it seemed), I reached the conclusion that the Martian Trust, despite involving a number of smart people who I respect, is a hare-brained scheme with zero chance of success.

The premise

The concept behind the Trust isn’t necessarily a bad one. Its founders are worried that the colonisation of Mars will be captured by a small number of space agencies and private companies who could steer the destiny of humanity’s existence on the red planet. They want to raise money to “finance a programme of projects” that its members consider to be important. What those projects are hasn’t even been explored – they will call for ideas at some point, when they’ve raised the money to fund them.

And that’s where the premise behind the Martian Trust comes crashing down. They are not looking to billionaire philanthropists or philanthropic foundations for money, but to science fiction fans like me all over the world.

How much does the Martian Trust need to raise?

The funding model

“Annual inflows between $5 billion and $10 billion can fund a robust programme leading to a settlement in the early 2030s,” the website’s FAQs cheerily inform us.

“It’s quite realistic. On the assumption that there are at least 100 million space enthusiasts globally, then $50 to $100 annually from each, on average, will suffice.”

Will suffice?

The money could apparently come from direct donations, crowdfunding campaigns or royalties that publishers pay the Martian Trust for access to its millions of sci-fi loving members.

So 100 million sci-fi fans paying $50 a year would raise $5 billion to put into Mars exploration and settlement. That is just not realistic. It naively assumes that virtually everyone who happens to go to a sci-fi movie, picks up a book or space-themed merchandise, is willing to shell out a hefty sum to support space exploration and specifically, Mars-based exploration and settlement.

I don’t need to explain how ludicrous that is. Just because I watched The Martian doesn’t mean I’m interested in funding a mission to Mars!

Coupled with the underwhelming crowdfunding campaign kicked off to recruit members, the complicated membership and governance model and the lack of any big names attached to it, and the Martian Trust appears grounded on the launchpad. This thing has astronomical aspirations that require mass buy-in, but in reality will appear to a tiny subset of space enthusiasts.

In a perfect world, colonisation of Mars will be fair and democratic and free of vested interests. In reality, the innovation required to achieve a settlement on Mars by the early 2030s can only be achieved by private companies working in collaboration with and funded by the world’s Government-owned space agencies. It will be a bit messy and frankly, the ones who take the risks and get there first will have major leverage.

There are some things you can crowd source and crowd fund – settlement of Mars is not likely to be one of them. It wasn’t just me that thought that. One of the smartest tech entrepreneurs in New Zealand was in the room and couldn’t see it getting off the ground.

The Martian Trust revenue model – from a December 2016 background document

A watchdog role

I think the Martian Trust could play a useful role, not in trying to go around and compete with the existing players who want to settle Mars, but to shine light on what they are doing and to keep them honest in their race to get there.

In essence, I can see them playing a watchdog role so that humanity can achieve the type of space exploration that we collectively feel is appropriate. The cost of doing that – researching and publicising the issues and advocating for desired outcomes, would be much more realistic to aim for.

A few days after the Carter Observatory meeting I wrote a lengthy email to Charles Polk expanding on the concerns I raised during the meeting. He never responded. So here’s the email I sent, with a couple of details removed to protect the privacy of people involved in the discussion.

I hope it may still be useful to Polk and his co-founders as they consider their next move and to prospective members captured by the inspiring sales pitch of the Martian Trust…

Hi Charles,

– I think you are radically overestimating the addressable market for sci-fi related media and therefore the revenue potential of the Martian Trust from this. There are no figures specifically for the sci-fi market across all media that I could find, but a good indicator is sci-fi book sales – which are substantial but a relatively small market. Fantasy is a much bigger category, but I don’t think you are likely to be able to appeal to those readers and juveniles, which make up the majority of sci-fi readers, have limited buying power.

– Even if the addressable market is as significant as you suggest, I don’t see a compelling value proposition for content generators being associated with the Martian Trust. The only reason they would do so would be to leverage a massive captive audience, which the Martian Trust would have to build from scratch which is very difficult and expensive to do.

The TV and movie studios, through to sci-fi authors are not going to subject themselves to a clip of the ticket unless it will result in additional sales. Amazon is the master of that game with Apple, Netflix and others already doing it. Additionally, the only type of sci-fi content producers likely to buy into the Martian Trust’s vision are those who are into specifically Mars-related, straight sci-fi and speculative fiction, which is a small subset of sci-fi. I don’t see the makers of Rogue One for instance being keen to partner with the Martian Trust. Why would they need to?

– If you could get hundreds of thousands of supporters through a crowdfunding campaign, you may be on to something. But the Kickstarter proposal is uninspiring and the value proposition is weak. I think that without a huge name pushing it (and frankly, why would they?) the Kickstarter will fizzle.

I think your best bet is the “Hello Kitty” scenario you outlined – some widget or cutesy sci-fi/fantasy related game/doll/collectible that you can partner with someone to sell, using a percentage of the revenue to finance the Trust. But Kickstarter campaigns are hard work and a lot of them fail – this is a high risk venture and would require a very attractive value proposition for the consumer. I see only a small number of people contributing out of a desire to see Mars colonised – they primarily want tangible goods and services for their money.

– More fundamentally, I think the fundamental premise of the Martian Trust is weak. You want to fund a research settlement and research projects so that no one group captures the future on Mars and we can try and settle Mars more quickly. But there’s little insight provided into the gaps that need filled, the crucial areas that are not being invested in, the value add the Martian Trust brings to the equation. It is very vague. In that respect it is a bit like OpenAI, but that was founded by some of the richest men in the world, so they can afford to be vague, they can do whatever they want to.

– The government space agencies, the private companies and the research institutions are all working on this in differing capacities – do they want or need the Martian Trust or will this just create a level of complexity or competition that frustrates efforts overall? I’m not sure, unless you literally have billions to spend, that you can play a meaningful role in research and actual missions, unless you are working in lock-step with the existing players who are realistically the ones who will lead the Mars effort.

– Because the premise is weak, I don’t think you will be able to attract high net worth individuals as trustees as envisaged. They are typically attracted to highly focussed, ambitious projects. This is certainly the latter, but it isn’t the former.

– There are a lot of good not for profit players who have established communities, supporters, experts and research projects under way. My feeling is that it may make more sense to build off their infrastructure and tap into their support networks eg: the Planetary Society and the Mars Society, who are already so far ahead and doing really good work. What can you offer that would build on their efforts?

– I really don’t see the value in the Martian Trust being based in New Zealand, unless that is, the tax treatment is more favourable than in other countries? I think the Martian Trust needs to be based in the US or Europe, close to all the centres of activity in space exploration, science and the culture industry. Trying to run all of that from New Zealand will be difficult, particularly as you’ll likely rely on a lot of community and volunteer involvement and the input of prominent people who never pass through New Zealand. If you could get Peter Jackson, Richard Taylor and James Cameron onboard that would be different – but I don’t see them going for this as currently envisaged.

What I think might work:

– An organisation that plays a watchdog role on the exploration of Mars – looks at governance, ethics, the progress of research under way – the ultimate aim being to make sure the existing players get there as quickly as possible and do so in a fair, ethical and sustainable way for all of humanity. It sort of has the same mandate as OpenAI (which wants to see artificial intelligence responsibly developed for everyone) but wouldn’t have the same remit of actually doing technical research itself. It would host debates, offer scholarships, promote art works and influence culture around responsible space exploration. It would partner with everyone from SpaceX to the ESA to the Mars Society and come to be seen as the respected authority in how to get to Mars ethically and responsibly.

– Attracting high-profile patrons and funders who are particularly concerned about the future of humanity and feel that space exploration and settlement needs appropriate guardianship. This focus would also attract a group of scientists, researchers, philosophers and artists that would allow you to differentiate yourself from the likes of the Planetary Society.

– Leave funding the research about the nuts and bolts of getting to and settling Mars to other players to organise and oversee. Instead fund research into and discussion of the main governance and ethical issues thrown up by the Mars mission – and then publicise heavily the results.

– Try and replicate the National Geographic model by partnering with a media company that produces content likely to appeal to sci-fi and space enthusiasts (eg: Space.com, Sci-fi channel), that helps promote the philosophy of the Martian Trust. In return, they would receive funding to generate content.

This is less ambitious, but I think more likely to succeed and would ultimately give trustees and supports the fulfillment of being part of a movement contributing to the responsible colonisation of space.


One Response to “The Martian Trust – a nutty idea that just won’t work”

  • Thank you Peter,

    At its core, The Martian Trust is a way to organise support for answering two questions about Mars: Did life evolve there? Can humans live there? And by support, what’s meant is money. The money can come from individual space enthusiasts, ranging from those of modest means to those of truly massive means. The money can come from major foundations. The money can come from governments. At the Carter Observatory presentation in December — and that library is lovely — the emphasis was on individual space enthusiasts of average means. That is also the emphasis today, and for a good reason.

    Human space exploration has been stalled in Earth orbit since 1972. In the context of a programme to place a science station on Mars — a generational context — human exploration is at the whim of unstable public funding and potential private backers who lack the massive funds individually. Noting that the budgets of the world’s space agencies are large enough in sum, or noting that there are enough billionaire space enthusiasts in the world to pool their fortunes is a far stretch from having an organisation that makes it easier for that sort of thing to happen. This is where a mass expression of space enthusiast support, meaning money, can be crucial.

    If a few million space enthusiasts were members of The Martian Trust — and that’s a big IF that I’ll return to — then some companies (e.g., those selling computer games that are space themed) would find it in their commercial interest to co-brand with The Martian Trust. That’s a commercial revenue model that can grow to the extent that there are space enthusiasts who find it engaging to be part of The Martian Trust. Can that be enough to fund the entire programme leading to a Mars base or just a few projects or just the type of oversight process that Peter Griffin suggests?

    Any of those outcomes would demonstrate a global governance structure with a generational perspective. That is the sort of structure that billionaire space enthusiasts might find useful. Governments might also find it useful. Our trust deed allows for any mix of member types. A billionaire’s club policed by a million workaday space enthusiasts may be a more likely Martian Trust than a truly massive civil society organisation. If that’s the way to do it, so be it.

    One thing to clear up: The Martian Trust has no intention of, and is by its trust deed forbidden from, competing with aerospace corporations, national space programmes, Musk, Bezos, or any other supplier or provider of the stuff needed for space exploration. The Martian Trust, if it succeeds, will be a buyer of that stuff, akin to a endowed foundation that buys a huge observatory (e.g., Keck). Rather than competing with SpaceX, Airbus, Energomash, etc …, The Martian Trust would buy from them.

    Now, back to that big IF: We have a strategy for getting from zero members to one million members within two years. What we’re doing in New Zealand over the next few months is testing messaging and operations, at a very low level. Come September, we start rolling out more of that strategy. We may fail. We may succeed. Everyone can watch.

    Cheers,

    Charles Polk
    General Manager
    The Martian Trust