Several dozen MIT students are writing a business plan for a $50 billion mission to Mars they envision as a joint venture between NASA and ThinkMars, a company the students hope to start.
The student team entered NASA's Mars-mission business plan competition in December and was selected as one of six teams to develop the agency's preliminary strategy into a comprehensive plan for getting to Mars. In June those six teams will present their work at a conference in Houston. NASA plans to incorporate aspects of each plan into its own blueprint for human exploration and development of the red planet.
In addition to the business plan, the team -- which has grown from 15 to more than 70 members -- is coordinating outreach activities, such as visits to local grade schools and to congressional representatives in Washington. In October they plan to hold a "Mars Week at MIT" and host a symposium featuring speakers from science and government. Justin Talbot-Stern, a graduate student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (aero/astro) and co-founder of the team, predicts they'll need to raise about $100,000 to fund Mars Week.
The team is using NASA's technical mission plan (the NASA Design Reference Mission) as the basis for ThinkMars's own plan, which focuses on the financial, political and logistical aspects of human exploration of Mars, and not so much on the vehicle engineering and design. If they get their way, team members will actually start the company that organizes the mission.
"We weren't around for the first Moon walk, so this is our way of contributing to space exploration," said Mr. Talbot-Stern. "To us, it's not just a competition any more, it's real life."
He and Tom Hoag, a graduate student in the Leaders for Manufacturing program, organized the team. They now have a faculty advisor -- Dr. Joyce Warmkessel, a senior lecturer in aero/astro -- and more than 50 consultants drawn from the faculty at MIT and other schools as well as the space industry.
With 70-plus members, ThinkMars has already taken on the look of a small but fast-growing virtual company. New "hires" come on board each week, and if they don't perform up to snuff, they're politely asked to leave.
"The pool of people who can join is literally anyone who has access to the Internet. If they say they want to be on the team but don't do any work, then we fire them. If they do a task and it meets the quality control of the management team, then they officially become members of the team. If not, we tell them nicely, 'No thanks,'" said Mr. Talbot-Stern.
"It's difficult motivating a group of overworked student volunteers, but it's fun.
"Our management group meets weekly and divides the work into tasks. People volunteer through our web site , complete the task and then place a short write-up or PowerPoint slide presentation online. Or they come to our next meeting," he said.
Most of the team members are from MIT, with about a dozen Harvard Business School students contributing. "These are not average people," said Mr. Talbot-Stern. "They're doing top-level work."
The ThinkMars business plan was one of 39 semifinalists in the MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition. According to Mr. Talbot-Stern, one of the judges wrote of the plan: "The whole idea is amazing. The judges' first reaction was that there is no way this is commercially viable -- the time horizon is too long, etc. We then began to think that it was worth having you work up the entire plan and see where it leads."
While Mr. Talbot-Stern sees a real need to get to Mars, he's also aware that public support for the mission and human interest for inhabiting an inhospitable planet are not givens.
"Sure, you can't just step out of your vehicle -- it's freezing cold there and there's nothing to breathe," he said. "But that's where technology comes in.
"One reason for going is that Mars is an extinction protection device. In case the Earth gets whacked by a meteor, having people on Mars is a backup. Humans are the first life form able to leave its planet and the first to think of the possibility of extinction. Mars opens up a new frontier, the opportunity to create a new world and to claim large chunks of land with a lot of minerals."
ThinkMars hopes to carve out a few specialty niches for itself in the whole Mars mission. Right now the team is focusing mainly on providing transportation from Earth to Mars -- a 100-million-mile trip that will take about six months traveling at a speed of 150km per second -- as well as food and lodging on the planet, and inter- and intraplanetary communication networks.
"We could be the American Airlines, the Hilton and the AT&T of Mars," Mr. Talbot-Stern said. "NASA can concentrate on the real Mars stuff, the science and technology, like finding life and investigating the planet's history. That's what NASA does best."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 31, 1999.