Elon Musk has many times announced plans to go (manned) to Mars and it seems strange that investors and stakeholders would be interested in spending money on this just because Elon is interested. There is a possibility of charging scientific institutions to perform research or even take people but this still does not seem viable as a business. Is research the only potential source of income for a commercial manned mission to Mars or are there other business benefits that I've missed?
It probably isn't good business along the lines of conventional return on investment.
However necessity is the mother of invention, building colonies on Mars will inevitably accelerate technological development, not only generally in terms of spaceflight and life support, but also in areas of automation, replication, biosphere management - perhaps in the longer run terraforming.
This kind of technological advance will unquestionably be profitable for humankind, it is difficult to say how much of such advances will become profit for the company responsible for putting humans on Mars, but one might expect that since they are the ones developing most of the technology, they will also have the patents and such and be in the best position to develop and market the technology to an Earth market.
Now it is true that in principle any technological advance which could be made by putting humans on Mars, could be made without putting humans on Mars. But humans are lazy and usually need a spur or a goal for development to happen.
We can at least imagine a scenario where some new technology gets developed like self-replicating machinery which makes the owner of said technology fabulously wealthy. Would it happen? Impossible to say. Technological advance is like that, it can't be predicted. But I certainly think it is possible.
There are a few very interesting benefits, although most of them won't take place for some time. I'll break down benefits into short and long term.
- Better understanding Earth, sometimes it helps to understand things from a different perspective
- Inspiration- Many people are inspired by such advances in technology. The Apollo project produced similar benefits, inspiring many people to become Engineers, Scientists, and other technical professions.
- Setting up a foundation for things to come.
- Mars is the best place to farm and get food to outer space. Mars likely will be a major re-supply base for Asteroid mining missions
- Humanity needs to escape it's cradle (Earth) if it is going to continue to grow.
- Backup for humanity in case of a global disaster (Asteroid impact, nuclear war, etc)
- Engineering advances brought by low gravity
- Engineering advantages by having fewer humans (United States had many advances because there wasn't enough people to do things, for instance)
Well, I'm not sure that I can answer the question of research benefits, although there are major scientific and manufacturing possibilities in low or so-called zero gravity environments. Probably the simplest example for free-fall production is a shot tower for making musket balls. Anyway, there are three very general space ideals (and of course, don't limit yourself by these). You might consider them reasons or rationale for pursuing one type of spaceflight.
The first being human spaceflight, with its Utopian thought. Human activities in space, from a public perspective, are inseparable from spaceflight. Going back into the past many popular authors suggested that spaceflight needed to be human oriented. They believe/d that it was destiny. Mankind would first send out simple robots, then launch themselves into the universe and colonize. This would allow mankind to find peace and create many Utopian societies. Some call this the Von Braun Paradigm, but that's another topic. Many groups still ultimately believe that space exploration should ultimately lead to human migration.
The second would be that of purely scientific and robot exploration. Those who support space exploration from this perspective tend to point out how expensive and draining a human oriented spaceflight program can be on society. There is some mixing of a pure robotic program and a human program. Those who don't choose one or the other will tend to use one to support the other. For example, some might believe it is too early for human spaceflight, but acknowledge that robotic exploration can help to eventually put humanity in a better position (for migration that is). Neil deGrasse Tyson is a perfect example of the split between human and robotic spaceflight:
In your autobiography, The Sky Is Not the Limit, you noted the success of robotic space exploration and wrote that "We should not measure our spacefaring era by where footprints have been laid." Given the high cost and risks, why do you support a manned mission to Mars?
When I wear my scientist's hat, I do not support a manned mission to Mars. The cost versus the return on such a mission is embarrassingly low. But when I wear my public educator hat, I see and experience the public's vicarious thrills of watching their own species go into orbit and beyond. Astronauts are the only kind of celebrity I know who can have a line of people waiting for their autograph, even if the line of people does not know in advance the astronaut's name.
This level of interest runs deep and filters through Congress and on to funding streams. That's why the science programs of NASA have never been more than one-third of the agency's budget. So the social and political reality differs from how the scientific community would rather see it.
And since I spend large parts of my time at that intersection, I fully understand that urge to explore with humans and will not try to fight this basic human urge.
The third is that of transhumanism. This one focuses on human modification and adaptation to overcome the rigors of spaceflight. You can stretch the idea of transhumanism by going back to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey by Kubrick and Clarke. Transhumanism can include the idea of evolution over millions, or billions, of years. In other words, if we are going to eventually evolve, why not do it now?
Space exploration isn't always about the money. I imagine this is a small reason why people will invest in what might be called outlandish schemes. There is something romantic about being a pioneer and being on the frontier. People see space as salvation. It is the only way to save the human race. So, why do people want to go to Mars? For me, I'd go to Mars because I've always been taught to idolize astronauts. Who doesn't want to be a hero? It's a dream. Now imagine having heroes working for your business.
A good resource on this topic would be Launius and McCurdy's Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution, and Interplanetary Travel. It's not the best resource, but it might give some deeper insight into the motivations. If I remember correctly, its been years, the book is split into sections similar to what I've mentioned.
Another interesting video, from Werner Von Braun, is the Disney movie Man in Space. There is a series of videos promoting his early vision.
Business is what humans want to do. If they want to go to Mars, then it is good business to do so. Why? I don't know, it is a great philosophical mystery why humans want to do anything. Ask people to find out. They do what they want with the profits from what they have created. I don't recommend it, but you might want to search for sexually related stuff online to find out about stranger stuff humans want to do. Going to Mars might become big business just like getting a piercing or baking a cake did. What do you mean "benefits"?
This question is still both up to date and unanswered. The plans for sending humans to Mars are still pursued without any obvious business plan behind it.
As of today, Elon Musk keeps reiterating that SpaceX's commercial activities (atm rocket launching, resupply missions to the space station, and in the future also satellite business) will help funding go to Mars. I have not heard anyone say anything about how that should turn into a good deal in the long run. Yet Musk is convinced that without economic perspectives, projects will never be self-sustaining and will not receive enough attention. People need an economic drive, or else they won't follow.
Undoubtedly, there might be huge implicit benefits in the form of spin-off technologies, but that's a very high-risk investment case.
Space tourism sounds more viable, but that would not turn into a huge market because it will probably not be affordable to the majority of the population.
Keep in mind that without any breakthrough innovation in spacecraft propulsion, we will never find any planet as suitable and comfortable for humans than Earth, no matter what we do to it. (That is except for nuclear disaster, but abstract fear of this will probably not drive additional billions of dollars into colonizing Mars.) This increases the inhibition to invest in Mars.
A business plan would have to include an idea on how to return billions of dollars initial investment.
The only remotely realistic answer I can think of, is to create a new economy on Mars and for Mars only. This would be built and sustained by Martian humans (at first settlers, then the Mars-born) and will only benefit people on Mars. There's no obvious way how you could return wealth from there to Earth, even if costs of space travel drop by orders of magnitude. In this case, the business case for Musk would be to buy articles in future history books by spending all of SpaceX's revenue within the next decades on Mars travel.