How big a prize would it take to get commercial groups to start heading to Mars? 10-20 billion dollars tax free to the first team to bring us back some pretty red rocks?
Financial investors are afraid of risk, which exploration is, so give them a concrete profit motive. The X-Prize writ large.
This was debated hotly at the NewMarsforums and elswhere.
Because Dr. Robert Zubrin discussed the idea of a series of "Mars Prizes" with Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in the 1990s.
It would probably only cost 3-7 billion dollars for a manned mission to Mars to be carried out by a private group with adequate financing (Zubrin explains the costing of it) so a 20 billion dollar "Mars prize" would theoretically be enought for a private group to take a shot at it.
Theoretically. In real life it is quite different.
It would cost at MINIMUM 3 billion dollars to put a manned mission on Mars. Today, large corporations are unwilling to invest even a few billion dollars in building a new oil refinery in the United States.
The Mars Prize could indeed pay out a lot of money. But that could only be when a manned Mission actually landed on Mars. That would be a few years from when a private group invests the money. At least 5-7 years. So they're going to be out 3-7 billion dollars up front for up to 7 years before getting paid off. No reasonable business plan will agree to that.
BEFORE any private group agreed to something like trying for a Mars Prize, they would have to be ABSOLUTELY assurred that Congress is going to authorize the prize money, the president will agree to it, and even more that no future congress or president will RESCIND the prize money.
What if a private group invests 5 billion dollars in getting a manned mission to Mars, puts a manned mission there successfully 6 years later......but then a war breaks out or extreme budget cuts have to be made and Congress cuts the Prize Money to only 4 billion? Saying "we all have to make sacrifices".
In short, there is not a chance in hell that any private group would send a manned mission to Mars for prize money.