A week ago, I was interviewed for an article about the race to colonise Mars. That was fun. I chose not to spoil the mood by mentioning that no such Race is underway.

© Time, 6 December 1968

A Race would require a confluence of motivation and money. That’s people with the motivation and the money to pay for all the stuff needed to fulfill the motivation. It won’t work if one group has the motivation and others have the money, unless the group with the motivation can expropriate the money from the others.

The expropriation approach can work. That’s how Apollo was done. The Moon Race was a national prestige project. Once one nation had won, there was no reason to continue and no permanence ensued. The purpose of the Moon Race was the Race, not the Moon.

Forty-five years have passed since Apollo 17 and Mars-as-Prestige-Project hasn’t happened. If it ever does happen, expect the same outcome of nothing permanent. The reason is simple. Absent some killer asteroid that we haven’t yet noticed, there isn’t sufficient political value in human permanence at Mars to justify the expense. And that reason holds for every nation or combination of nations.

That’s a cold dousing for space enthusiasts. But if we continue to believe in Space Santa – the idea that someone will give us Mars because we want Mars – then we’ll remain children, embittered children.

No one is going to give you Mars just because you’re a good little space enthusiast.

What about a grand public-private partnership? Innovative New Space companies and commercial contracting would most likely lower the price tag of human permanence. But that assumes that the political funders – those expropriating the money from a wider public – value the point of human permanence rather than where the money is spent.

Large expenditure for a payoff far in the future is not politically practical. For a politically funded, humans-to-Mars programme, the motivating point will be where the money is spent, not Mars.

What’s needed is a way to engage the innovation that can accomplish the feat for a non-astronomical price. That’s not going to happen with a political-public-private partnership.

There is another type of public-private partnership. Form a non-profit entity with a goal and let people choose to put money behind the goal, then use the money to buy the stuff needed to accomplish the goal. Antarctic expeditions, observatories, medical research institutes, and universities have taken this approach.

The initial public for the W.M. Keck Observatory were wealthy donors. NASA and smaller donors joined once Keck was in operation. (Image credit: Rick Peterson)

When this type of entity has a long-term goal – say establishing a self-sustaining human presence on Mars – it takes advantage of another time-proven tool, the endowment or trust fund. This is a buffer of funds large enough to protect the entity’s programme-of-projects from business-cycle turbulence.

The Martian Trust is a proposal for such an entity. What is the public from whom The Martian Trust would amass the money to conduct its programme-of-projects leading to Mars permanence? It could be ten billionaires or one hundred million space enthusiasts or a combination begun by one and joined by the other.

This type of entity decouples a highly interested subset of the overall public – space enthusiasts – from the political forces that undermine a government-funded Mars programme. Once it’s underway, if a government wants to fund a specific project that fits into the entity’s programme, that can be done without undermining the long-term viability of the programme.

This approach is the way to Mars, and to Martians.