Only if we're stupid. It doesn't have to be. We have a severe vision problem these days. Let's fix that. First the vision (which may be refined with your help) then how to get there...
Imagine we have a handful of people on mars. Choose your favorite method for how they got there. It doesn't matter. They will teach us how to survive and extract the basic requirement for life from mars itself. Jerry Pournelle correctly pointed out in the 1970s that the single most important issue for living in style beyond the earth is energy which is abundantly available from nuclear power, including that nuclear power plant we orbit. I like Thorium, which is abundant in the martian regolith (martians will call it dirt, one syllable) but even solar panels are enough because they can produce more panels on mars if we send enough to begin with (manufacturing requires energy beyond life support.) We've already sent nuclear power with our last rover. If we cared enough about the colonists future we could send landers with integral nuclear power (and long extension cords?) but it's not essential.
Here's the first epiphany (two are required... well ok, three.) We don't have to provide costly resupply from earth even though they will need things. We solve two problems with one solution. The higher the cost to send things to mars the better the solution works. It is based on the fact that everything going to mars, no matter what, has a mass surcharge above it's nominal cost.
Over 200,000 people want to live the rest of their lives on mars. Those that mock them display their own elitist ignorance. Mars One, after ten years, wants to send them at a rate of two a year (four every two years) which is a rate that would take 100,000 years to send them all. Not good enough.
Let's send them all. All it takes is sound economics (a basic reality.) This vision will need your criticism and refinements as well. Let's ask Elon Musk (now that he's won a 2.6 billion dollar award from NASA his detractors have more fuel for their infantile claims that he's not running a profitable business.) The success of his company means that Elon is developing the technology to go to mars but his business plan is a little weak. He just wants to sell tickets but will anybody sell their life savings to buy one? How does he get the price down to half a million? Does he have to? How do they each get a million dollar space suit? What will they arrive with on the surface of mars to survive?
My vision is that every colonist gets a free ticket and arrives a millionaire. That should take care of the supply of colonists. It's not funded by any government (except marginally) and in the process we solve the launch vehicle market problem. Can this actually be done? Absolutely and I will include my argument herein why it should be done (see coming third epiphany) and the one essential element that must happen.
The second epiphany is that assets exist (if they can be sold) to pay the ticket for any that want to go. It's not my epiphany. I borrowed it from the Space Settlement Initiative. Their's is not my vision. They require government blessings and new law. Mine doesn't. They require Alaska sized land grants creating a company town problem and conflicting with the Outer Space Treaty (IMHO) even if they think it doesn't because of that pesky government blessings requirement. I say sell it by the square meter from square kilometer sized claims. Claims made by possession after colonists land. Claims that produce legal title once deeds convey title, because of chain of title. Millions of title holders will have political power to go with that very solid historic precedent. We solve the chicken and egg problem with a trust. Money for land goes in. Money for tickets and deeds go out (after being properly claimed.) Mars has over 144 million square kilometers of potential real estate. That's over 14 billion hectares. Over 140 trillion square meters. How much of that would we have to sell (perhaps 10%, so 14 trillion) at what cost (a quarter? a dime?) to buy tickets for colonists? It would not take $1.4 trillion for missions so we have more than enough land. It does require the martian colonists to support and defend strong property rights. Rights that would have made it possible to travel to mars in the first place. Will people buy land on mars? They already do from con men that aren't actually providing them with anything. The colonists themselves will provide the first and most effective line of defense for those property rights. The number of people owning the land will be the second. That land has no value now, but it does have future value which is what they are buying and how it must be marketed. Done right (at some cost) it would work. This is a perfect match with the media approach of Mars One.
Now the third epiphany (and this is the big one.) If you've read a lot of plans for getting to mars they all have one glaring problem. They are not based on individual liberty and free enterprise. They can't even imagine that possibility, yet history teaches it's the only thing that really works for anything above a small group of people. We're losing this argument here on earth but it remains the truth. Sucking on the government teat will only last until the money runs out. Printing more of it doesn't resolve this.
We need to look at some more numbers. My plan is based on roughly $50 million cost per colonist. The money accumulates in the trust (while technology moves forward) until we can pay for a dozen or more to go. If the MCT cost $500 million and sends 100 that's $5 million per. If somehow Musk or anybody gets it lower, so much the better.
How's that every martian a millionaire work? It is essential we insist that every ticket include both a space suit and a mass allotment of probably 1000 kg to the surface. This is the personal property of the colonist and will include only enough essential life support to meet and trade with existing martians who will have an abundance of life support to trade. This means no separate and costly resupply missions and wealth to the arriving colonists. How much wealth? It will depend on how wisely they choose items that hold value but those items will be competing with the cost to buy them directly from earth. Suppose Musk can send 2500 kg to mars for $150 million as he's proposed. That's $60,000 per kg. Let's say the new colonist choose items that only hold a fraction of that value, say $1,000 per kg. That's a million dollars for each arriving colonist right there (assets on the books as it were.) Where does that money come to buy these assets? Some will bring money to mars (because after selling everything or not, they don't have to give it away for a ticket.) Some will earn money on mars in a free trade society (how much will Mars One pay their reality stars? I hear it's a lucrative gig.) Regardless, personal property will have value and workers will be needed, providing jobs for everyone. They can buy property, improve it and sell it for example. Every skill will be marketable. Free enterprise works.
One problem will be not enough ships for all the people that want to go. Isn't that a good problem? What about ships? We don't wait for the MCT. We don't send too large by mass and too small by volume ships like the Orion. We send a six crew ship massing under 13 tons on an F9. Actually, we integrate something like a Sundancer with the upper stage of an F9. No orbital assembly, just refuel it.We send two to mars orbit tethered together for artificial gravity for a mission with a dozen crew (360 m3 divided among 12.) We send six landers ahead to wait in mars orbit. The two ships take 8 months to get there on a free return trajectory. They have hall thrusters as backup and to return empty to earth orbit. The landers take two at a time to the martian surface with all their personal possessions. That's $75 million cost per colonist right there, but expect economy of scale to kick in.
We should send one additional lander straight to the martian surface with parts for two tractors for digging trenches (ten meter wide in my plans, but that's up to them.) The martians aren't going to live in tin cans (that's temporary and emergency backup.) They are going to live in mansions dug into the dirt by heavy equipment (eventually by heavier than these two tractors which may become the property of two colonists by lottery.) Most martians will hardly ever wear their space suits because habitat volume is something they can have of as much as they want. They own it. They would connect them with shirtsleeve underground walk ways. Wouldn't you build yourself a mansion in that situation? Nothing would stop them.
We need to send dozens to get a good start on a martian industrial ecology. A single person could have all the skills for the few dozen machines needed to make all others but they wouldn't have enough hands or time. Sending four to live on mars waiting for others to arrive is also a risky mistake. The first mission should have at least a dozen which makes the cost per person lower as well. Isolating a handful is just a bad idea. What happens if someone with essential skills dies in an accident? We need to give them the best start we can. They are humanities heroes.
There are too many details to include all for now. So have at it. Let the refinement begin.
(Submitted to the Space Review.)