Elon Musk unveiled his plan to get the human race to Mars on Tuesday, but the question remains, why would anyone want to go?

One reason Musk gave was that it will be a great place to find work. “Mars would have a labor shortage for a long time, so jobs would not be in short supply,” he argued.

But the entrepreneur didn’t elaborate on this point, which raises the question, what exactly would the economy on Mars look like, and would it actually an easy, and good place, to go for a job?


Let’s start with the early settlers. Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer and president of the Mars Society who likes to use European colonization of the Americans as a guide to how a Martian colonization might work, points out that European immigrants to New England and Virginia went there in search of gold and silver. They found none of those metals, as is likely to be the case with Mars, but instead were able to sustain themselves through agriculture, and in the case of Virginia eventually found a viable export in tobacco. As the economy of the new world developed, North America transformed itself into a source of supplies, like food and furs, for the West Indian colonies, which then exported valuable commodities like sugar back to Europe.

Zubrin thinks a similar dynamic can develop on Mars. NASA is already planning a mission to mine an asteroid, and private firms have been launched to attempt to tap what could be a multi-billion or even trillion-dollar market. The cofounder of one of these companies, Planetary Resources, has estimated that a single asteroid could yield $50 billion worth of platinum. If asteroid mining turns out to be this lucrative, Mars—which is much closer to the asteroid belt than Earth—could act as a key source of resources for workers mining valuable materials from asteroids.

But that would just be the beginning. Zubrin says the main export from Mars will actually be patents. He argues that the frontier environment, combined with need for innovation in order to make life productive and comfort, will turn a Martian colony into fertile ground for inventors, just as America was throughout the nineteenth century. He argues that, for this reason, a Mars colony could be largely funded with private money. “I would go to Silicon Valley types who understand that fortunes come from ideas,” he says. “I would say to them, let’s put an inventors’ colony on Mars, with the hope that they will ultimately create something worth billions of dollars.”

Whatever colonization scheme does end up taking hold in Mars, there’s plenty of reason to believe that Musk is right in his assessment that there will be labor shortages and therefore plenty of money to be made for those willing to risk a trip to Mars.

Recruiting an adequate amount of labor, though, could be a problem.

But again, we have tackled this problem before, though probably in a way we couldn’t these days. Recruiting was a central problem for colonies like the Virginia company during the seventeenth century, a problem that led colonists to adopt both indentured servitude and to resort to slavery.

Workers needed great incentive to encourage them to risk life and limb and to abandon ties to the only home they’ve known in any situation. And that goes double those workers are going to have to be convinced to go to Mars. But that does mean at least a version of model we used in the 17th and 18th century wouldn’t work, which was essentially equity sharing. For the often common colonists who came to America, the chance to have an equity stake in a crown-back corporation like the Virginia company was indeed an opportunity they would have never enjoyed back home, and why many of them came. And Economic studies show that colonial Americans, by the time of the revolutionary war, had far higher incomes than comparable workers in England, which at the time were the richest in Europe.

The difference: These days we have stock options on earth—plenty of them. In companies, like Google or Amazon or Uber or Facebook, that will already make you rich. So companies will have to come up with some supercharge version, or other benefits to get people to move, not just neighborhood, but planets.

Bottom line: The Mars signing bonuses will likely be quite large.

If in fact there is a viable mining industry to be created on the asteroid belt, it would be safe to assume that like in colonial America, the most difficult resource for business owners to find is willing labor. The law of supply and demand, then, dictate that workers who are willing will be able to extract much of the profits in these operations for themselves. Of course, there are many hurdles, both technical and political, to overcome before a Mars colony can be erected. But for those fearless enough, there are likely riches to be made in outer space.