Within the next five years or so, you'll be able to buy a ticket to suborbital space for about $200,000. And that'll be fun, we're looking forward to it. SpaceX, a major player in the suborbital industry, is thinking about where else the company will be able to take people within the next few decades, and founder Elon Musk says Mars is a real possibility. And it'll be damn cheap.
The secret to cheap space travel, Musk says, is modeling spacecraft after airplanes. As you may have noticed, it doesn't cost a couple million dollars to fly somewhere. That's largely because you're not buying a brand new plane for every flight and then dropping it into the ocean when you get to your destination. Instead, you just refuel it, pack it full of more people than it can comfortably hold, and then keep going. The only reoccurring cost becomes the propellant. (This, incidentally, was supposed to be how the space shuttle would work, enabling relatively cheap access to orbit.)
Musk's long term plan is to take this philosophy of reusability and ride it all the way to Mars. To do this, he'll have to get the lifetime cost of the rocket down to the point where fuel is the primary expense, implying a per pound cost to orbit of just $10 or $20. This is several orders of magnitude cheaper than what it costs now, and in the short term, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is hoping to make big news by cracking the $1,000 per pound cost.
If SpaceX can get a reusable deep-space system in place, that could potentially remove a large part of the infrastructure cost from an Earth-Mars passenger service, and all people would have to be able to afford would be the fuel. And at that point, SpaceX will be able to "offer a round trip to Mars that the average person could afford — let's say the average person after they've made some savings." "Some savings" means about $500,000 dollars, which is a lot of money, but not necessarily out of reach for average people who are prepared to live frugally and save for a decade or two to take a vacation on Mars.
Sound appealing? Of course it does. And luckily, you've got plenty of time to start saving. While Musk says that the first private commercial Mars passenger service could be up and running in 10 years at best ("15 at worst"), it'll take another decade after that for the ticket price to drop down to that totally affordable $500,000 mark.