A maverick millionaire obsessed with space travel vowed to send a manned mission to Mars, even announcing the date the rocket carrying one man and one woman would set off for the Red Planet: Jan. 5, 2018.
On that date, a preferably married couple yet to be chosen will enter a tiny space capsule for the longest date in history -- rocketing into the heavens and the record books, promised Dennis Tito, the brains behind The Inspiration Mars Foundation and the American businessman who paid about $20 million to visit the International Space Station in 2001 aboard a Russian spacecraft.
After a trip of about 140 million miles, the brave couple will be the first humans ever to peer out a window at Mars -- but not set foot there.
Their spacecraft will not stop on the surface of the planet, instead orbiting around the Red Planet at a distance of 100 miles out before using the planet’s gravity to slingshot back to the Earth, he said.
“This will be a Lewis and Clark mission to Mars,” explained Taber MacCallum, CEO for space development company Paragon and one of the scientists working on the Inspiration Mars program.
Why now? Why 2018?
If we don’t seize the moment, we may miss the opportunity to explore Mars, the group claims. That’s because the Jan. 2018 deadline is a hard one: According to a 1996 paper that inspired the private project, the planets only come together perfectly for a mission like this once every 15 years. And while the next window is just five short years away, the follow-up won't be until 2031.
“The planets realign every 15 years, and who wants to wait for 2031?” Tito said. “By that time, we might have company.”
Tito himself won’t be flying on this mission; rather, it will be an unnamed, middle-aged crew consisting of a man and a woman.
“I will not be one of the crew members. And if I were 30 years younger, I still would not be,” Tito said. Instead mechanically trained (and likely much younger) astronauts will pilot the craft on its mission.
The trip is relatively straightforward, according to the various presenters at the event, akin to a low-earth orbit trip in complexity. But due to the distances involved, there are obvious, glaring risks to the 501-day mission.
“It's 1.4 years, no chance for abort. If something goes wrong, there’s no chance of coming back … and we’re going to re-enter at record speeds, 14.2 kilometers per second,” explained MacCallum. The trip is conceptually feasible, he said, but the technical details to make it happen have yet to be completed. There are a wealth of spacecraft being developed at present, giving them a wealth of options, however.
He called it a demonstration that could lead to further exploration of Mars.
“We’re trying to be a stepping stone toward that” he said. But “a program of record is really needed to make that happen.”
How will astronauts make it to Mars?
Technology aside, will people be able to survive such a mission however, trapped in a tiny capsule and breathing the same air day in and day out, month after month, all the way to Mars and back?
Absolutely, explained Jonathan Clark , chief medical officer for Inspiration Mars -- and the medical officer for Felix Baumgartner’s recent dramatic plunge from space.
“This is going to be the Apollo 8 moment for the next generation,” he said. “It’s about inspiring our children, particularly my son. To me this really strikes a deep personal note.”
To keep the crew alive in deep space, where we have limited experience, he would rely on past experience working in micro gravity. Radiation may be an issue, he said. Clark said individual genomic analysis of the astronauts would allow them to tailor protection to the mission. And other advanced studies and research would be necessary to protect the astronauts, whom he said would be “middle-aged.”
“Do we have our work cut out for us? Yes, absolutely,” he said. Beyond merely sustaining the crew, the team will be challenged by the psychological stress of such a mission.
“It’s a really long road trip, you’re jammed into an RV that goes the equivalent of 32,000 times around the Earth…and they’ll have about 3,000 pounds of dehydrated food that they’ll get to rehydrate with the same water they drank two days ago,” explained Jane Poynter, also of Paragon and also a member of the project.
A system that provides all of the basic needs of the crew already exists, she said, based on the system in place on the International Space Station, though it is simpler and more robust.
It’s important that we have a man and woman on the mission, she said, because they reflect humanity. And having both genders reflect should serve further to inspire the next generation to look to the stars -- and open their science text books.
“Getting a tweet from a female astronaut, from Mars, and looking down at what she’s seeing and describe it for us? And then turning around and looking back at Earth and describing that tiny dot that she’s seeing? These two astronauts will take all of us along on the ride,” Poynter said.
The cost of the mission is still not determined, Tito explained, although reports say it could cost as much as $1 billion. But it will clearly be a money-loser for the former NASA scientist, who founded the investment firm Wilshire Associates that eventually made him a millionaire.
“This is not a commercial mission,” he said. “Let me guarantee, I will come out a lot poorer as a result of this mission. But my grandchildren will come out a lot wealthier because of the inspiration they will get from this mission.” But the mission will be cheap, he stressed.
“This is really chump change compared to what we’ve heard before.”
The team already has a signed space act agreement with NASA, and says they will launch the craft from Moffitt Field at NASA’s Ames facility in California. The space agency on Wednesday applauded the goals of Inspiration Mars.
"This type of private sector effort is further evidence of the timeliness and wisdom of the Obama Administration's overall space policy," said NASA spokesman David Steitz, in a statement posted on SpaceRef.com.
"It's a testament to the audacity of America's commercial aerospace industry and the adventurous spirit of America's citizen-explorers."