Dennis Tito, the man who in 2001 became the first space tourist by shelling out a reported US$20 million to hitch a ride on the Russian Soyuz TM-32 spacecraft to the International Space Station, has now announced plans for a manned mission to Mars – and back. Tito won’t be going himself, but has established Inspiration Mars, a new nonprofit foundation that will oversee the mission in the hope of spurring “growth, national prosperity, knowledge and global leadership” through space exploration.

Dubbed “A Mission for America,” its purpose is similar to that of the Lindbergh flight of 1927 or the conquest of Everest in 1953. It isn’t intended as a business venture or a voyage of scientific discovery, but as a technology demonstration and an attempt to spur American space efforts. Moreover, if successful, it would be the first time a private company has made a major space first instead of a national government.

The proposed mission is targeting a launch date of Jan. 5, 2018, to take advantage of a rare planetary alignment that would enable a mission to Mars and back to be completed in 501 days using as little fuel as possible. The 2018 launch would also coincide with the 11-year solar minimum, which would minimize the solar radiation exposure for the crew. Such an alignment won’t be repeated until 2031. The flight would see the spacecraft pass within 100 miles (161 km) of the Red Planet on what is know as a free return trajectory.

This means that the spacecraft will rely on the gravity of Mars to slingshot it back towards Earth. In fact, after leaving Earth orbit with a single Mars trajectory burn, the only other propulsive maneuvers will be minor course corrections. The craft would reach Mars on August 20, 2018, and would make a flyby pass around Mars without landing or going into orbit.

Although there is still no concrete design for the spacecraft itself, Inspiration Mars has conducted a feasibility study based on using a modified Dragon manned space capsule that would be put into orbit with a Falcon Heavy rocket. A small inflatable habitat similar to those being developed by Bigelow would be deployed after launch to provide living space for the crew and detached prior to re-entry used. The mission would also rely on existing technology and experience developed by NASA on lunar and low-earth orbit missions and tested aboard the International Space Station.

“Experts have reviewed the risks, rewards and aggressive schedule, finding that existing technologies and systems only need to be properly integrated, tested and prepared for flight,” said Taber MacCallum, chief technology officer for Inspiration Mars.

For the two-person crew, the foundation is planning to select a middle-aged, married American couple, preferably who already have children. This is to offset the risk of infertility and development of long-term cancers that could result from the radiation exposure experienced on such a trip.

Living aboard the Inspiration Mars craft for 501 days would be no picnic, with nothing but sponge baths, no laundry facilities and some 600 kg (1,323 lbs) of dried food and 28 kg (62 lbs) of toilet paper to see them through. There would be only the capsule and inflatable habitat providing very little space and the crew would also face the effects of long-term exposure to radiation and zero gravity.

Prolonged isolation isn’t just the province of space travelers. Many people on Earth are similarly isolated and often thrive on the experience. Round-the-world sailors often make prolonged circumnavigations of the Earth taking many months to complete the trip and then go out and do it again voluntarily. The difference is that sailors have something to do and the scenery constantly changes – even if it’s only the weather and the passage of day and night.

On a Mars mission, there’s very little to do and not a lot to see. On a flyby mission, there isn’t even the interlude of landing. It’s just one brief swing around the Red Planet and then home. Can even a long-married, middle-age couple stand being cooped up in a tin the size of a small bedsit for almost two years with nothing to do and no respite? Though the crew would be provided with psychological training and contact with mission control, that remains to be seen.

Another problem of the Inspiration Mars mission is that a usable prototype of the spacecraft must be built much sooner than 2018. If a 501-day mission is to launch in January 2018, the spacecraft will have to be completed very quickly if there’s to be time for a mission-length test. According to the foundation, the development plans calls for the prototype to be available by 2015.

Despite these pressures, the foundation remains confident. “Investments in human space exploration technologies and operations by NASA and the space industry are converging at the right time to make this mission achievable,” said MacCallum. Tito adds that the “beauty of this mission is its simplicity.”

With guesstimates for the cost of the mission ranging anywhere from one to two billion dollars, Tito is planning to raise some of the funds through selling the television rights for the mission – a couple in cramped quarters for 500 days is sure to produce the occasional conflict – and by selling data to NASA. Individuals and companies will also be hit up for donations.

At a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington DC this week, Tito said inspiring children was a major goal of the mission. He says, “This is ‘A Mission for America’ that will generate knowledge, experience and momentum for the next great era of space exploration. It will encourage and embolden all Americans to believe, again, in doing the hard things that make our nation great, and inspire the next generation of explorers to pursue their destiny through STEM education.”

Although he won’t be taking the trip, at 72 years of age Tito doesn’t want to wait until the mid-2030s – which was previously touted by President Obama as a date for the first manned mission to Mars – to see a manned mission to Mars happen.

While NASA isn’t involved with funding the mission, Inspiration Mars, through the Paragon Space Development Corporation – which is leading development of the Environmental Control and Life Support System for the foundation – has established a partnership with NASA Ames Research Center to corroborate the technologies, systems and strategies for re-entry design and thermal protection under a reimbursable Space Act Agreement.

NASA would provide support similar to that the National Advisory Committee of Aeronautics (NACA) gave to the American aerospace industry from 1915 to 1958. Its role would be largely advisory, but with no direct involvement except for a partnership to help develop new technologies.

“The mission will help create public awareness, enthusiasm and momentum for a long-term commitment and vision for space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit ... all the way to Mars,” Tito said. “Clearly, there are risks associated with the mission, as is true of every space exploration mission. But these are exactly the kinds of risks that America should be willing to take in order to advance our knowledge, experience and position as a world leader. We believe the risks and challenges we have identified are well within the scope of our collective experience and can be overcome to achieve a safe and successful mission.”

Source: Inspiration Mars