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Pioneering space tourist announces plans for first manned mission to Mars

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February 27, 2013

Inspiration Mars, a nonprofit foundation established by Dennis Tito, has announced plans f...

Inspiration Mars, a nonprofit foundation established by Dennis Tito, has announced plans for the first manned mission to Mars (Image: Inspiration Mars)

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

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
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18 Comments

Look, up in the sky! It's A Bird... It's A Plane... It's a Pie!

Otiose
27th February, 2013 @ 10:18 pm PST

Sounds insane to me!

Five hundred days is a *very* long time for even an experienced astronaut. There is *no chance* that a middle-aged couple would be cooped up in space for that long without going insane. They might last for 14 days. One month, tops (and that's being generous).

If these people want to do a Mars mission, *do it properly*. Use real astronauts and *land* on the planet. What a waste of time, going there only to do a fly-by!

mooseman
28th February, 2013 @ 01:15 am PST

A manned mission to Mars will be a giant leap for mankind. But it is needed to develop fusion-powered spacecrafts so that the roundtrips to Red planet become more economically affordable.

Bob Johns
28th February, 2013 @ 04:25 am PST

@Robert Johnson: Fusion is still "distant" science. They are close to doing more than break even in a lab but far from making anything functional with it. It would be at least 20 years before a fusion ship flew even if they crack the science today. Nuclear thermal would be a better choice for a near term solution. Nuclear thermal has an ISP at least ten times that of chemical rockets so would dramatically reduce the transit time, but it has already been developed. That work was scrapped in the sixties due to funding and political issue. Being primarily developed it could be deployed within 5-10 years maybe sooner with commercial enterprise involved rather than just NASA.

The only fusion propulsion I have seen that could be near term would be "z" pinch low yield pulsed detonation propulsion as a modified Orion concept and the concensus on that seems to be that it's too "dirty" to fly even if it's feasible.

VirtualGathis
28th February, 2013 @ 06:54 am PST

This mission has a very high probability of failure. 500 days in space is a long time to be exposed to the environment of space with almost no protection. This mission will be riskier than anything I can compare it to. Even the Russians, which where by far the largest risk takers won't do this one.

Everything would have to work 100% perfect for it to work and not be fetal. I see nothing practical to be gained from this mission.

hec031
28th February, 2013 @ 08:21 am PST

@VirtualGathis: I agree "nuclear thermal would be a better choice for a near term solution", but emphatically, a near-term solution. For long term, I believe that aneutronic fusion is our best hope, a dense and non-dangerous energy source to power spacecrafts without radiation injury to the crewmembers.

Bob Johns
28th February, 2013 @ 08:42 am PST

To VirtualGathis- I don't know where you've been but fusion is a thing of the past, 20 years past and that's just what's public. Many labs have now produced energy in abundance everytime and the only problem now is limiting the fuel source so it won't overheat. Look up Lattice Assisted Nuclear Reactions (LANR), Condensed Matter Nuclear Science (CMNS) and Lattice Enabled Nuclear Reactions (LENR) not to be confused with the more common LENR which is Low Energy Nuclear Reactions. LANR Fusion is a good publically well know energy source for this type of trip. My guess is fission, plasma, and/or chemical thrusters will most likely be used for the propulsion systems but I can't wait to find out what they choose.

Matt Fletcher
28th February, 2013 @ 09:56 am PST

Nuclear power and ion thrusters are the way to go. The reactor will act as a radiation shield against solar storms.

It would help if the crew started as hermits.

Slowburn
28th February, 2013 @ 03:26 pm PST

I have to agree that taking 501 days to get there and then just turn around and come home seems like a great waste of time and effort. I applaud Mr. Tito in wanting to have people get to Mars sooner than 2030. If you get there at least land for heaven's sake.

If you can find or read Robert Zurbin's book "A Case For Mars". He explains how to get there and have a return vehicle waiting already refueled for the return trip.

Do More than Just flyby. The early astronauts that just circled the moon and returned home must have been very frustrated because they didn't get to land. I'd bet that has been or was a major regret the rest of their lives.

JMOdom
28th February, 2013 @ 04:57 pm PST

Need min 70K mps speed to Mars & back

2 bad they cant deploy Mars Base hub for later missions & or map Mars or ID rovers on surface alone

Looks like Apollo 8 only longer distance/.

Stephen N Russell
28th February, 2013 @ 06:09 pm PST

Matt Fletcher, it is absurd to argue that "LANR Fusion is a good publically well know energy source".

NASA is just now trying to determine if there is anything to the effect at all: http://wp.me/p3cfMd-5f

quax
28th February, 2013 @ 07:43 pm PST

Jumping in late on this discussion.

How about launching unmanned supply packages and placing them in orbit around Mars prior to human arrival.

This way the human ship can top up on essentials when they arrive and afford a few weeks of sightseeing in orbit.

Since the fuel is available at Mars they will need less initially, possibly speeding up time to Mars by 100-200 days.

Nairda
1st March, 2013 @ 12:25 am PST

If we are talking about a more costly mission to "do it right" then why must the crew be exposed to more radiation then we receive from living on Earth?

Can't they build shields big and strong enough to cut out enough radiation so that even in the worst solar storms the crew would still get only as much radiation as they now get from living here on Earth?

I know it will cost massive amounts more to build a ship with such shielding and will need propulsion system and fuel many times the amount they would otherwise need but we are talking about doing it right and with the safety of the crew, in mind.

Aren't we?

Fusiontek
1st March, 2013 @ 05:11 am PST

Use moon based solid state lasers powered by solar energy and just heat up the reaction mass in the mars ships exhaust. It is pretty pointless to take any form of reactor with you because that radiation produced is cumulative with that of solar and the saving in mass can be used for shielding.

L1ma
1st March, 2013 @ 12:05 pm PST

I think its time we built a spacecraft big enough to comfortably live in ,construct it in space with necessary radiation shielding .It could be used for trips like this for years to come . The propulsion systems could be adapted as technology progresses . I like the idea of inflatable living pods .We really should send a landing vehicle to Mars to acutually make use of this mission ,they could link up to it when they get there and if put back into orbit ,could be reused .

Myopinion
5th March, 2013 @ 10:39 am PST

RADIATION SHIELDING FOR MANNED SPACE FLIGHT

Description/Abstract

Cosmic radiation, solar flares, the earth's Van Allen belts, and nuclear radiation are assessed. For the Mars mission, cosmic and solar-flare radiations may require biological-shield weights of 100,000 lb. Shield needs for the nuclear reactor and the Van Allen belts are an order of magnitude less than this except for slow traversal of the earth's radiation belts

tampa florida
8th March, 2013 @ 01:05 pm PST

Space station radiation shields 'disappointing'

19:00 23 October 2002 by Eugenie Samuel

Radiation levels on the International Space Station are as high as they were on the antiquated Russian space station Mir, in spite of NASA's attempts to clad the ISS with better shielding. If NASA can't protect astronauts, its vision of sending a crew into deep space may come to nothing.

tampa florida
8th March, 2013 @ 01:06 pm PST

BlackLight Power has a high energy density technology which might be usable as the basis of a propulsion system. "Field propulsion" system, not requiring any energy or mass ejection to move the spacecraft, are probably the most energy efficient class of systems to consider. I do not know of any field propulsion systems that are presently in development at NASA or any other space agencies. Nor are any in the works in private companies. In 1971 Henry Wm Wallace designed and patented a field propulsion system based on high speed rotor/stator device incorporating relatively moving masses of half integer spin nuclear isotopes such as bismuth metal. The resulting field effect, developed at high rpm, was claimed to create a gravity bubble and neutralize inertial effects. This is really the only way to go.

Jay Dillon
20th March, 2013 @ 07:41 pm PDT
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