Dennis Tito wants to send humans to Mars. Earlier today, the millionaire space tourist announced more details on a mission that would see two astronauts set a course for the red planet in January 2018, perform a flyby (no orbital insertion or landing required) and head right back to Earth in the span of 501 days. After the announcement, Tito and his panel of experts held a press conference. Here's your guide to everything we know.
The mission will launch in January 5, 2018 on a roundtrip mission to Mars lasting 501 days. There will be no landing. The spacecraft will not enter Mars orbit. It will literally fly past Mars and head on home. To carry out the planning and help drum up financial support, Tito has founded a nonprofit group he calls Inspiration Mars.
Tito says he's looking for a man and a woman — preferably a married couple beyond childbearing years. Cosmic Log's Alan Boyle says what everyone's thinking: "We're talking about sex in space, folks." Hot, hetero, middle-aged space sex.
Anyway, according to Tito, this is because humanity's first flight to Mars should be represented by both genders, and because when you're that far from home, "you're going to need someone you can hug."
The flight path of the mission's spacecraft will basically resemble a very large orbit of Earth that leaves and loops back — 501 days later. This is central to the concept of what is called a "free return" mission, says Tito. "No critical propulsive maneuvers, no docking, no EDA required. All you have to do is keep life support working."
In theory, that should make the trip about as complex as a trip to low-Earth orbit... in practice, the duration of the mission obviously raises a host of serious concerns.
To pull off the trajectory Tito and his team are aiming for, the planets will literally have to be aligned just right. Such an opportunity will come first in 2016. That's way too soon, but there's another one in 2018, which Tito is shooting for. After that, the next chance doesn't come around until 2031.
SpaceX's Falcon Heavy Rocket and Dragon Capsule were referenced for feasibility assessments, but apparently Inspiration Mars doesn't want to marry itself to any aerospace companies just yet. That's a smart move in theory, but it's hard to think of who besides SpaceX might have a heavy lift rocket ready for a mission to Mars by 2018. That said, there are likely a number of alternatives to SpaceX's Dragon capsule, in terms of options for habitable spacecraft. Right now, inflatable modules from a number of "reputable aerospace firm" — similar to those being developed for NASA by Bigelow Aerospace — seem to be the option Inspiration Mars is touting.
Which really just means that the crew will be American, as Tito and co. are apparently considering hardware built by international partners. Interesting, given that:
When asked if the project was at all spurred by a desire to beat China to Mars, Tito replied:
"Wouldn't I want to do that? Wouldn't I want America to do that? Wouldn't you want America to do that?" This elicited probably the most uproarious applause of the press conference
But not that expensive, according to Tito and his panel. As for an official number? "Who knows" says Tito, who claims it's still too early to have a budget lined up for a mission launching in 2018. "Probably less than what we spend for robotic missions to Mars." Some estimates have put a price of $1-billion on the project (compare that to the Curiosity's $2.5-billion price tag).
And according to Tito, he'll be footing the bill for the first two years of the project anyway, just to get things up and running. The rest of the money he hopes to acquire through donations from private investors. That's how much he believes in Inspiration Mars.
Keith Cowing, editor of NasaWatch, writes:
Unlike the spate of space commerce companies that have flashed on and off the news in recent months, this effort has substantial cash behind it – at the onset. That fact alone moves this idea from giggle factor to the verge of credibility.
"I give it a good chance," he tells SPACE.com. "My gut feeling is, we're going to make it."
At this afternoon's press conference, he went even further. At one point Tito said, and this is verbatim, that he would "not be comfortable launching this mission with anything less than a .99 probability of the crew returning safely." That's an audacious claim, especially given that:
Solar radiation in space, for instance, which can cause organ damage and a slew of other health problems, is a concern but not a deal breaker. One of the panel members at today's conference was Jonathan Clark, a six-time Space Shuttle crew surgeon and medical director for last year's Red Bull Stratos Space Jump. Clark says they have limited data on radiation, but that it's already a risky and bold endeavor.
That the mission will rely on a technically savvy human crew emphasizes this point. When pressed on what course of action would be taken in the event the crew were to get sick — or worse, die — Tito's panel said they are accounting for a 10—15% chance of a serious health risk. They will attempt to reduce risk at the selection stage when choosing crew members, but admit that odds of one or both of the crew falling seriously ill "may be even a greater risk" than an estimated 3% increase in chances of death due to cancer.
Citing the mission's aim to serve as inspiration and motivation to America (and the world at large, though Inspiration Mars's masthead mentions America, explicitly), one reporter asked what kind of inspiration the mission would be if the crew were to die during the mission. Clark responded that Inspiration Mars would prepare for every inevitability, including one or both crew members perishing. "Life is risky, he continued. "Anything that's worth it is worth putting it all at stake for. If we wanted a guarantee, we wouldn't be doing it."
The upshot: there's risk everywhere. But as June Scobee Rodgers, widow of space shuttle Challenger commander Dick Scobee, remarked at this afternoon's press conference: "Without risk, there is no knowledge."
"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 recent statement. And according to Tito, Inspiration Mars "just signed a Space Act Agreement with them for at least one of the critical path areas. Rather than NASA funding us, we're funding NASA."
Which would make this Onion article about Bush Jr.'s planning a mission to the Red Planet in his free time one of the most weirdly ironic things published this century — especially if he would up contributing money to the project.