Mars (Courtesy: Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - Mars or bust. Multimillionaire space tourist Dennis Tito announced details of his plans to finance a round-trip visit to the Red Planet by two spacefarers at a press briefing Wednesday.
The "Mission for America" plan is to ship two astronauts to Mars and back in 501 days, starting Jan. 5, 2018, under the auspices of Tito's Inspiration Mars Foundation. Tito, 73, was the first space tourist, visiting the International Space Station aboard a Russian rocket in 2001, at a reported cost of $20 million.
"We have not sent people beyond the orbit of the moon in 40 years," Tito said, at the briefing. "I don't want to wait any longer. We need to do something innovative and exciting."
That something would be a "free return" Mars mission where the initial rocket firing from Earth would carry two astronauts on a 227-day trip to Mars, coming within 70 miles of the nighttime side of the Red Planet. At that point, the planet's gravity would send them back "like a boomerang," Tito said, on a 274-day return trajectory for Earth, without firing any rockets. "The beauty of this mission is in its simplicity," he said.
The Mars visitors (Tito wants a married U.S. couple) would travel to the Red Planet in an inflated habitat module with about 300 square feet of room. The plan draws heavily from the Biosphere 2 experiment of the early 1990s, where a group of volunteers endured two contentious years in a sealed environment in Oracle, Ariz., to explain how space travelers would endure a year and a half in space. "They will need to be very even-keeled," said mission adviser Jane Poynter of Paragon Space Development in Tucson, Ariz., a former Biosphere 2 team member. The screening process aims to find a volunteer couple within a year.
Tito predicted the cost of the mission at around the price of robotic missions such as NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Curiosity rover, and said he intended to raise funds from donors and commercial sponsors. That's about 100 times less than some past cost estimates for a manned landing on Mars. The National Geographic Society is in talks with Tito's Inspiration Mars Foundation about a potential partnership with the 2018 mission
"If they are not spending government money, then I'm all for it," said veteran space policy analyst Marcia Smith of SpacePolicyOnline.com. "However, I'm very skeptical," Smith added, citing the current clamor for wealthy philanthropists to sponsor space ventures, such as asteroid warning systems that might protect Earth and look like a more useful and prestigious use of charitable donations.
"NASA will continue discussions with Inspiration Mars to see how the agency might collaborate on mutually-beneficial activities that could complement NASA's human spaceflight, space technology and Mars exploration plans," said space agency spokesman David Steitz, in a statement.
The proposed trip would rely on planned Falcon Heavy rockets under development by Elon Musk's SpaceX corporation, which will be even larger than the heaviest current U.S. rockets. Tito's team estimates the rocket could send 10 tons of cargo, half of it living supplies and equipment, to Mars. SpaceX last year announced its first commercial contract and Defense Department contract for the heavy rocket, intended for launch this year or next.
"SpaceX does not have a relationship with the Inspiration Mars Foundation," SpaceX spokeswoman Christina Ra said. "However, SpaceX is always open to providing a full spectrum of launch services to interested customers."
Along with the Biosphere 2 experience, spacefarers have endured more than 400 days in orbit, noted mission medical adviser Jonathan Clark of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. A European Space Agency effort that simulated a 520-day Mars trip ended in 2011. In that case, six men lived inside a 720-square-foot module for much of the experiment. However, astronauts traveling to Mars would face a dangerous radiation environment, likely pushing them to a 3% lifetime risk of cancer, Clark says, a cut-off point for astronauts.
Also they would have to survive the fastest re-entry ever into Earth's atmosphere by astronauts on their return, around 31,760 miles-per-hour.
Tito made his fortune introducing quantitative analysis to Wall Street, but worked for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as an engineer in the 1960s, before turning to finance. Noting that he will be in his 90s when the orbital window for the "free return" mission opens again in 2031, Tito said, "we better go this time or there will be a whole lot of other nations leaving with us in 2031."
By Dan Vergano