In less than five years, a married couple could be on their way toward Mars in an audacious but bare-bones private mission that would slingshot them around the Red Planet, according to a plan outlined today by a financial tycoon and his team.
The $1 billion plan was drawn by multimillionaire space tourist Dennis Tito, who wants to send a married couple in their 50s on a round-trip visit to Mars.
Dubbed a “Mission for America”, Tito said that the lucky couple have yet to be selected for the journey in which they will spend 501 days confined in a 600-cubic-foot capsule with only each other for company.
The mission would lift off in 2018, they said. It would not involve landing on Mars, making the proposed journey infinitely easier than putting people on the planet’s surface, which NASA wants to do later this century. But the spacecraft would pass within 100 miles of the planet.
Tito has founded the Inspiration Mars Foundation, a nonprofit organization spearheading this effort.
No stranger to space, the one-time NASA engineer became in 2001 the first space tourist flying on a Russian rocket to the International Space Station.
“This is not going to be an easy mission,” chief technical officer and potential crew member Taber MacCallum said. “We called it the Lewis and Clark trip to Mars.”
It also involves a huge risk, more than a government agency like NASA would normally permit, officials concede.
“It’s important that this is a man and a woman because they represent humanity,” said Jane Poynter, president and chairwoman of Paragon Space Development Corporation, and a member of the Inspiration Mars team.
“After all, we are more or less 50 percent men and 50 percent women [on Earth]. It represents our children — whether they are a girl or a boy, they see themselves reflected in that crew.”
Poynter and her husband, Taber MacCallum, who is chief technology officer for Inspiration Mars, spent two years living inside the Biosphere 2 experiment, and learned the benefits of having a close companion to lean on.
“It was extremely helpful to have somebody that I could problem solve with,” Poynter said. “It was also fantastic to have the opportunity to be there and share the experience when we had those wondrous moments.”
The project aims to capitalise on the once-in-a-generation close approach of the two planets’ orbits.
The mission timeline is set out in a technical paper to be presented next month at a scientific meeting. It calls for a launch on January 5, 2018, a Mars flyby on August 20, 2018, and a return to Earth on May 21, 2019.
The trip, which would capitalize on a rare planetary alignment that allows for a boomerang mission around the Red Planet much more quickly than normal trajectories, would largely use existing hardware, spacecraft and rockets, but with some modifications to support a crew for such an extended period, reports Space.
NASA will not be involved and the trip will be dependent on the planned Falcon Heavy Rockets currently under development by Elon Musk’s Space X corporation which will be able to deliver 1,600 pounds of cargo – at a cost of $128 million.
“SpaceX does not have a relationship with the Inspiration Mars Foundation,” said SpaceX spokeswoman Christina Ra to USA Today.
“However, SpaceX is always open to providing a full spectrum of launch services to interested customers.”
At Wednesday’s press conference, the panel mentioned selling media rights and finding sponsorship as well as other forms of fund-raising.
It was noted that a 6-year-old boy already made a contribution, sending in $10 and calling this mission “my Apollo.”