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    A New Spaceflight Venture Is Trying to Beat NASA to Mars Within the Decade

    Written by

    Amy Shira Teitel


    The world's first space tourist, Dennis Tito. via

    In 2001, Dennis Tito put his millions to good use: he bought a ticket on a Soyuz spacecraft and spent nearly eight days visiting the International Space Station. Now the world’s first space tourist wants to share the wealth. The 72 year old millionaire plans to send the first men to Mars within the decade.

    The new millionaire-funded organization, called the Inspiration Mars Foundation, laid out its plans last week. We don’t have all the details on the mission just yet – the foundation is going to release the details in a press conference on Wednesday, February 27 – but we do know that the plan is for an historic 501 day mission to Mars. And soon. The idea is to take advantage of an excellent launch window in 2018, one that offers the shortest transit between the two planets. The next opportunity like this won’t come until 2031, so time is of the essence. 

    The mission is designed to generate new knowledge and gain valuable experience in the nascent business of interplanetary travel, but the real purpose is inspiration. This “Mission for America,” as a release calls it, is meant to generate momentum for the next era of space exploration, and to encourage Americans to believe that great undertakings in space are worth their while. The trickle down will be an inspired generation of young people hungry to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). 

    We don’t all the details yet, but Inspiration Mars’s plan looks to be a two-man mission around Mars. It won’t be a landing. Rather, the crew will slingshot around the red planet and return to Earth by a free return trajectory. It’ll be like a Martian version of Apollo 8, but with Gemini-era levels of comfort. NASA’s Gemini spacecraft, the one that flew in 1965 and 1966, gave the astronauts the same amount of space as the front seat of a small car. They used bags to store their waste on missions lasting up to 14 days.

    Things likely won’t be much better on Inspiration Mars’s mission, which right now plans to send the crew in a modified SpaceX Dragon capsule, crammed in with all the food, life support, and waste management facilities they’ll need for the full 501 days. 

    Inside the SpaceX Dragon capsule. It's not exactly huge. via

    The Dragon capsule is another question mark for the moment. Dragon capsules have twice delivered cargo to the International Space Station, but none has yet carried humans. So proving the spacecraft is safe for a manned mission will take a test flight or two before the Mars mission can launch.

    There are other challenges, like how to protect astronauts from radiation on a 501 day journey outside the protective cocoon of the Earth’s atmosphere. There’s also the issue of man rating a heavy life launch vehicle; the release hasn’t said with what it plans to launch this epic mission. 

    There’s a bit of a familiar refrain with this proposal – using a grand mission to inspire bold forward momentum in space. If it flies it will certainly be inspirational, but that’s a big if. There’s plenty of room for skepticism for the time being, especially given Inspiration Mars’s tight timeline. We’ll have to wait and see what details are revealed in the press conference this week. But this isn’t the first time someone’s made a Kennedy-like promise in space only to find its harder in execution than idea.