ADVERTISEMENT

Mars fly-by: An artist’s conception of a spacecraft that would fly by the Red Planet and zip back home, beginning in ’18.

,

Despite billionaire's backing, Mars mission has a long way to go

  • Article by: Brian Vastag   Washington Post
  • March 2, 2013 - 5:09 PM

– Millionaire space tourist Dennis Tito has a vision to send two Americans to Mars on a high-risk, budget-class, 501-day journey that would — if achieved — smash the barrier to deep space.

The proposed passengers are a middle-aged married couple, handy with tools and not prone to claustrophobia.

The Inspiration Mars Mission for America would launch, by necessity of orbital mechanics, on Jan. 5, 2018.

There is no spaceship yet, and little notion of a budget. There is no funding beyond a two-year research and development commitment by Tito. But the wealthy former rocket scientist and financier has assembled a team of credentialed advisers and plotted a mission that teeters, outside experts say, on the edge of credibility.

“It’s about inspiring the children,” Tito said at a news conference Wednesday. Moments earlier, the onetime flier to the international space station — he paid $20 million to go there in 2001 — had lambasted what he characterized as a four-decade stagnation in the U.S. human spaceflight program.

Three years ago, President Obama touted a possible NASA Mars landing in the mid-2030s.

“I’ll be 95 years old,” Tito said. “I don’t want to wait until that time.”

But there will be no landing on Tito’s mission. No footprints and flags in ruddy soil, no rock-grabbing, no search for Martian life. Eight months after launch, Mars will loom, then vanish in the rearview mirror.

Tito said he will sell media rights. The Mission for America might become the Red Bull Mission to Mars, the Cool Ranch Doritos Mars Shot.

“I can imagine Dr. Phil talking to this couple and solving their marital problems,” Tito said.

The nearly 18-month trip will cover 818 million miles. Time spent within 60,000 miles of Mars: 10 hours. Time spent pining for a bath: a seeming eternity. “It’s not nuts,” said Taber MacCallum, chief executive of Paragon Space Development, which is engineering the life support systems for the flight. “This is possible.”

A celestial harmony makes such a plan feasible — a once-every-15-years alignment of Earth and Mars wherein a modest craft can shoot there and back with minimal fuel.

Tito won’t fly. He’s 72. But MacCallum, 48, and his wife, Jayne Poynter, 50, offered themselves as candidates for the most grueling marriage test ever conceived.

Two decades ago, the pair spent two years inside Biosphere2, the steel-and-glass sci-fi cathedral in Arizona. “We used to sit inside the Biosphere and just sort of fantasize about going to Mars,” Poynter said. “Oh yeah, we did.”

The risks of this mission soar beyond those NASA would allow, said Tito adviser Jonathan Clark, a former NASA space doctor.

Beyond low Earth orbit, cosmic radiation rises dramatically, upping the risk of cancer. If illness or injury occur, there is no hospital for millions of miles, no chance to abort, and no escape.

© 2014 Star Tribune