Tito Outlines High Risk, Low Cost, Fast Paced Human Mission to Mars

Tito Outlines High Risk, Low Cost, Fast Paced Human Mission to Mars

After more than a week of rumors, Dennis Tito and his Inspiration Mars Foundation team outlined their plans for a human trip to fly-by Mars in 2018 at a press conference in Washington, DC today (February 27).  Few details about the cost or architecture for the mission were revealed, but that appeared to be primarily because they do not know themselves.  With only five years to go before launch, despite the team’s palpable enthusiasm, the lack of detailed planning and funding are major obstacles.

The messages today were that the Inspiration Mars team believes America needs to send humans to Mars to inspire the next generation; they have a viable concept that involves almost no government investment; yes, it is risky, but informed consent will guide the decisions of potential crew members; and the time is now because if they miss the 2018 launch date there won’t be another chance like this until 2031. 

Earth and Mars change in their relative positions to each other as they orbit the Sun. They line up every 26 months, but some of those alignments are better than others in terms of how much energy is needed to send a spacecraft from here to there. The next two best opportunities are 2018 and 2031.

The brashness of the proposal is raising a lot of eyebrows.   Human trips to Mars have been studied for decades and are usually estimated to cost hundreds of billions of dollars and take many years to accomplish.  Current U.S. space policy, for example, is to send people to the vicinity of Mars — not to land — in the 2030s using the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft now in development.  Landing people on Mars would happen at some indefinite time thereafter.  Most of the humans-to-Mars mission concepts whose costs have been estimated so far involve landing on the planet, not flying by, however.  Tito explained that is one of the reasons this mission can be done comparatively inexpensively because it would neither go into orbit nor land. 

Under Tito’s plan, two people in a “simple” spacecraft would launch from Earth on January 5, 2018 and fly to Mars on a free return trajectory.  The journey out and back would take 501 days with no need for changing their path along the way.  Tito compared it to a boomerang.  The spacecraft would come as close as 100 miles to the Mars surface.   Since the mission does not require any propulsive burns, the spacecraft needs minimal propellant.  It will not land or dock and involves no spacewalks, eliminating all those associated systems.  Air and water would be recycled, minimizing life support system requirements.  Once the journey starts, though, there is no turning back.  No way for the crew to change their minds or escape the confines of the spacecraft.

Tito said he did not know how much the mission would cost, but it was “chump change compared to what we’ve heard before” about human Mars missions.  In a sign of how modest the price is, one of the team members at today’s event mentioned that a 6-year-old boy had sent a $10 donation and panel moderator Miles O’Brien joked that if 10 million kids sent $10 each that would be enough. Tito nodded. 

By comparison the robotic Mars Curiosity rover cost $2.5 billion.  It needed a landing system and a robust scientific instrument suite which Tito’s mission will not have, but Tito’s mission requires life support systems.

He has agreed to personally fund the first two years, Tito said, but when asked how much that was in dollars, he shrugged his shoulders and said “who knows.”   Tito is the multimillionaire CEO of Wilshire Associates, a financial investment firm, who paid a reported $20 million to Russia to fly to the International Space Station in 2001.  He is quite knowledgeable about Mars trajectories, however.  Much earlier in his career, he worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) calculating spacecraft flyby trajectories to Mars. 

He stressed that this is not a commercial endeavor and he will not be richer at the end of it — “let me guarantee you I will come out a lot poorer … but my grandchildren will come out a lot wealthier due to the inspiration this will give them.”  He plans to obtain the requisite funding from philanthropists and other individual donations, sponsorships, media rights, and selling data to NASA for “as much as we can get away with.”   He has signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA’s Ames Research Center already for assistance on life support and thermal protection systems.  Ames Center Director S. Pete Worden is one of the co-authors of a paper Tito will present at an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Aerospace Conference on Sunday.

Tito and his team emphasized again and again that this is an American mission.  When asked about potential international cooperation, Tito said that some systems may be procured from foreign sources, but the point is to revitalize the American space program and the crew would be an American man and an American woman — preferably a married couple.   When asked directly if he was trying to beat China in sending people to Mars, he replied “Wouldn’t I want to do that?  Wouldn’t I want America to do that?”   He made clear that he believes that other countries will use the 2031 opportunity to send such missions to Mars, adding to his urgency.  

In addition to being American, the two crew members would need to meet a variety of strict requirements including having the skills to repair anything that goes wrong along the way and suitable temperaments to coexist in a spacecraft roughly the size of a Winnebago traveling far from home for over a year-and-a-half.  Two of the Inspiration Mars team members have somewhat related experience having lived in Biosphere 2.  Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum, now married, lived in that self-sustaining sealed enclosure in the Arizona desert for “2 years and 20 minutes” Poynter said today and learned a lot about human psychology in confined environments.  The two later founded Paragon Space Development Corp. that develops environmental controls for extreme and hazardous environments. 

Among the risks is that of radiation, a potential show stopper for a government funded mission because of the attendant health risks for the crew, but Inspiration Mars does not need to adhere to NASA’s requirements.  Jonathan Clark is the chief medical officer for the mission.  As far as radiation risk, he said that people accept the increased risk of cancer due to smoking, for example, and similarly crew members would be apprised of the potential increased cancer risk so they could decide if they want to accept it.   Informed consent is the mission’s principle.  Clark is more concerned about debilitating radiation effects that could prevent a crew member from performing assigned duties than about increased cancer risk, which can be dealt with after returning to Earth.  Clark is a former NASA space shuttle crew surgeon whose wife, NASA astronaut Laurel Clark, perished in the Columbia accident. He was medical director of the Red Bull Stratos high altitude balloon jump by Felix Baumgartner.

The paper Tito will give at IEEE describes a conceptual mission that involves using SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket and Dragon spacecraft, but the team emphasized today that they had had no formal discussions with Space X, and are talking with a number of companies that have spacecraft or launch vehicles available.

Clark acknowledged that “no question, this is a risky and bold endeavor,” but Tito added that he would not be comfortable launching the mission “with anything other than a .99 probability of the crew returning safely.”

As rumors spread about the announcement today, there was a certain giggle factor at the idea that a human mission to Mars could be mounted in just five years, much less at a cost low enough to be accomplished without government involvement.  Nonetheless, Tito had an array of supporters at his side today, including the Space Foundation, the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, the Conrad Foundation, and Women in Aerospace.   They also announced that Joe Rothenberg, a former director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and former NASA Associate Administrator for Space Flight who ran the space shuttle and International Space Station programs for several years, would chair an advisory review board.

MacCallum made clear that this effort is not meant to displace the SLS and Orion systems under development at NASA.  The limitations of the Inspiration Mars plan underscores that with today’s systems we can “just barely” flyby Mars.  To do significant science, SLS/Orion is needed, he said.

A hint was in the air that MacCallum and Poynter wanted to be the married couple that makes the journey, but Clark focused on selection criteria for the crew that would be based on “personalized medicine” that could predict reactions to radiation, for example.

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