A newly founded non-profit organization led by the world’s first space tourist, millionaire Dennis Tito, has announced an ambitious plan to send an older, married couple to Mars in 2018 in what would be the first manned mission to the Red planet.
The couple will not be landing on the surface of the planet, but instead will take advantage of a rare planetary alignment that would allow a quick flyby within 100 miles of Mars before returning to Earth.
Tito — who paid $20 million to spend a total of six days on the International Space Station in 2001 — detailed plans for the private Mars Mission at a press conference today to launch his new organization, the Inspiration Mars Foundation.
Tito believes that the proposed pair should be a man and a woman “because this is humanity’s first flight out to Mars and humanity should be represented by both genders.” In addition, the space enthusiast would prefer the couple to be married in order to combat the loneliness and isolation that would such a mission would entail.
“When you’re out that far and the Earth is a tiny, blue pinpoint, you’re going to need someone you can hug,” Tito told Space.com. “What better solution to the psychological problems you’re going to encounter with that isolation?
Jane Poynter, who is involved in the planning of the Mars mission, agrees.
Poynter, who previously spent two years locked away in a sealed ecosystem with seven other people in 1991 as part of the Biosphere 2 project, says mission planners want the crew to consist of an older couple because their relationship will need to be able to withstand the stress of living in a confined environment for two years.
“I can attest from personal experience from living in Biosphere 2 that having somebody that you really deeply trusted and cared for was an extraordinary thing to have,” Ms. Poynter told BBC News.
She added that the mission will be “challenging” for the couple, but says a rigorous selection process will attempt to find “resilient people that would be able to maintain a happy upbeat attitude in the face of adversity.”
Tito says he doesn’t think it will be hard to find appropriate candidates for the mission. Citing a statistic that 600,000 people have applied to be astronauts over the past 40 years, he believes his foundation will get plenty of applicants.
However, the 72-year-old warns that conditions on board the space capsule would be “cramped,” adding that they should be “really mechanically inclined,” as “they will be overhauling this life support system if it breaks.”
The plan to choose not just a couple — preferably married — but a middle-aged couple is because their health and fertility would be less affected by the radiation they would be exposed to during the long space mission. Whoever is finally chosen will receive extensive training and would be able to draw on psychological support from mission control throughout the voyage.
The Mars Inspiration team says that it has carried out a feasibility study for the mission that supports its viability and plans to release its findings on Sunday. Anu Ojha, director of the UK National Space Academy in Leicester, has seen the study.
He says that it is possible to go to Mars and back using the Dragon and Falcon Heavy systems manufactured by California-based firm SpaceX. But, he adds that unless the Mars mission is 100% underwritten it won’t get off the ground.
“If a bunch of billionaires have committed the approx $1-2 billion required, then we could see history being made in under five years. If (at the) the press conference they say ‘we have this fantastic concept but need the money – please give generously’ then it’s dead in the water,” he told BBC News.
Professor Christopher Riley from Leicester University is more optimistic, and says:
“There are lots of big ifs in trying to achieve this epic endeavor, but none which are totally insurmountable given enough money and assistance, and the will to do it.”
“It takes mavericks like Tito to create such pivot points in history where significant things happen, and such a trip would be as significant as Apollo 8’s first circumnavigation of the Moon on Christmas Eve 1968, when the world listened in to the reflections of the first human beings to orbit another world.”
“Perhaps fifty years later, on Christmas Eve 2018 we might be all tuning in to a similar broadcast from Mars. I hope so!”
As for Tito, he says mission is a “philanthropic” one with a primary goal to inspire the nation with the excitement of space travel and test out some of the technologies that will be needed for a later Mars landing voyage.
He is financing part of the project but more money still needs to be raised from private donations. At this point the Foundation has not revealed how much the mission will cost or how much they need to raise, but the fact that the mission will not involve actually landing on Mars will reduce costs.
Although NASA is not funding the Mars mission, Tito revealed his foundation had just signed a Space Act Agreement with them for one of the “critical path” areas, adding that NASA was “open” to the idea of helping with technology.
Of the intended target January 15, 2018 launch window, Tito told Space.com:
“I give it a good chance. We’re seeing a lot of positive response from people. I can’t make it happen by myself. It isn’t like I can just write a check for the whole thing, or force the engineering to come out the way I want it to. But unless we run into showstoppers, I don’t see why not. We can do this if we want to.”
“I can’t tell you how excited I am. It’s hard to sleep at night. My gut feeling is, we’re going to make it.”
If this date is missed the mission will have to wait until 2031 for the planets to align correctly for another chance at a Mars flyby, Business Insider notes.