Dennis Tito’s press conference this week on his planned private Mars mission confirmed much of my speculation from this past weekend. The plan is to send a married couple, past child-bearing age, on a mission to the Red Planet, swoop by it within a hundred miles of the surface, and return to earth, with a total duration of about sixteen months. As I noted earlier:
Some of these problems — the lack of habitable volume and the radiation issues, for example — could be alleviated with a larger vehicle, such as a Bigelow BA 330 module. Coupling the Dragon with such a facility would make the trip relatively luxurious, but also much more costly in terms of required mass delivered to orbit, demanding multiple Falcon Heavy flights, rather than a single one.
They announced this week that they are indeed planning an expandable or inflatable vehicle, but not a large one. As Jane Poynter, co-founder with Taber MacCallum of the environmental engineering firm Paragon Space Development Corporation noted, it will be like a very long road trip in a Winnebago, except you can’t get out. However, it will be large enough to help mitigate radiation somewhat with water, according to former NASA flight surgeon Jonathan Clark. But the main barrier to radiation will be their earth-departure stage, which will remain attached, and can be oriented to protect them from a solar storm, if need be.
And of course, the total amount of water they’ll require will be minimized by their plans to recycle, as NASA has been doing experimentally on the International Space Station. “They’ll have three thousand pounds of dehydrated food, yum,” she said. “And it will be rehydrated with water that they drank a couple days before.” And a couple days before that, and that.
A crew of two is the smallest crew that still provides redundancy in the event of the loss of one, and three introduces potentially risky psychodynamics for a long mission. But even given that, the choice of a married couple isn’t just for practical psychological reasons – it is also planned to be symbolic, and fully representative of humanity as the first emissaries to another planet in our solar system. They will be older to prevent the risk of a pregnancy in a weightless, high-radiation environment, which would not only be bad for a developing fetus (assuming that it’s even possible to conceive in weightlessness), but impair mission efficiency itself, because the crew are a vital component of the mission. The life-support system will not be automated, but simple and robust and repairable, “like a 1955 Chevy,” as MacCallum described it. If the crew isn’t healthy, they won’t be able to keep the ship healthy, either.
From that standpoint, MacCallum and Poynter might be the perfect candidates, given that they will be designing the equipment and are not just co-founders of the company, but founded it while living together (with six others) for two years isolated in the Biosphere II experiment in Arizona; they were subsequently married. The only issues might be their willingness to go, and her current state of fertility. Clark stated that the crew won’t need to be selected until six to twelve months prior to departure, so in any event it’s not an immediate issue.
Despite earlier reports, they have not finalized the mission architecture. It may use the SpaceX Dragon, but they have had no discussions with the company about it, other than to verify published technical data, and they claim to have several other options, including the Cygnus cargo vehicle from Orbital Sciences Corporation.
The real challenge of the mission is the schedule. The plan is to take advantage of a planetary alignment that allows such a fast trip at relatively low cost in propellant. It only occurs a couple times each fifteen years, starting in January, 2018, coincidentally the semi-millennial year of Magellan’s circumnavigation of the earth, and the fiftieth anniversary of the circumnavigation of the moon by Apollo 8, in December. So Dennis Tito, the rocket-scientist turned financier who dreamed up and is providing seed funding for the mission for the first two years, sees it as an auspicious date to take a trip around Mars. The next such opportunity won’t be until 2031, at which point he expects an armada from multiple nations to perform the feat, but as he noted, he’ll be in his nineties, and doesn’t want to wait that long.
But despite the name of the project, he’s not doing it merely for inspiration and symbolism. He pointed out that there is a lot we don’t know about sending humans into deep space, and they’re things we ought to learn before investing the much greater amounts in a landing mission. He sees this as a key milestone toward eventually more ambitious flights in the next decade. NASA seems to agree, because they are reportedly very cooperative, and have established a Space Act Agreement to allow the transfer of technical resources and knowledge.
He’s also not doing it with any expectation of making money. “I’ll be poorer at the end of this mission, but my grandchildren will be much richer from the inspiration it will provide.” MacCallum said that he’s gotten an email from a ten-year-old boy with a ten-buck donation. “‘This is my Apollo,’ he wrote.” On the other hand, Tito will be looking for funding sources beyond the philanthropic. He plans to sell data to NASA, and would get whatever the market would bear. In addition, he pointed out that the media rights had high potential. “Imagine Dr. Phil counseling the couple from a few million miles away.”
Some in the audience were skeptical. Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press led off the questioning with a litany of issues — weren’t they going to have a test flight, wasn’t this too risky, how could they possibly do it in only five years, what response did they have to all of the unnamed experts he’d consulted with who said this wasn’t feasible? To paraphrase his long-winded rant, “Are you crazy”?
In response, Tito noted that Apollo 8 had no test flight prior to sending humans around the moon, and the very first Shuttle flight had a crew. All the panelists pointed out that yes, it was risky, but that there are some things worth taking risks for, though many in today’s America seem to have forgotten that (this is the dominant theme of a book that I’ll be publishing in the next few weeks).
Will he pull it off? MC Miles O’Brien characterized the key mission properties as “simplicity, audacity and liquidity” (the latter referring to the fact that it was funded, for now, and the hardest part of any space mission is always raising the money). The first man to buy a ride into space is tenacious, and he’s hired the best in the business. I wouldn’t bet against him.