The Uninspirational End of Inspiration Mars

The first person to pay his own way to space, Dennis Tito, created quite a stir last February with his proposal to send a couple to Mars and back within five years. He proposed to do it as a private philanthropical venture, estimating that it could be done for less than a billion dollars, which was within the realm of financial possibility for such a project.

Well, this month he seems to have changed his tune. In testimony before Congress, he basically tossed the project in NASA’s lap, asking for its help, with taxpayer dollars:

…Inspiration Mars rolled out an alternative plan that relies on a public-private partnership with NASA that makes use of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and a modified Orion spacecraft, as well as commercial crew transportation systems. It would also rely primarily on NASA funding to make the mission possible. This proposal would, in effect, reshape national space policy, with a very short period for Congress and the White House to endorse this approach in order to meet its launch window.

“The way that we’re proposing this is that this is a NASA mission with a philanthropic partner contributing to the mission,” said Inspiration Mars Foundation program manager Taber MacCallum in a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon. “This has to be, first and foremost, a NASA mission.”

SLS supporters have been struggling to find something useful and affordable for it to do. The latest attempt by NASA to justify it was to use it to bring an asteroid to cis-lunar space, a goal that has met lukewarm response in Congress. Some are viewing this new proposal as a potential life preserver to the troubled program:

Under this plan the SLS development would be accelerated and validated. Inspiration Mars officials said they have found a “huge desire” within NASA to do this mission. If approved, the Mars fly-by would certainly rejuvenate NASA and inject some urgency into its operations.

The fly in the ointment is that it would require several hundred million dollars, to accelerate the development of both the launcher and a new cryogenic upper stage with sufficient impulse to throw the crew to Mars and back. If it’s not ready by late 2017, the window of opportunity will be lost. There’s another in 2021, but it’s a longer journey (though it does have the advantage of visiting Venus as well). Even if they can get Congress to appropriate funds for such a dramatic shift in policy (Tito believes that it has to happen within a couple months to hit their deadline), the risk of schedule slips will remain high, given the way NASA has managed such programs over the past few decades. Also, NASA issued a statement afterward that seemed to splash cold water on the proposal:

The agency is willing to share technical and programmatic expertise with Inspiration Mars, but is unable to commit to sharing expenses with them. However, we remain open to further collaboration as their proposal and plans for a later mission develop.

Many (including me) think that this is essentially the death knell for the project, at least in 2018.