Where No Man (or Woman) Has Gone Before

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.