Where No Man (or Woman) Has Gone Before

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.