In a press conference that took place on Wednesday at the National Press Club, private space traveler, former NASA scientist, and financier Dennis Tito announced that he would be sponsoring a private flyby mission to Mars.
Once in a generation opportunity for a "quick" flyby mission to Mars
According to a press release by Inspiration Mars posted on the SpaceRef site, Inspiration Mars intends to launch a flyby mission to Mars with a firm launch date of Jan. 5, 2018. This will take advantage of a alignment of Earth and Mars that takes place twice in a generation that will allow a 501-day flyby mission to occur in which a spacecraft will pass Mars at a distance of 100 miles before returning to Earth. The mission will also take place during a period of solar minimum, thus mitigating risks due to solar radiation. The crew will consist of a man and a woman, likely a married couple, and will be American. According to the NASASpaceFlight.com account of the press conference, crew selection will begin in six months to a year and will use NASA protocols with an extensive health screening.
Details vague on hardware
While the presentation covered by NASASpaceFight.com suggested that the two person crew would spend most of the 501-day flight in an inflatable module, details on which launch vehicles and spacecraft are yet to be determined. One optioned mentioned was a SpaceX Falcon Heavy with an enhanced Dragon outfitted for an interplanetary voyage. There was even some mention of NASA's heavy lift Space Launch System should it be available.
NASA Ames Research Center a partner
NASASpaceFlight.com mentions that Inspiration Mars has signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA Ames to provide technological help for the reentry of the space vehicle to Earth once the mission is complete. Assistance in life sciences is also being pursued.
Physical challenges, according to the NASASpaceFlight.com account, include the long-term effects of microgravity and radiation. There is extensive experience on the International Space Station and the Russia Mir space station on long-term aerobic exercise as a means to counteract muscle atrophy and bone loss. Radiation may be counteracted medically, though there will be a measurably increased risk of contracting cancer for the crew once they return. Data on the psychological effects of long-term isolation exists from a number of space missions, Antarctic bases, and the Biosphere 2 project. Tito, perhaps half jokingly, suggested that Dr. Phil would be on call to provide long distance counseling,
According to NASASpaceFlight.com, Tito will provide the first two years funding out of his own pocket. The rest of the cost of the mission, which has not been specified, will be made up by private and charitable donations. Media rights, industry sponsorships, and selling data to NASA were also mentioned as possible revenue streams.
One of the major motivations of the Mars mission is its presumed power to inspire education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). According to the NASASpaceFlight.com account, June Scobee Rogers and Nancy Conrad, widows of a shuttle and an Apollo astronaut, respectively, were on hand to tout that aspect of the mission. The Challenger Center, a science education organization inspired by the memory of the Challenger accident, will be heavily involved in education aspects of the mission.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.
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