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Mars astronaut trip proposed by multimillionaire

4:32 PM, Feb 27, 2013   |    comments
This Martian rock outcrop near the landing site of the rover Curiosity is thought to be the site of an ancient streambed. Photo courtesy NASA
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by Dan Vergano, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON - Mars or bust. Multimillionaire space tourist Dennis Tito announced details of his plans to finance a round-trip visit to the Red Planet by two spacefarers at a press briefing on Wednesday.

The "Mission for America" plan is to ship two astronauts to Mars and back in 501 days, starting Jan. 5, 2018, under the auspices of Tito's Inspiration Mars Foundation. Tito, 73, was the first space tourist, visiting the International Space Station aboard a Russian rocket in 2001, at a reported cost of $20 million.

The Mars visitors, ideally a married couple, Tito says, would travel to the Red Planet, circle within 100 miles of Mars without landing and then return. The press briefing drew heavily from the Biosphere 2 experiment of the early 1990s to explain how space travelers would endure a year and a half trapped in a tin can for a slingshot trip to Mars. Further, astronauts would have to loiter in orbit nearly 5 months for their return-trip orbital window to open.

"The beauty of this mission is in its simplicity," Tito said in a statement.

The trip would rely on planned Falcon Heavy rockets under development by Elon Musk's SpaceX corporation, which will be even larger than the heaviest current U.S. rockets. Falcon Heavy launches could deliver 1,600 pounds of cargo to Mars at a cost of around $128 million (providing about 350 square feet of room for that cargo), according to a 2012 analysis by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. SpaceX last year announced its first commercial contract and Defense Department contract for the rocket, intended for launch this year or next.

"SpaceX does not have a relationship with the Inspiration Mars Foundation," says SpaceX spokeswoman Christina Ra. "However, SpaceX is always open to providing a full spectrum of launch services to interested customers."

The National Geographic Society is in talks with Tito's Inspiration Mars Foundation about a potential partnership with the 2018 mission. A European Space Agency effort that simulated a 520-day Mars trip ended in 2011, where six men lived inside a 720-square-foot module for much of the experiment.

Tito made his fortune introducing quantitative analysis to Wall Street, but worked for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as an engineer in the 1960s, before turning to finance.

Copyright 2013 USATODAY.com

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