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 Wednesday.
"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.
"We have not sent people
beyond the orbit of the moon in 40 years," Tito said, at the briefing.
"I don't want to wait any longer. We need to do something innovative and
That something would be a "free return" Mars mission
where the initial rocket firing from Earth would carry two astronauts on
a 227-day trip to Mars, coming within 70 miles of the nighttime side of
the Red Planet. At that point, the planet's gravity would send them
back "like a boomerang," Tito said, on a 274-day return trajectory for
Earth, without firing any rockets. "The beauty of this mission is in its
simplicity," he said.
The Mars visitors (Tito wants a married
U.S. couple) would travel to the Red Planet in an inflated habitat
module with about 300 square feet of room. The plan draws heavily from
the Biosphere 2 experiment of the early 1990s, where a group of
volunteers endured two contentious years in a sealed environment in
Oracle, Ariz., to explain how space travelers would endure a year and a
half in space. "They will need to be very even-keeled," said mission
adviser Jane Poynter of Paragon Space Development in Tucson, Ariz., a
former Biosphere 2 team member. The screening process aims to find a
volunteer couple within a year.
Tito predicted the cost of the
mission at around the price of robotic missions such as NASA's $2.5
billion Mars Curiosity rover, and said he intended to raise funds from
donors and commercial sponsors. That's about 100 times less than some
past cost estimates for a manned landing on Mars. The National
Geographic Society is in talks with Tito's Inspiration Mars Foundation
about a potential partnership with the 2018 mission
"If they are
not spending government money, then I'm all for it," said veteran space
policy analyst Marcia Smith of SpacePolicyOnline.com. "However, I'm very
skeptical," Smith added, citing the current clamor for wealthy
philanthropists to sponsor space ventures, such as asteroid warning
systems that might protect Earth and look like a more useful and
prestigious use of charitable donations.
continue discussions with Inspiration Mars to see how the agency might
collaborate on mutually-beneficial activities that could complement
NASA's human spaceflight, space technology and Mars exploration plans,"
said space agency spokesman David Steitz, in a statement.
proposed 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. Tito's team estimates the
rocket could send 10 tons of cargo, half of it living supplies and
equipment, to Mars. SpaceX last year announced its first commercial
contract and Defense Department contract for the heavy rocket, intended
for launch this year or next.
"SpaceX does not have a
relationship with the Inspiration Mars Foundation," SpaceX spokeswoman
Christina Ra said. "However, SpaceX is always open to providing a full
spectrum of launch services to interested customers."
with the Biosphere 2 experience, spacefarers have endured more than 400
days in orbit, noted mission medical adviser Jonathan Clark of Baylor
College of Medicine in Houston. A European Space Agency effort that
simulated a 520-day Mars trip ended in 2011. In that case, six men lived
inside a 720-square-foot module for much of the experiment. However,
astronauts traveling to Mars would face a dangerous radiation
environment, likely pushing them to a 3% lifetime risk of cancer, Clark
says, a cut-off point for astronauts.
Also they would
have to survive the fastest re-entry ever into Earth's atmosphere by
astronauts on their return, around 31,760 miles-per-hour.
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. Noting that he will be in his 90s when the
orbital window for the "free return" mission opens again in 2031,
Tito said, "we better go this time or there will be a whole lot of other
nations leaving with us in 2031."