Mars as it might appear during flyby on August 20, 2018 for the 'Inspiration Mars' couple, before heading back to Earth. (From European Space Agency)
According to a story in yesterday’s Denver Post (‘16-Month Trek to Mars and Back would Test Couple’s Marital Arts’, p. 2B) a consortium of private space specialists- backed by a tycoon- plans to send a ‘bare bones’ mission to Mars in five years. It will be a “no frills” 16 month flyby journey that will feature a husband and wife team, given such would more likely be able to handle being cooped up for well over a year in a cabin half the size of an RV.
The private, non-profit project is being called “Inspiration Mars” with the initial front money coming from multi-millionaire investment consultant Dennis Tito (The first ever space tourist, i.e. aboard a Russian Soyuz craft). The cost estimate? About $1 billion. NASA will not be involved. Instead the private backers plan to use a private rocket (they don’t elaborate, but it would have to have at least the power of a Saturn V). They insist they can get the couple to Mars at less than half the cost that NASA could.
Pardon me if I don’t buy it. Even given such a bare bones project (e.g. they will recycle urine as drinking water) the cost to construct a survivable craft for a 16 -month mission will be at least double the cost of the first Apollo Moon mission (11) in today's dollars, or about $3.5b. It is simply impossible to do it for less and not make it a suicide mission. You are after all, traveling through regions of interplanetary space likely to be filled with meteoroids, and even micro-meteroids. The latter could easily put a hole into the craft and if there aren’t redundant systems available or a ‘skin’ built to survive puncture, the occupants will perish in their first such encounter. What will $1b get you? Well, a very cheap robot mission!
Would I want to make such a trip? Hell no! At least not from any private, untested craft. (Obviously, doing all the appropriate testing first will bring the costs up majorly!)
Which is why the privateers admit it is a “huge risk” and much more than a government agency like NASA would be prepared to take. (Imagine the PR problem if a Class X solar flare erupts while the craft is en route and the occupants are killed by the high intensity radiation, especially because shielding wasn't given priority in a "bare bones" project.)
Some have compared it to the Apollo 8 flyby of the Moon in December, 2008, but that was a three day trip there and three days back, covering a quarter million miles each way. Meanwhile, the planned Mars mission will cover 150 million miles and take 501 days overall. While the Apollo 8 crew actually orbited the Moon for 20 hours before returning, the Mars couple will only do a brief Mars "flyby" (since their trajectory is based on the 'sling shot' effect'), lasting maybe an hour if that, before proceeding on their long voyage home. In other words enduring 500 -plus days of cooped up journey time for a reward of only about an hour of actually seeing the Red Planet, and that from a spacecraft a hundred miles up! Pardon me, but that's too little payoff or return for too much time investment!
The project timeline calls for a launch on January 5, 2018, and a Mars flyby on August 20 the same year. The passengers are to return to Earth by May 21, 2019.
NASA spokesman David Seitzman meanwhile has acclaimed the venture as “validating President Obama’s decision to rely more on the private sector.”
Maybe. But I will wait to see whether the proposed Mars mission is actually a success! And by success I mean both occupants landing safe and sound, along with the craft intact.