A private Mars mission, but will it carry people?

On Wednesday, publicists for a new organization called Inspiration Mars Foundation sent out a media advisory for a press conference planned for next Wednesday, February 27. This new organization apparently has some audacious plans in store:

The Inspiration Mars Foundation, a newly formed nonprofit organization led by American space traveler and entrepreneur Dennis Tito, invites you to attend a press conference detailing its plans to take advantage of a unique window of opportunity to launch an historic journey to Mars and back in 501 days, starting in January 2018. This “Mission for America” will generate new knowledge, experience and momentum for the next great era of space exploration. It is intended to encourage all Americans to believe again, in doing the hard things that make our nation great, while inspiring youth through Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and motivation.

Besides Tito, the press conference will feature Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter, the CEO/CTO and president/chairwoman, respectively, of Paragon Space Development Corporation (the two also were part of the original Biosphere 2 crew). Also at the press conference will be Jonathan Clark, an expert in space medicine.

That lineup of speakers, and the language in the media advisory, have led some to speculate that Inspiration Mars is planning a human mission to Mars, although the advisory makes no explicit mention of that. “Dennis Tito To Announce Private Human Mars Mission” is the headline at NASA Watch, while Wired News reports “Space Tourist to Announce Daring Manned Mars Voyage for 2018″. The “unique window of opportunity” the advisory refers to may be a reference to the 2018 Mars launch window, which is particularly favorable (NASA had planned to use it for a Mars lander and rover mission in cooperation with ESA before terminating those plans a year ago in favor of what became a 2020 Mars rover based on Curiosity.) Paragon, meanwhile, is known for its expertise in life support systems, while Clark has worked with private ventures, including the Red Bull Stratos high-altitude jump last year.

However, at first blush there would be a lot of obstacles to a human Mars mission like what Inspiration Mars appears to be proposing. There’s obviously the cost, which would run in the billions of dollars (10? 20? 50?). Tito, the first self-funded private space traveler, is a wealthy man, but not that wealthy: his estimated net worth is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. He certainly has a network of contacts that could bring in additional money, but enough to mount a human mission?

There’s also the technical issues of putting together a spacecraft that can handle a 500-day mission to Mars and back without the steady stream of resupply lights bringing up propellant and spare parts, as is the case today with the International Space Station. A 500-day mission would also set human spaceflight endurance records and raise medical issues (something Dr. Clark would be very knowledgable about). And getting it done by 2018? Keep in mind NASA slipped a Mars rover that is, to first order, a copy of Curiosity to 2020 because it didn’t have the time and budget to get it ready for the more favorable 2018 opportunity.

What if, though, Inspiration Mars is planning not a crewed mission to Mars, but instead an inhabited one? That is to say, instead of sending people to Mars, they’re instead planning to send plants and/or animals on a mission there? Such a mission could be a critical pathfinder for a later human mission, by governments or private organizations, and could, as the advisory stated, offer “new knowledge, experience and momentum for the next great era of space exploration.” It’s also something that would be far more affordable and easier to complete in time for a 2018 launch without having to solve a lot of technical and medical issues associated with crewed mission.

What could that non-human biological payload be? One possibility is that it may be some kind of Martian greenhouse, a project that has been proposed in the past. And, four years ago, Paragon announced plans to develop a lunar greenhouse that would be flown to the Moon on a lander developed by Odyssey Moon, a Google Lunar X PRIZE competitor that has since merged with another team, SpaceIL, last November. This might be something similar, and the favorable 2018 launch window would make it easier to send either a lander or an orbiter with the ability to return to the Earth. The press conference attendees given no hint at any technical details, like who would build the spacecraft and who will launch it. However, SpaceX has been working on a “Red Dragon” Mars mission concept using its Dragon spacecraft that might work here. And, interesting enough, Elon Musk started SpaceX when he encountered problems finding an affordable launch of a pet project of his: a small Martian greenhouse.

Of course, perhaps Tito and his team are indeed planning a human Mars mission, and have found the right combination of funding and technology to make it possible in five years. But simply sending life to Mars would be fascinating enough.

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