“It all sort of kept working out”: MacCallum on the development of a human Mars flyby mission

“If someone had told me six months ago I’d be talking with you about this,” Taber MacCallum said, shaking his head as the words trailed off. The “this” he was referring to in an interview yesterday in Washington was the plan being formally announced today by a new organization, Inspiration Mars, to mount a privately-funded crewed Mars flyby mission in 2018: a concept that leaked out last week and being led by Dennis Tito, the engineer-turned-businessman who is best known for being the first space tourist to visit the International Space Station in 2001.

MacCallum, CEO and CTO of Paragon Space Development Corporation, said he was approached by Tito back in September about this concept and agreed to look into the feasibility of sending a crew on a 501-day “free return” Mars flyby trajectory, launching from Earth in January 2018. “We kept on finding issues and then finding a workaround,” he said. “We all went into this very skeptical… but it all sort of kept working out.”

The organization’s plan is, notionally, what is described in the IEEE conference paper previously mentioned here: a two-person crew flying in a spacecraft like SpaceX’s Dragon. While the paper specifically describes launching a Dragon on a Falcon Heavy rocket, also developed by SpaceX, MacCallum said they’re still looking at various mission architectures involving other spacecraft and launch vehicles.

Although a Wall Street Journal article suggested that plans for cooperation with SpaceX “imploded” recently, he said they had not even started discussions with the company. “We haven’t been in touch with SpaceX other than to verify that the information on the web is correct,” he said, referring to technical information about the Falcon Heavy and Dragon used in their paper. “Unfortunately, as that paper leaked around, it created the perception that SpaceX is the baseline launch provider, and they’re not. It’s an open field, and we’re looking at two, maybe three, scenarios that look very promising.”

Regardless of the vehicle selection, MacCallum said they would use a two-person crew, which offered redundancy over sending a single person but without the “psychological issues” of a three-person crew. “And then Dennis said, ‘If it’s going to be two crew members, it needs to represent humanity, so it needs to be a man and a woman,'” he said, adding that they preferred a married couple past childbearing age and that Tito himself was not interested in going.

And what will that two-person crew do during the mission? “Mostly keeping themselves alive,” MacCallum said. The spacecraft’s life support system will be “as non-automated as possible” so it is more easily maintained by the crew, a very different approach to the more automated systems on the ISS designed to free up crew time to do science, but which are more difficult for crews to repair without getting replacement items sent up form Earth. “It’s going to be a ’55 Chevy. They’re going to be taking this apart a lot,” he said. There will be time for some human deep space physiology research, he said, with Jonathan Clark putting together a set of proposed experiments to do during the mission.

One sensitive area for the proposal is just how much it will cost. “Dennis has asked us not to talk about what it’s going to cost, because he’s sure that whatever number we say will be wrong,” MacCallum said. The project is willing to admit that the cost would be “a fraction of Curiosity,” the NASA Mars rover whose estimated mission cost is $2.5 billion. Tito has committed to fund the first two years of development “no matter what is costs,” he said, and then will raise money for the rest.

The project also has support—technical, not financial—from NASA. MacCallum said they have signed a reimbursable Space Act Agreement with NASA to help in areas like development of the capsule’s thermal protection system. They have also briefed NASA leadership, including administrator Charles Bolden, as well as select members of Congress and officials with the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at the White House. All, MacCallum said, have had a “very positive” response to their plans, and don’t see the mission as competing in any way with NASA’s own long-term human space exploration plans.

But why do this in the first place? MacCallum suggested that Tito, 72, “is at a time in his life when it’s time to give back and time to figure out how he contributes to society, and feels very deeply that this mission will contribute to the American spirit.” A mission like this, they believe, will “reignite a time of daring and exploration,” encouraging people to take risks to pursue great things. “We could get America back to taking those kinds of risks that really push the boundaries and inspire people to greatness.”

This is, in many respects, a one-off effort: there are no plans for follow-on missions if the 2018 Mars flyby mission is successful. “It’s a philanthropic mission,” he said. Technologies developed for the mission and any data collected will be made freely available. “It really is a contribution for America.”

5 comments to “It all sort of kept working out”: MacCallum on the development of a human Mars flyby mission

  • […] Here‘s an interview that Jeff Foust did with Taber yesterday. […]

  • Coastal Ron

    I like the approach everyone is taking with this – very methodical.

    The biggest stumbling block appears to be money, which is in someways a surprise, since we’ve all believed that there were many technical issues that have kept us from going. Of course that would be for a NASA-led mission, and NASA has less tolerance for risk, and in any case would be attempting something a little more ambitious than just a flyby.

    But I guess this shows the difference between what NASA thinks is needed and what, in business terms, “the market will bear”. If Tito is able to find enough funding, then it will show that the tolerance for risk vs reward is as high for those wanting adventure in space as it is here on Earth. Not that NASA needs to follow suit, since that’s not really their mission. But it will show that American’s continue to support risk, which is something that NASA has been trying to avoid more and more, and Congress is not helping.

    Hard to see how they’ll be able to afford to do this mission without using the low cost Falcon Heavy, but I wonder if their options for capsules could include the composite version of the Orion that ATK was showing off for their Liberty system? Buy a MPCV heatshield for it, and finish it off just enough to be that low-tech lifeboat that they need. Launch it on a Falcon Heavy (with no LAS), then launch the crew on a Falcon 9/Dragon (with an engineer to fix any last minute issues). Lots of different options, but the simplest would be if they go with a Dragon and Falcon Heavy. Guess we’ll have to hear what Elon thinks.

  • Scott Bass

    I was all prepared to be a naysayer but they have my full support …. It is really the kind of thing we have not seen since Mercury

  • Fred Willett

    And not an SLS in sight.

    • Terence Clark

      Yeah, you mean we can go to Mars without a 130t vehicle? Or even a 70t vehicle? I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked. Now to be fair an orbital or landing mission would take more gear, more fuel, more everything and yes, it would probably exceed what a single F Heavy would be able to loft, but I’m glad someone else noticed the distinct lack of the Senate Launch System in the discussion.

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