The Inspiration Mars Foundation formally rolled out their plans for a human Mars flyby mission on Wednesday in Washington, and there were few surprises during the event compared to what had already been reported about their proposal, here and elsewhere. During that time Inspiration Mars has been grouped with a number of rather audacious NewSpace ventures announced since late 2011: air-launch company Stratolaunch Systems, asteroid mining companies Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, and Golden Spike with its plans for commercial human lunar missions. All are taking things that sound like science fiction and making them real.
However, there’s a key factor that sets Inspiration Mars apart that has nothing to do with technologies or missions. The others mentioned above all have business plans designed to create sustainable, profitable ventures. In many cases, those business plans are not particularly innovative: Stratolaunch Systems is just another launch services provider, although one with a unique technical approach (which, as Sea Launch discovered when it went through Chapter 11 reorganization, is alone no guarantee of success.) Inspiration Mars, though, is very different: there’s no desire to make a profit, and their proposed mission is a one-shot effort.
“This is not a commercial mission,” Dennis Tito, the founder of Inspiration Mars, said at Wednesday’s press conference. “This is not mission that, if it’s successful, I’m going to come out to be a lot wealthier. Let me guarantee you: I will come out a lot poorer as a result of this mission. But my grandchildren will come out a lot wealthier from the inspiration that this will give them.”
At the press conference, Tito said he would provide the funding to sustain the project through its first two years, but did not disclose how much that would be. (Most of the expense of the mission, including the purchase of the launch vehicles and spacecraft, would likely come in the three years leading up to the launch.) While Tito is wealthy—not a billionaire but widely reported to be a centimillionaire—he is likely not rich enough to pay for the mission entirely himself. Instead, he said the nonprofit foundation would raise money through donations as well as potential sales of sponsorships and media rights.
While raising money has been a major challenge for many NewSpace ventures, Tito didn’t think it would be that big a hurdle. “I think it’s such a great mission I’m very excited about going out there and raising that money,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a real difficult problem, although I’m going to assume I’ll spend a lot of my time doing that.” He noted the California Science Center is currently raising money to build a new wing to host the Space Shuttle Endeavour, and that the person responsible for raising those efforts is a friend of his. “I know his experience in raising money. It wasn’t that difficult. If you have a good idea you can raise money for it.”
That puts Inspiration Mars closer to the B612 Foundation, which last summer announced plans to raise money to develop a space telescope called Sentinel to look for near Earth objects. (One wonders if the people at B612 agree with Tito’s statement that raising hundreds of millions of dollars isn’t “that difficult.”) However, B612 had been around for years before announcing Sentinel, and likely have long-term plans beyond Sentinel. Inspiration Mars, though, is focused solely on a 2018 Mars mission, after which it plans to donate any technology and other intellectual property it’s developed to NASA and the American people.
Inspiration Mars, then, is not so much a NewSpace venture as an initiative that takes advantage of, at least in part, the capabilities of NewSpace companies. SpaceX, of course, has been identified as one potential supplier of launch vehicles and spacecraft, but Inspiration Mars officials have cited a number of other options for spacecraft and launch vehicles from both established and emerging space companies. “We live in a time when more human spacecraft are being developed in America than in all American history combined up to this era,” said Taber MacCallum of Paragon Space Development Corporation, which is working on life support systems for the project. (Paragon itself has some NewSpace elements, including winning a first-round Commercial Crew Development award from NASA in 2010 to support development of life support technologies.)
After the press conference, I asked Tito why he preferred spending his money on Inspiration Mars than investing it into any number of other commercial space ventures that could lower launch costs or enable new markets, and also provide a monetary return. “It’s not a better investment of money,” he said. He explained he had reached a point in his life where he was less concerned about making more money than trying to give something back.
So, is this project his grandchildren’s inheritance? “Exactly.”