March 04, 2013
Credit: Inspiration Mars Foundation
Frank Morring, Jr. Washington
If Dennis Tito has his way, when NASA launches a stripped-down version of the robotic Mars Curiosity rover toward the red planet in 2020, a middle-aged married couple with good mechanical skills and “resilient” personalities will be offering first-hand commentary to reporters at Cape Canaveral on what the planet looks like from 100 mi. up.
Even if the Inspiration Mars Foundation that Tito is bankrolling for two years from his own deep pockets never gets its human Mars-flyby mission off the ground, the world's first space tourist believes it will have given the U.S. space endeavor a much-needed boost. Benefits will accrue via technical data for future attempts, possible medical breakthroughs needed for deep-space travel and, yes, inspiration.
“You reach an age where you say 'OK, it's put up or shut up,'” says Tito, 72. “You've been successful. Now, what are you going to leave behind? What are you going to leave behind to your kids [and] to society? I have five grandsons. Should I leave them all my money, or should I do something like this.”
Building on Mars and Venus fly-by trajectories he drafted for the Mariner program as a young engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory—before he made his fortune as a financier—and a 1998 professional paper on free-return Mars trajectories, Tito and experts he hired for the purpose have concluded that it is possible to send a two-person crew around Mars and back to Earth in 501 days, provided they leave in January 2018. The projected route will take them in toward the Sun as close as Venus before swinging around the dark side of Mars for a direct return.
No new technology would be needed, but existing technology would have to be “customized” for the task, and fast. Topping the list are environmental control and life support systems (ECLSS), and the thermal protection systems (TPS) needed to handle the space environment between the orbits of Venus and Mars, and the fastest reentry into the atmosphere ever attempted.
Tito has hired Paragon Space Development Corp., a Tucson, Ariz.-based life-support house, to work the ECLSS problem. Paragon is also the signatory on a new Space Act agreement with NASA's Ames Research Center for help with the TPS that will be necessary to protect the crew as they hurtle back into the atmosphere at 14.2 kps, and to evaluate the best strategy—including aerocapture and skip-entry—to bleed off that speed for a safe landing.
According to a peer-reviewed paper prepared by Tito's group for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the mission would require no maneuvers except small course corrections after a trans-Martian injection burn, and would allow no aborts. Briefing reporters at the National Press Club on Feb. 27, Tito said the mission would use low-Earth-orbit launch and human-spacecraft technology, outfitted for the long duration of a flight to Mars. The 10-ton crew vehicle—a capsule to best handle the reentry heat and an inflatable or rigid habitat—would contain all of the ECLSS and other gear the crew would need to stay alive. That would include 3,000 lb. of dehydrated food, exercise equipment to mitigate the effects of long-term weightlessness, and compact equipment derived from International Space Station gear to recycle water and maintain the atmosphere. There would be no spacesuits or airlock, and the crew would have to endure the travel in about 600 cu. ft. of volume.