“It's not going to be a very easy trip,” says Jane Poynter, chairwoman and president of Paragon. “One way to think about it is this: It's a really long road trip. You're jammed into an RV [driving] the equivalent of 32,000 times around the Earth, and you can't get out for about a year and a half.”
Poynter and her husband and Paragon co-founder Taber MacCallum have experience living in an artificial closed-loop environment as veterans of the Biosphere-2 experiment, where they spent two years with six other “crewmembers” simulating some of the conditions the Inspiration Mars crew will face. Among those were mood swings and loss of energy, as well as interpersonal tensions that led some members of the crew to avoid speaking to each other unless absolutely necessary.
Tito says the rigors of the anticipated mission—and the desire to represent all of humankind—suggest a couple with a long marriage behind them would be ideal, provided they have the mechanical skills to maintain the ECLSS and other hardware. They would also need “factors of personal accommodation and behavioral self-knowledge, sometimes referred to as resilient personalities,” according to the group's IEEE paper.
MacCallum, who is Paragon's chief technical officer as well as its CEO, says automation will be kept to a minimum, particularly in the ECLSS hardware, for simplicity and all-important reliability. The crew will maintain and repair the hardware, which will be inside the pressurized volume to avoid the complexity and weight of spacewalking gear. He and Poynter plan to try out for the job, he says.
Dr. Jonathan Clark, the mission's chief medical officer, says he hopes to have a crew and backup screened and selected within a year to allow plenty of time for training and conditioning, and to develop a “tailored” medical program for each crewmember. A former NASA flight surgeon, Clark says the mission will draw on NASA's experience selecting astronauts and the latest in genetic and proteomic screening to develop medical regimens to keep them healthy.
One critical problem will be space radiation, long identified as a major deep-space hurdle. The crew vehicle will carry its upper stage along to interpose between the Sun and the crew, which will also probably have some sort of water-shielded shelter against high-energy solar coronal mass ejections. For cosmic background radiation, Clark says, data derived from the Mars Science Laboratory transit to Mars suggest the mission would be “in that ballpark” of the NASA lifetime limit on astronaut radiation exposure for middle-aged crewmembers, which would boost by about 3% their chance of developing cancer at some point.
“The real issue is in understanding the risk,” says Clark, whose wife Dr. Laurel Clark was killed in the Columbia accident. “The crew would know about it. They would have to decide. But you can have an excess cancer risk from smoking, from living in certain locations. So ultimately it's going to have to be those personal decisions.”
While post-flight cancer can be treated, the risk of returning to Earth will be acute. TPS experts at NASA Ames will be working for the mission under a reimbursable Space Act agreement. Tito says he does not know how much it will cost him personally to fund the early stages of the effort through 2014, and he concedes the biggest expense will come when it is time to begin buying a launch vehicle and other hardware.
The Tito group based its initial calculations on a Falcon 9 heavy rocket for launch. SpaceX, which plans to fly the 27-engine heavy-lift variant of its commercial cargo rocket for the first time this year, says although it does not have an “official relationship” with the Inspiration Mars Foundation,” it “will always consider providing a full spectrum of launch services to interested customers.”
Tito's non-profit foundation is examining a range of options for the launch vehicle, crew capsule and habitat, working under a tight deadline. To cover the overall mission, which Tito says he believes will cost less than the $2.5 billion NASA is spending on the Mars Science Laboratory operation, the foundation will raise funds from industry, individuals and others willing to make “philanthropic” donations to spark interest in the U.S. space program. “I don't think it's going to be a real difficult problem,” he says.