Artist's impression of the spacecraft that will fly to Mars (Credits: Inspiration Mars).

Artist’s impression of the spacecraft that will fly to Mars (Credits: Inspiration Mars).

Two weeks ago, it was announced that Dennis Tito, the world’s first space tourist, was going to send a crewed mission to Mars in the year 2018.  Details were scarce at that point, and the world was told to wait until the 27th February for the newly formed Inspiration Mars Foundation to reveal all in a press conference.  The conference was held today, and although the details still seem a little vague, the bigger picture has at least been revealed.

The conference was webcast from Washington, and the stream was available to view via the Inspiration Mars website.

Speaking at the conference were Dennis Tito, CEO of Paragon SDC Taber MacCallum, Biosphere 2 veteran Jane Poynter, and Red Bull Stratos Medical Director Jonathan Clark.

The basic outline of the mission was discussed in some detail.  The mission, slated to launch January 5th 2018, will be a Mars flyby mission, with no landing on the surface.  The reasoning behind this is to make use of a propellant-free return enabled by the unique location of Mars with respect to Earth at the time.  The spacecraft will first use the gravity of the Sun, to accelerate, fly out past the Earth’s orbit, and then intercept with Mars, where according to the Inspiration Mars website, will fly within 100 miles of the Martian surface.  It will then utilise a Martian gravity assist manoeuvre which will put the spacecraft on a “free-return” trajectory for Earth without the need for further propellant use.  The whole mission is expected to last approximately 500 days.

As far as the crew is concerned, Dennis Tito will not be joining them, as first speculated.  It is hoped that the Foundation will find a middle aged married couple to complete the trip.  There are many reasons for this type of crew selection, asides from the obvious benefits of having an experienced crew.  “We want the crew of vehicle to represent humanity,” commented Jane Poynter, who is married to Taber MacCallum.  “We want the youth of the world to be reflected in this crew and for girls as well as boys to have role models.”  Sending a couple who have already had children makes sense in terms of the increased risk of infertility posed by long duration space flight.

Commenting on the radiation hazard, Dr Jonathan Clark stated that the radiation levels were “well below the career limit for the crew ages that we’re looking at… radiation is a concern, but it’s not a show stopper.”  Clark went on to comment about the use of personalized medicine throughout the crew selection and mission phase, and suggested that genomics and proteomics would play an integral part in the mission.

Artist's impression of Cygnus module docked with ISS (Credits: OSC).

Artist’s impression of Cygnus module docked with ISS (Credits: OSC).

In terms of mission activities, the duration would be spent maintaining the systems on board the small spacecraft.  At present, there will be no room for pressurized space suits, and it was said at the conference that there would be no need for EVAs.  All systems would be repairable from within the spacecraft.  Although the capsule and launch vehicle have not been selected yet, it was said that the preliminary mission design pointed to a 35 cubic meter interior volume with 17 cubic meter living space, with the rest of the space taken up by 10 tons of supplies.  Water and air would be recycled frequently, which is where Paragon fit into the picture.  It was suggested that there may be an inflatable habitat module, and Bigelow were mentioned as a possible supplier, although Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Cygnus was mentioned also.  SpaceX have apparently been consulted with regards to certain aspects of feasibility, however, it was pointed out that Falcon Heavy and Dragon may not necessarily be used for the mission due to low technical maturity of both systems.

In terms of technology transfer, Paragon and Inspiration Mars have signed a reimbursable Space Act Agreement with NASA Ames Research Centre to develop an advanced thermal protection system for re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere at the end of the mission.  The spacecraft will be the fastest re-entry in history, entering the atmosphere at 14.2 km/sec.  A $100,000 dollar check has already been given to NASA to begin the development of this system, which could potentially benefit future NASA missions if it is successful.

Although Tito had originally seen the mission as one of inspiration and scientific outreach, he had not considered the scientific value, although he has changed his opinion in that respect.  “At first, I thought this is not a science mission,” Tito said. “This is for inspiration; it’s a test flight to show we can get there. You’re going to learn a lot about the engineering problems…there hasn’t been really any information on human behavior in this kind of environment. The impact of radiation, the isolation — the academics are all very excited. It’d be a huge scientific value in the life sciences.”

Generally, the members of the conference audience seemed to be inspired, and the panel seemed to enjoy the buzz that they had created, with one panel member explaining how they had received a $10 donation to their cause from a 6 year old boy, along with a note.  The note read “I’m going to watch the press conference with my father…because this is MY Apollo.”

Dr Clark ended his segment with a quote from Helen Keller, which seemed to capture the mood of the project perfectly; “life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

Below:  Simulation showing the free-return trajectory: