Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Laying Odds on Tito's Mars Mission

      by Brian Orlotti

Dennis Tito.
Dennis Tito, the engineer and multimillionaire entrepreneur who founded Wilshire Associates, an investment firm with $12.5 trillion dollars of assets currently under management, and became the world’s first space tourist when he paid his own way into orbit in 2001, has announced plans for a crewed flyby past Mars in 2018.

At a news conference in Washington, D.C., Tito said he's tired of waiting for NASA to send humans to Mars, and that he'd help finance the between $1 and $2 billion needed to complete the mission, according to the March 1st, 2013 US News and World Report article "Expert: Dennis Tito's Mars Flyby Has '1-in-3' Chance of Succeeding."

Mars Society president Robert Zubrin.
The article also quoted Mars Society president and author Robert Zubrin as stating "I give them a 1-in-3 chance, but not for the technical reasons. It's a question of can they raise the money," he says. "This raises the question to NASA—'How come you haven't done this?' NASA has had a billion dollars before."

Tito, who acknowledged that the most difficult part of the mission will be the fundraising, will be doing so through a A 501(c)3 nonprofit organization called Inspiration Mars. According to the Inspiration Mars’ initial press release:
This "Mission for America" will generate new knowledge, experience and momentum for the next great era of space exploration. It is intended to encourage all Americans to believe again, in doing the hard things that make our nation great, while inspiring youth through Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and motivation.
Tito has engaged a team of individuals from NASA and various aerospace firms including NASA Ames Research Center Director Pete Worden, former Biosphere II crew members Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter, and former NASA crew surgeon Jonathan Clark.

The team has even published a concept study entitled "Feasibility Analysis for a Manned Mars Free-Return Mission in 2018" which is available for download on the Inspiration Mars website. This paper has been in wide circulation for several weeks within government, industry, and space advocacy circles.

The mission’s core premise is the use of an upgraded SpaceX Dragon capsule as the 2-person crew’s habitat for the entire mission. The capsule would be launched on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket and follow a free-return trajectory to Mars and back. In its initial form, the mission would depart Earth on 5 Jan 2018, reach Mars on 20 August 2018, and return to Earth on 21 May 2019. The spacecraft would approach Mars within a distance of approx. 100 km for a maximum of 10 hours. Upon its return, the Dragon capsule would use Earth's atmosphere to slow down via aerobraking. After ten days, the Dragon capsule would touch down.

Crew safety issues such as radiation, weightlessness, and psychological factors have prompted discussion of various countermeasures. These include water/lead shielding to mitigate radiation, regular exercise and drugs to counter weightlessness, and long-duration crew simulations to anticipate psychological issues. Although challenging, these issues do not seem to be considered show-stoppers by experts.

Lacking a profit motive, Mr. Tito’s stated motivation for the mission is the rekindling of public interest in space exploration and, by extension, the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) fields. Judging from several of Tito’s statements during the initial press conference, one might also detect a longing to make history…to forge a legacy.

For all the inspiration that the mission would supposedly give to modern youth, serious questions remain about its cost/benefit rationale. With the objective being a flyby rather than a landing and with the proposed mission vehicle lacking scientific gear, neither significant science nor useful commercial activity can be done. Dennis Tito’s wealth can enable the launch of the mission, but what will sustain interest from the public once the spectacle ends? With no return for investors, how will Inspiration Mars attract investment capital for future missions?

In other words, what will prevent Inspiration Mars from suffering the same fate as the Apollo program over forty years ago?

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