Sunday, November 24, 2013

Inspiration Mars Now Less Inspirational

          by Brian Orlotti

"What me worry?"
Millionaire space tourist Dennis Tito has flip-flopped on his plans for a privately-funded flyby mission to Mars in 2018 and is now asking NASA to fund it.

On February 27th of this year, Tito announced the formation of Inspiration Mars (IM), a non-profit group dedicated to launching a space mission that would send a middle-aged couple on 501-day flyby of Mars and back. Initially, Tito had said that the mission would cost just under $1Bln USD and that he would finance the first two years of the program with roughly $300Mln USD from his own pocket. The remaining $700Mln USD was to have been raised via crowdsourcing and corporate sponsorships.

From the outset, there was skepticism of the mission on several grounds. Some scientists said that the spacecraft design lacked adequate radiation shielding, posing dire risks for the crew. Others pointed out that the mission being limited to a flyby (precluding any serious science or commercial activity) would scare away investors.

But on Nov 20th, during a hearing of the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Space in Washington, DC., and available online at, Tito stated:
We propose to do this in collaboration with NASA, as a partner in a NASA mission, in the name of America, and for the good of humanity. The endeavor is not motivated by business desires, but to inspire Americans in a bold adventure in space that reinvigorates US space exploration. In fact, the capabilities developed through private funding will belong to NASA for this and future missions.

This partnership is a new model for a space mission. It is not the model of traditional contracts or subsidies for vehicle developments, although those models are imbedded in the NASA programs to be leveraged for this unique mission. It is a philanthropic partnership with government to augment resources and achieve even greater goals than is possible otherwise.
Tito’s testimony was essentially a re-branding exercise in which Inspiration Mars was transformed from a purely private venture into a public-private partnership. In making his case for government support of the mission, Tito recycled many of the same shop-worn arguments used by space advocates (with noticeable lack of success) over the past 40 years. These arguments included a plea “for the good of humanity,” motivation for youth to study STEM subjects and a dire warning that the US risked being left behind by other nations.

These arguments, in a time of shrinking NASA budgets and great economic hardship, predictably rang hollow with both committee members and NASA. After the meeting, a NASA spokesman stated that:
The agency is willing to share technical and programmatic expertise with Inspiration Mars, but is unable to commit to sharing expenses with them. However, we remain open to further collaboration as their proposal and plans for a later mission develop.
In a media conference call after his hearing, Tito and IM’s CTO Rick MacCallum clarified their reason for requesting US government support. In essence, Tito admitted that IM’s mission costs would be higher than he had anticipated, even using private launchers.

Brian Orlotti.
Dennis Tito’s flip-flop reiterates a simple, brutal truth to other would-be space pioneers that good intentions alone do not launch rockets. The Inspiration Mars approach is simply too large a leap given our current social and economic climate. The true path to space will involve an incremental buildup of infrastructure by private firms seeking to satisfy interested markets. When space becomes its own economy, the “good of humanity” will not be the initial driver, but the end result.

Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and the treasurer of the Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA).

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