Mars manned mission: "2018 is our last chance to be first"

Dennis Tito outlines philanthropical group “Inspire Mars” plan to get NASA, Orbital and others working as one to get humans close to Red Planet ASAP

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It seems that US human space-trip to Mars grow ever-more unlikely each time Congress talks about NASA and the budget. But at a House subcommittee on space directions today heard billionaire entrepreneur Dennis Tito detail how his philanthropic group known as Inspiration Mars can get around the money details and get strait to the Red Planet by 2018.

"No longer is a Mars flyby mission just one more theoretical big idea. It can be done - not in a matter of decades, but in a few years. Moreover, the mission might just show the way for a new model for joint effort and financing. It would attract significant private funding, while enabling NASA to do what it does best, and confirm the United States as the unquestioned leader in space," Tito who is a former NASA Jet Propulsion scientist, told the House committee.  "If I may offer a frank word of caution to this subcommittee: The United States will carry out a Mars flyby mission, or we will watch as others do it - leaving us to applaud their skill and their daring. If America is ever going to do a flyby of Mars - a manned mission to another world - then 2018 is our last chance to be first."

[RELATED: Quick look: NASA's Mars MAVEN mission]

[MORE: 15 reasons why Mars is one hot, hot, hot planet]

Basically what Tito and Inspiration Mars are proposing is an unprecedented partnership with NASA and other commercial space operators such as Orbital Sciences or Space X to launch a two-person spacecraft into space and make a 501 day trip to Mars where it would traverse 800 million miles, fly within 100 miles of the Red planet and return home.   Another challenge is the launch window - between late 2017 and early 2018 - which would let the mission take advantage of a planetary alignment that occurs once every 15 years.

As part of the testimony Inspiration Mars released a feasibility study of the Mars trip which included specific details of the proposed mission.

For example, the operation would begin with two launches - one using NASA's still-in-development heavy lift rocket that would put into Low Earth Orbit the big mission components including "an [heavy lift Space Launch System] upper-stage  rocket that will propel the spacecraft from Earth's orbit to Mars; a service module containing electrical power, propulsion, and communication systems; a [Orbital] Cygnus-derived habitat module where the astronauts will live for 501 days; and, for the last hours of the mission, an Earth Reentry Pod. This pod is derived from the work to date on [NASA's] Orion, but will greatly increase the entry speed for this new vehicle to be known as Orion Pathfinder."

"In the second launch, a commercial transportation vehicle (to be selected from among competing designs) and crew will carry the astronauts into orbit for rendezvous... The two craft will meet using docking procedures and systems that have been perfected in 136 spaceflights, by 209 astronauts, to the International Space Station. After the crew transfer and detachment of the commercial vehicle, the SLS upper-stage will ignite a Trans-Mars Injection burn to escape Earth's orbit and begin the journey. "

The study outlines some other interesting details of the mission including:

  • The idea that a married couple would make the journey. [could be the Achilles heel of the whole plan but I digress] If any organization knows the qualities to look for - courage, fortitude, and inner discipline, just to start with - it is NASA. And with NASA's aid, we are confident that we can find and prepare a married couple for the millions of miles they will traverse together, the group stated.
  • Assuming a Trans-Mars Injection burn on January 5, 2018, the craft's nearest approach to the Red Planet will occur on August 20 of that year. At that moment, the crew will be closer to Mars than the Space Station is to Earth.
  • As the astronauts pass by the planet, on the dark side, Mars will pass by them, catching the spacecraft with its gravitational pull. This will slow the craft relative to the Sun and reorient it toward Earth. Some 30 hours after the crew's closest encounter with Mars, the planet's gravitational influence will give way to the force of the Sun, effecting what astrophysics terms a hyperbolic trajectory, and averting the need for an all-or-nothing propulsion burn to direct the craft homeward. From then on, the celestial mechanics will govern, and indeed the plan employs the same "slingshot" force that propelled Apollo 13 back to Earth after it lost power.
  • The 274-day journey home will, at one point, carry the astronauts through the solar orbit path of Venus. They will thus become the closest humans ever to the Sun, having already been the farthest humans ever from the Sun.
  • Able at any point to make corrective maneuvers, they will approach Earth's atmosphere on May 21, 2019, for reentry and splashdown.
  • The craft, just before reentry, will still consist of the crew cabin, the service module, and the Orion Pathfinder Earth Reentry Pod. On final approach, the crew will transfer into the Pod, which will then separate from the jettisoned modules and take our astronauts the rest of the way. They will return at a velocity never before attempted, an unavoidable challenge for reentry in the mission.
  • Any deep-space mission, undertaken by any country, will have to overcome the final technical problems entailed in high-speed reentry. The first nation into deep space will be the first to master safe reentry at unprecedented speed.
  • As we know from the success of Curiosity, which landed on Mars despite tremendous heat and velocity by use of similar thermal-protection technologies, NASA is very close to engineering a capsule capable of withstanding all the stresses of a high-speed return to Earth.
  • We have the heat-shield technology. We have, in Orion, the basis for a reentry craft that can in every other crucial respect soon be mission-ready. Eventually, these existing assets and capabilities will have to be integrated anyway to meet NASA's current presidential mandates for deep space. The concentrated creative energy of a Mars mission will complete it in a matter of a few years.

In the end Inspiration Mars concludes: "There are definitely challenges in developing the flight hardware and accomplishing the Inspiration Mars mission within the time constraint. However, there is an overwhelming belief that this mission is not only technically feasible, but programmatically achievable in the short time frame remaining We believe it is well-worth the commitment, resources and hard work to take advantage of this truly unique opportunity."

What do you think?

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