“It’s not nuts,” said one of Tito’s team of aerospace industry advisers ahead of an afternoon press briefing in Washington. “This is possible.”
The “Mission for America” would be a two-person, budget-class fly-by of the red planet. There will be no landing. No footprints and flags in ruddy soil, no rock-grabbing, no search for fossils.
This is strictly a blink-and-you-miss-it trip to Earth’s neighbor and back again. The 501-day journey would be about the quickest available with current rockets.
Only celestial harmony makes such a plan feasible: A once-every-15-years alignment of Earth and Mars. With the two planets’ orbits pinching as close as they ever do, a so-called low-energy trajectory could shoot a modest craft to Mars and back with minimal fuel.
Tito, 72, won’t fly the mission. Instead, he will send a man and woman — preferably married — to fairly represent humanity, said a person familiar with the plan who asked for anonymity because the public announcement has not yet been made.
A news release announcing the Inspiration Mars mission said the first human trip beyond the moon would “encourage all Americans to believe again in doing the hard things that make our nation great.”
While NASA is not funding the mission, Tito recently briefed agency leadership. “NASA will continue discussions with Inspiration Mars to see how the agency might collaborate on mutually-beneficial activities,” said NASA spokesperson David Weaver.
The hardware required includes a capsule for launching and landing, a habitat module and a big rocket or several small ones.
Industry experts said Tito’s team has been in talks with several “new space” companies such as Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, as well as established aerospace contractors such as Boeing to supply the rocket and spaceship.
Tito has assembled a team that includes experts in life support systems and space medicine. A team at NASA Ames Research Center in California has already begun work on a heat shield to protect the Mars ship from the fastest atmospheric reentry ever attempted.
A technical paper Tito and his team will present at an aerospace conference next week suggests flying a modified Dragon capsule built by SpaceX, the commercial company set to launch its third non-crewed supply run to the space station on Friday. A human-rated Dragon may be available as soon as 2015, but a company spokeswoman said there was no deal in place with Tito’s group.
The mission — if Tito can pull it off — would break the deep-space barrier for the first time and reshuffle the possibilities for human space travel. The last time humans sailed beyond Earth orbit was the final Apollo moon mission in 1972.