Two Lindberghs for Mars

Would you be willing to live in cramped quarters over the course of 501 days for the chance to be the first human to get a close look at Mars? If so, you might be in luck. The Inspiration Mars Foundation has just announced plans to send two people to the Red Planet - and in 2018 no less.

It might be doable.

Writing Mars Flyby: Daring to Venture, veteran space journalist Paul Gilster reflects on the attempt's feasibility, saying the proposal "on balance" feels much different than the incremental technology build-up that led to the lunar landings. He reaches back for the following historic comparison:

No, this doesn’t feel much like Apollo 8. It really feels closer to the early days of aviation, when attention converged on crossing the Atlantic non-stop and pilots like Rene Fonck, Richard Byrd, Charles Nungesser and Charles Lindbergh queued up for the attempt. As with Inspiration Mars, these were privately funded attempts, in this case designed to win the Orteig Prize ($25,000), though for the pilots involved it was the accomplishment more than the paycheck that mattered. Given the problems of engine reliability at the time, it took a breakthrough technology — the Wright J-5C Whirlwind engine — to get Lindbergh and subsequent flights across.

Like the Orteig Prize, Inspiration Mars Foundation is private. Dennis Tito, the pioneering citizen astronaut, is behind the effort. It's also backed by people who have spaceflight expertise and the business acumen to raise a lot of money. Naming rights, for example, might be sold. As for cost, the foundation has said that it would be "a fraction" of the $2.5b Curiosity rover, though no specifics have been ventured.

Inspiration Mars would be a free return, meaning it would require a single maneuver after escaping Earth's gravity well to establish the final trajectory that would send two occupants, a man and a woman Tito says, on a 16 month journey to within 100 miles of the surface of the Red Planet - and back. Not landing eliminates enormous complexity and expense. Energy for small course corrections during the interregnum would be available, but no more. The two occupants would be confined to a spartan environment inside the launch capsule that might, as illustrated above, include an inflatable module (inflatable technology is already on orbit). The temporary quarters would be discarded before re-entering the Earth's atmosphere, which would be the fastest ever attempted.

But why 2018? The year is a propitious one, minimizing the solar threat to astronauts on long duration spaceflight as well as the energy requirements for travel to and from the Red Planet. The next such alignment will occur in 2031.

Crucially, the technology to make the attempt would appear to be within reach. The principle technical challenges may be related to radiation hardening and life support for the extended journey, not the launch and spaceflight itself. And the desire is certainly there. Not content with a bureaucratic approach that has had the United States going, quite literally, in circles for the past 40 years since the last astronaut from the Moon, a number of space entrepreneurs from Elon Musk to Paul Allen to Jeff Bezos are thinking outside the atmosphere these days.

Musk has publicly stated that his goal is Mars. And his company, SpaceX, has made substantial progress toward establishing its spaceflight bona fides. The company's Dragon capsule is currently on the second of 12 resupply runs to the International Space Station under contract with NASA. It's been suggested that SpaceX's next rocket, Falcon Heavy, might supply the propulsion to send the Inspriation Mars astronauts on their way.

Still, the odds are stacked against the effort. But if the Inspiration Mars Foundation does manage to recruit, train, plan and launch a flight toward our nearest planetary neighbor, tracking two souls on a lengthy and perilous journey to Mars and back might have the same effect on the public that Lindbergh's flight had in his day.

Space reporter Jeff Foust has also written about this audacious mission if you're interested in learning more.


Image credit: Inspiration Mars Foundation