Feb. 27, 2013 at 7:34 PM ET
Millionaire space tourist Dennis Tito and his partners have had to tell questioners repeatedly that they're not "crazy" or "nuts" to think they can launch a man and a woman to Mars and back by 2019 — but if the Inspiration Mars Foundation's "Mission for America" succeeds, it may well be because it's just crazy enough.
Other private space ventures, ranging from SpaceX to the Golden Spike Company and Planetary Resources, are depending on turning a profit someday through the sale of rocket flights, or missions to the moon, or water and precious metals mined from asteroids. Tito, in contrast, freely admits the 501-day mission is a "one-shot deal" that's unencumbered by a long-range business plan. He's committed to supporting the five-year development effort for the first two years, during which time he and the rest of the team will try to raise the money and perfect the technologies for the three more expensive years to follow.
So how much is that going to cost him? "Who knows?" Tito said.
Tito expects to look in all the usual places for funding, including sponsorships, the sale of media rights, the sale of scientific data from the flight and private contributions. A 6-year-old boy has already sent in one of the first contributions, amounting to $10. "This is my Apollo," he was quoted as saying.
If Tito had a dime for every time the Apollo era was invoked on Wednesday, he'd be making a good start toward a fund-raising goal that is estimated to range around $1 billion. Some questioned whether the non-stop Mars flyby would be worth it, on scientific or economic grounds. But that's missing the point: Like Tito's eight-day trip to the International Space Station in 2001, the payoff would be purely inspirational rather than scientific.
"Inspiration Mars reminds me of Apollo 8 in 1968, going around the moon," software billionaire Charles Simonyi, who spent tens of millions of dollars buying two flights to the International Space Station, said in a Twitter update. "Inspiration is a goal for humans, science should be left to the rovers."
In a follow-up exchange of messages, Simonyi told NBC News that he wouldn't be spending millions more to support Tito's effort. He noted that his philanthropic foundation, the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences, "has spent the $100M it had in 10 years, as planned."
"But I think Inspiration will have broad-based support," he said. "Very exciting."
NASA also voiced moral support, saying in a statement that the Inspiration Mars mission was "a testament to the audacity of America's commercial aerospace industry and the adventurous spirit of America's citizen-explorers." Inspiration Mars plans to pay NASA for access to the agency's know-how about thermal protection systems for re-entry, said Taber MacCallum, the foundation's chief technology officer and a co-founder of Paragon Space Development Corp.
In addition to the craziness about the money, there's the craziness about thinking that the rocket and crew capsule will be ready to launch on Jan. 5, 2018, when the planets literally align. A launch on or around that date would result in a straightforward, no-fuss trajectory that would come within 100 miles of Mars' backside on Aug. 20, 2018, and bring the spacecraft back to Earth on May 21, 2019. The mission plan is outlined in a feasibility analysis prepared for an aerospace conference, but Tito and his co-authors acknowledge that the space vehicles cited in the paper don't yet exist.
The paper says it'd be feasible to use the still-under-development SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket and a modified SpaceX Dragon capsule, with a Bigelow-type inflatable module added on. But MacCallum acknowledged that Inspiration Mars was still talking with potential industry partners on what the launch configuration might be. He said choosing that configuration, as well as designing the life-support system and the thermal protection system, were high priorities on the to-do list.
MacCallum stressed that simplicity would be the key. "This is going to be a Lewis and Clark mission to Mars," MacCallum said. "Keep it bare bones, keep it simple."
Tito provided scant details about the five-year development timeline but said that the mission would rely upon technologies developed for flights to the space station. "It uses low-Earth-orbit architecture ... and we're just adapting it in effect to a very large Earth orbit," he said. Responding to questions about the tight time frame, Tito pointed out that Apollo 8's around-the-moon mission took place just a year after the first unmanned test launch of NASA's Saturn 5 rocket in 1967. (However, it took five years to design and develop the Saturn 5 in preparation for that first launch.)
The trajectory for the "Mission for America" is designed such that only minor course corrections would be required along the way. There'd be no engine burn required for the return leg of the trip, and no deorbit burn. However, the spacecraft's speed at re-entry would be 32,000 mph (14.2 kilometers per second), or almost twice as fast as the space shuttle's re-entry speed. And if the trajectory went slightly off for some reason, there's a chance that the capsule could slam into Mars — or miss Earth entirely on the way back, dooming the crew to another deadly circuit.
Who will go?
Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon who has served as an adviser for several space ventures, acknowledged that "there's no question this is a risky and bold endeavor." He estimated that there was a roughly 7 percent chance that one of the two astronauts on board would experience a serious medical issue during the mission. That's the big reason why it'd be a two-person trip rather than a solo flight: so that one of the astronauts could serve as the backup for the other. That, and the fact that it'd be an awfully lonely year and a half for just one astronaut.
Tito insists that the two-person crew should consist of a man and a woman, preferably a married couple, in order to combat the loneliness and reduce the risk of crew incompatibility. Tito joked that one of the mission's media deals might involve Dr. Phil giving "marital advice" to the couple while they're in flight.
Like most of the spacecraft components, the crew would be American, Tito said. He described the key attribute for prospective crew members as "the Right Stuff times 10." MacCallum, meanwhile, said the astronauts would have to have "an amazing mechanical skill" in order to keep the onboard systems running smoothly. MacCallum's wife, Paragon co-founder Jane Poynter, said they'd have to be "even-keeled" to get along for a year and a half while cooped up in the outer-space equivalent of an RV. (MacCallum has said that he and Poynter would be interested in taking the Mars trip themselves.)
Clark estimated that it would take six months to a year to work out the process for crew selection.
Tito faced repeated questions about why he was taking on this mission — and it was clear that American pride was part of the equation. One reporter asked whether Tito merely wanted to get to Mars before the Chinese. "Beat China to Mars?" he replied. "Wouldn't I want to do that? Wouldn't I want America to do that? Wouldn't you want America to do that?"
He also noted that if Inspiration Mars missed the launch opportunity in 2018, the next opportunity for a 501-day mission wouldn't come around again until 2031. "If we don't fly in '18, the next low-hanging fruit is in '31, and we better have our crew trained to recognize other flags," he said. "They're going to be out there."
Update for 8:25 p.m. ET: Tito's plan has also gotten a vote of support from Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who is writing a book titled "Mission to Mars: My Vision for Exploration." The Washington Post's Brian Vastag quotes Aldrin as saying, "I've talked with Dennis, and I've strongly encouraged him. The purpose is to inspire, to say we're going to do something and then we do it." It doesn't hurt that the schedule calls for the round trip to end two months before the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Update for 9:50 p.m. ET: Here's another vote of support from planetary scientist Alan Stern, president and CEO of the Golden Spike Company: "Very excited about Inspiration Mars and the way they and we at Golden Spike are both breaking the mold in human space exploration in this country — and around the world," Stern wrote in an email. Golden Spike is working on a plan to launch missions to the moon at a cost of $1.4 billion per mission (that's $700 million per seat for a two-person flight). The company is currently in the midst of an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign.
More about flights to Mars:
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.