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Hundred-millionaire Dennis Tito - the first commercial space flyer, who flew to the International Space Station on a Russian rocket in 2001 for $20 million - has announced through his new organization the "Inspiration Mars Foundation" (which doesn't appear to have its own website yet) that he intends to launch a 501-day roundtrip manned mission to Mars in 2018, and will be giving a press conference about his plans next week on the 27th.  The preliminary announcement does not make clear whether this will be a landing mission - which would radically increase the cost, complexity, and danger of the endeavor - or a purely orbital one, which would be far more likely to succeed in the given timeframe.  However, despite Mr. Tito's resources, there are many technical and economic reasons to be skeptical about the likelihood of a five-year schedule for such an undertaking.

First, we can divide the breakdown into the two cases - landing vs. orbital:

1.  Landing.

In order to land on Mars, you need to deliver a habitat and all necessary resources to the surface ahead of time, and then you need a manned lander/ascender to deliver and retrieve the crew.  None of this infrastructure exists as of today.  No functioning planetary landers capable of delivering the mass of a crew capsule and then launching back into orbit from the Martian surface exist right now, although there are plans to evolve the SpaceX Dragon capsule to fulfill such a role over an indeterminate timeframe.  The likely expense of not only developing, but building and launching this infrastructure would run into the billions of dollars - at least an order of magnitude greater than Tito's personal fortune - and I doubt very much that it could be completed within five years.

2.  Orbit.

Orbiting Mars is another story.  All you need is a reasonably spacious, robust, long-term habitat capable of sustaining the crew for 501 days in such a way that they don't go crazy, the systems don't fail in any way requiring resupply from Earth, and the crew is protected from radiation.  This doesn't exist either right now, but it's much less of a tall order than the landing infrastructure, and could theoretically be met or at least augmented by inflatable modules such as those offered by Bigelow Aerospace.  Moreover, very powerful rockets will be needed to deliver the material, so we're talking either Delta IV Heavy or a Falcon Heavy (which is set to have its maiden launch this year), both of which are expensive (although Falcon would be considerably less so).  Nonetheless, I would be highly skeptical that this endeavor could be funded at less than a billion dollars, which means Tito will need equally resourceful partners to make it happen.  However, given a billion dollars or so, I think the five-year timeframe for orbiting Mars is doable.

On a scale of 1 to 10 of credibility, with 1 being a complete joke with zero chance of ever happening and 10 being a fait accompli, I would give the orbital scenario - based on the slim preliminary info I'm hearing - a credibility rating of 5.  The landing scenario, however, only gets a 3.  I will discuss it further next week when additional information is forthcoming.  

6:19 PM PT: There is a middle-case between a full landing landing mission and a purely orbital one, I just realized: You could land on Mars very briefly just to put footprints and take pictures and then immediately return to orbit.  This means you wouldn't need a surface habitat, but only a lander/ascender.  Still, this would be expensive and almost as dangerous (since most of the danger is on ascent and descent), so it's only modestly more credible than the full landing scenario - 3.5 on a scale of 1 to 10.

6:25 PM PT: It's also not clear whether Tito himself will be on the mission.  The fact that he would be 77-78 years old in 2018 is a real issue if he intends to do that.

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Comment Preferences

  •  any idea what to do about radiation shielding? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    GreyHawk, Troubadour

    Currently I don't know of anything that can shield radiation like old fashioned lead (Pb), which I think is to heavy to economically transport into space.

  •  maybe he meant 5 Mars years. (3+ / 0-)

    ~ 686.98 Earth days per Mars year.

    "And if you come down with a case of Romnesia, and you can’t seem to remember the policies that are still on your website, ..., here’s the good news: Obamacare covers pre-existing conditions." -- President Obama, 10/19/2012, George Mason University

    by rja on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 06:30:51 PM PST

  •  Remember the Forthcoming Invention That Was Going (8+ / 0-)

    to change the way all of human civilization organized itself, back in the late 90's, according to many technology luminaries?

    It turned out to be a computerized scooter.

    My Dad worked for NASA manned space in the Apollo-Skylab era and I've followed the Shuttle, probes and Mars discussions ever since.

    I gotta say this sounds closer to the marketing scam of pre-Segway than a workable plan to get humans to Mars and back again outside earth's radiation shielding for nearly 2 years still alive.

    Before anyone traipsed off to Mars I'd think you'd want to send a year's earth orbital mission up above the Van Allen Belts to show the crew could survive the radiation and wouldn't be permanently bone crippled by weightlessness and crazy from cabin fever.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 06:34:36 PM PST

    •  People take a lot dumber risks on Earth (5+ / 0-)

      or in its skies every day, so I'm not writing off the possibility that Tito or others funded by him would be willing to just go without having to prove in advance beyond a shadow of a doubt that they would survive as long as they had reasonable confidence.  The record for human spaceflight is a bit over 437.7 days, and NASA is planning even longer ones, so 501 is not that big a stretch.  

      Actually, a manned orbit of Venus would be even shorter than that and with more launch windows than Mars, so they're only targeting Mars because of its significance to future developments.  

      As for radiation, it's pretty straightforward: Decide in advance what is acceptable and shield accordingly.  We know what the environment is out there from decades of unmanned probes.  

      Going crazy from cabin fever is a real danger, especially because - unlike in Earth orbit - they won't have that beautiful planet out their window most of the time, or the option of returning to it in a matter of hours in an emergency.  Just the black of space and the pinpoint stars most of the way there and back.

      Some things you just can't unsmell.

      by Troubadour on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 06:47:19 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  torn on this...picturing corporate logos blasted (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Troubadour, Gooserock, GreyHawk, grollen

    into Olympus Mons

    Just the highest mountain (volcano) on any planet in our solar system

    Heck, dreading the day pepsi is scrawled across the largest billboard in our orbit = the face of the moon

    Many great sci fi stories have been written about the dangers of private/ business interests controlling our outward movement from Gaia

    •  First let's actually get out there. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      DEMonrat ankle biter, GreyHawk

      Then we can deal with the details of who shapes the future.  I will say I would rather have the grimmest, most tyrannical spacefaring future - because it at least maintains the hope of it turning into something more benign over time - than the most utopian paradise where humans have become unambitious and live only on Earth.  

      But neither will happen, because the very act of going out vastly multiplies the political and economic possibilities; and the very act of stagnating precludes any sort of utopian paradise scenario.

      I wouldn't worry about the faces of celestial bodies being marred by corporate advertising.  If they don't even have the balls or the money to carve their logos into mountainsides on Earth, even where environmental rape is the norm, why in the hell would they spend billions of dollars to do it on another planet?  They'd get bigger bang just sponsoring exploratory missions, and without the negative publicity.

      Some things you just can't unsmell.

      by Troubadour on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 06:59:41 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  am all for spreading out...heck species survival (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Troubadour, GreyHawk

        is dependent on us even getting out of our galaxy and spreading amongst other galaxies since even galaxies die

        There was 1 great book that I can't remember the name of that utilized such in the plot with both some humans and some star fish like alien sentients moving to another galaxy just as the milky way died

        Wish I could remember the name

        •  Doesn't sound very familiar. (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          DEMonrat ankle biter, GreyHawk

          Closest thing I can think of is the Uplift series.

          Some things you just can't unsmell.

          by Troubadour on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 07:05:27 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  trying to google... but was very cool (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Troubadour, GreyHawk

            and starting to remember that the star fish aliens were in another galaxy and had started monitoring outdated transmission from the milk way galaxy (ours)

            then there was 1 last transmission that detailed human genetic code and ceased...the aliens later figured out that something in the galactic core exploded flooding the milk way with radiation that would have killed anything in all milky way solar systems

            they recreated some humans from the genetic data.....and realized that they and the humans needed to make sure they somehow reproduced outward to other galaxies

            long story short a HUGE intra galaxy moving ship was created with members of both species moving on out to another galaxy and luckily so because over time that galaxy collided with another galaxy destroying any possible life in any solar system in both

            It was also very interesting due to the aliens being extremely alien = giant star fish that were amphibious and communicated via mostly body language = subtle movements of thousands of tube feet and color changes

            anyway; huge tangent :-P

  •  Seriously Dude (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Either scenario....


  •  The steps of Apollo. (3+ / 0-)

    If we just look at our manned space program (skipping the technological precursors), there was a ton of development and prototyping that had to go on before the "giant leap".

    Even given our advancements since then, I would bet that we'd still need a bunch of baby steps to get a successful landing on Mars. And I don't think anyone should try and pull something out of their ass and take a big risk of failure, because a quick failure could be devastating for both private investment and government involvement.

    In any case, I agree with the diarist that this dude doesn't have near the resources to pull this off himself. Especially if he wants to develop his systems in an iterative fashion, and give himself the highest chances of success.

    •  I suppose the main question is what (3+ / 0-)

      he intends the mission to be.  If it is indeed just to be a stunt for inspirational purposes - which the release seems to say - then they don't have to care about building up an ongoing infrastructure or turning a profit.  On the other hand, a stunt has to succeed (or at least return the crew alive after an abort) or else, as you say, it's damaging to the rest of the field.

      Tito is no fool, as far as I can see, and he does have a lot of money even if it's not enough, and he has been to space.  That's why his announcement merits a serious look.  We'll see what he has to say next week.  If there's been a lot of development going on behind the scenes before the announcement, that would increase confidence.  But if he's just going to do crowdfunding or something like that, we'll know it's not serious.

      Some things you just can't unsmell.

      by Troubadour on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 07:52:10 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  We've got to get off this rock. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        To paraphrase Hawking.

        It's sad that we spend so much human effort (read: money) on the war of the super-wealthy on everyone, and religion-based conflict, that we're crippled in our efforts to keep our species alive.

        We need an advanced detection array so we can see the giant space rocks coming, we need to develop the technology to stop them from hitting us, and we need to spread out so all our eggs aren't in this one basket.

        And we need to stop trashing our only basket.


        I'm a sucker for the "to go where no man has gone before" sexy exploration stuff, but really, this is about long term survival.

        •  There are both positive and negative (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          justifications for expansion into space, and both are utterly unassailable by anything other than sheer stupidity.  We need to propagate and diversify to survive, and we need to have something to look forward to in order to survive.  Everyone who understands the true scale of human life knows that this is not optional: We grow, or we die.  We explore "new life, new civilizations" and "boldly go" or we cower back into the holes from whence we came and perish.

          Some things you just can't unsmell.

          by Troubadour on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 11:52:04 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Landing NOT feasible in that time span (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Troubadour, GreyHawk, Egalitare

    Even in the middle case scenario you mention, a lander means not only ascent/descent, but also orbital rendezvous. So they have to design and build a habitat/orbiting main ship with life support for 18 months, engines powerful effort to slow the ship down and enter Mars orbit, and then achieve Martian escape velocity and return to Earth, a lander (probably one man) that can do powered descent, with a powered ascent stage that has an engine powerful enough to overcome Mars gravity and get to orbit, and do an orbital docking. That's a big ticket!

    I think a big problem would be serious cabin fever - even though men have stayed in orbit for months at a time in space station tests of endurance, a big thing was they always had something to look at out the window (the Earth), and a sensation of moving and going somewhere as they watched the Earth turn below. To Mars and back there's nothing to see but black space, and no sense of movement - just the feeling of sitting in a room for all that time. Like being in Congress.

    Bqhatevwr, dude. Srsly. Bqhatevwr.

    by Fordmandalay on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 07:31:21 PM PST

    •  Cabin fever's the big ticket practicality. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      GreyHawk, 3rdOption

      You're right about all of that.  We on Earth are robust against it if we have internet access, but the bandwidth on an interplanetary spacecraft is going to be dogshit, so they'll be cut off from most distractions they don't take with them.

      Off the top of my head, possible solutions:

      1.  An inexhaustible catalog of movies, music, TV shows, video games, and, obviously, porn.

      2.  Schedule drastic changes in the interior arrangement and decor every few weeks, different color schemes, etc.

      3.  Planned surprises for the crew.

      4.  Randomize the menu.

      5.  Alcohol and drugs (though nothing that would result in dangerous behavior).

      6.  Interactive and/or athletic games.

      7.  Smells.  A store of scents that they get to access periodically to smell various kinds of things from Earth.

      Some things you just can't unsmell.

      by Troubadour on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 08:00:55 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  hibernation? nt (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        "a lie that can no longer be challenged becomes a form of madness" -Debord

        by grollen on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 09:27:53 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Not even technologically possible right now. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          And not really necessary.  Although it's possible they could take measures to reduce metabolism and sleep longer.

          Some things you just can't unsmell.

          by Troubadour on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 09:29:42 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  The muscular atrophy problems... (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            ...of zero gravity are bad enough if you're awake, moving and exercising.

            Now imagine being bedridden for six months or longer, and then getting up and having to deal with landing on Mars.

            Don't men and women coming back from ISS have trouble even walking when they get back?

            The Mars-o-nauts will have to deal with the G forces of "re"-entry into the Martian atmosphere, of the rockets that slow them for landing, and then I'm sure we'll expect them to trot around on the surface for a while. Even at significantly less than Earth's gravity, this is a problem. Yet another problem.

            Thus, folks who want "more and better" robots to do all this for us.

            Biological units are delicate, and expensive to move around. This is where Star Trek and Battlestar fail us.

            •  Living things are robust. (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              Robots are brittle.

              Some things you just can't unsmell.

              by Troubadour on Thu Feb 21, 2013 at 03:47:39 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  Living things outside their habitat... (0+ / 0-)

                ...tend to shrivel and die.

                I don't think we've fully comprehended just how integrated, and how inherently dependent we are on this thin film of life stuff wrapped around our rock.

                What exactly do we really need to take with us?

                A cheaper way to figure this out than a Mars mission would be to go all Newt and put a colony on the Moon.

                IMO, this long after the last dude left the moon, we should already have done both. I think we might have been able to do the moon, just for the price of the Iraq war...

                But Haliburton has no idea how to monetize anything they find up there.

  •  I think "manned" might just be Wired (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Troubadour, GreyHawk

    The actual press release doesn't say anything about humans. Just that it's a 501-day round trip to Mars starting in 2018, which has something to do with Paragon Space, (who design ways to use plants and algae to recycle CO2) and a space medicine expert.

    Based on just the press release I'm thinking of Elon Musk's original plan for SpaceX: trying to land a greenhouse full of plants on Mars as a publicity stunt. Tito on his own might be able to fund a fly-by with some kind of Paragon life support prototype plus radiation shielding. He'd get to send the first life to Mars and back, which is big, and there's a lot of scientific value in seeing what happens to living things on that kind of trip.

  •  footprints scenario more probable? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Troubadour, 3rdOption

    I can't see how that'd be more probable than a pre-planned landing with some kind of infrastructure in place for the landers.  Blasting off from the surface of Mars isn't like taking off from the moon.  There's an atmosphere that they have to fly through, and the velocity required to achieve orbit and meet back up with the main orbital ship is at least twice as high.  That means you need a fairly big rocket to get back up, and the "footprints" scenario means you need to take that rocket with you when you land, as opposed to having it more or less waiting there for you when you get there.  I can't see that being viable even as a fantasy scenario for a Mars Mission.

    And I don't know what they would really get from a manned orbital-only mission.  A really expensive, kinda pointless "first" I guess.  

    The "safe" way to do this would be to land several caches of return vehicles, launch platforms, fuel,  redundant habitation supplies and mission tools in the same general area, and do it remotely so you can verify that the stuff landed in good quality and is usable by the landers.  Then you land the manned lander in that area, and that lander becomes a permanent habitation module.  The first mission would be to retrieve all the caches of stuff, and complete the infrastructure for a launch platform and any additions necessary for the habitation modules, and to set up the return vehicle.  When they're done, they use the return vehicle, meet up with the orbiter, and head home.  Before the next manned mission, you land more caches of stuff in the same general area.

    I'd say they could get this done in 5 years if they were launching their first caches of return vehicles and fuel sometime before this summer at the latest.  5 years is hardly enough time to train the crew for this kind of mission.

    From such crooked wood as that which man is made of, nothing straight can be fashioned. -Immanuel Kant

    by Nellebracht on Wed Feb 20, 2013 at 11:50:28 PM PST

  •  Sounds like a bit of a scam to me (0+ / 0-)

    We are so far from having the necessary technological infrastructure in place that a real Mars mission would require that I don't think a manned mission will get underway much before 2030.

  •  Doesn't hurt to dream. . . (0+ / 0-)

    I suppose. . .but the old saying "People want the moon but they don't even own the Earth" applies. We are a zillion light years away from such ambitious planning. We ignore the paradigm of rocketry by backing outmoded rocketry idealism that still relies on the usual throwaway ideas, and of course rockets and power sources that easily could be renovated if we only put our money with our mouths are. I'm thinking Skylon, or similar, is where the real action is or should be. But good luck to those, like these folks, who want to claw their way through space with the usual concepts of sailing through space.

    Treat the world (yourself, and others) as part of a living organism. Everyone and everything will benefit.

    by richholtzin on Thu Feb 21, 2013 at 05:51:30 AM PST

    •  I wouldn't be so glib. (0+ / 0-)

      There's no rational reason to believe Skylon would ultimately work better than what SpaceX envisions as its reusable program.  One is based on technology that already exists, the other is a paper fantasy requiring $12 billion just to test in practice.  

      Some things you just can't unsmell.

      by Troubadour on Thu Feb 21, 2013 at 06:37:31 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Wealthy people have run out of interesting things (0+ / 0-)

    to immortalize their names. Buying a sports stadium, buying a sports team or the like just doesn't have the same longevity in history.

    Funding a manned flight to Mars, and being one of those astronauts, immortalizes them in history in way that few other endeavors could.

    I see the appeal for certain wealthy folks.

    "Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities" Voltaire.

    by JWK on Fri Feb 22, 2013 at 05:11:36 PM PST

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