By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
Mars seems to be everywhere these days. Who will go? How will we go? When will we go?
These questions have yet to be answered. Dennis Tito, a millionaire with Mars instead of stars in his eyes is focusing on a project he terms “Inspiration Mars.” This is not a landing but just a flyby. It’s not a four-person flight but rather a two-person flight by a man and a woman, both past child-bearing age for the reasons of radiation during the 501-day trip.
There’s one very conspicuous hitch in this program, readily admitted by all involved: the date. In order to be efficient, space missions to Mars must take place roughly once every two years, when Earth and Mars are aligned in their orbits. In 2018, there will be a special alignment that occurs infrequently and provides what the Inspiration Mars people call a “exceptionally quick, free-return orbit” that’s available just twice in every fifteen years. The next such launch window is in 2031, according to the Inspiration Mars site. This project has a very tight schedule.
By orbiting Mars at about 100 miles above the surface, the mission will avoid encountering the thin Martian atmosphere and will also use the so-called slingshot effect that takes some momentum from the planet itself to accelerate the spacecraft back to Earth and shorten the return trip considerably. It also reduces the amount of fuel that the craft must carry considerably.
As with all manned space flight, the major impediment is funding. Mr. Tito along with others such as Mars Society president Robert Zubrin are hoping to find funding from a wide variety of sources, including some in-kind funding for the actual hardware of the mission, especially the launch vehicle. A boost from Elon Musk‘s SpaceX would make a huge difference and might be the trigger to unleash many wallets. According to an article by Alan Boyle of NBC News (“Millionaire Seeks an Assist for Inspiration Mars Mission,” 8.16.13), Mr. Zubrin has estimated the total cost at around $700 million.
Dangers? Of course, there will be dangers but not much more than current missions to the International Space Station. The year 2018 will be a solar minimum meaning less than usual solar radiation and less shielding necessary for the flight. Any of the life support systems could fail and result in loss of life because no rescue would be possible. The two people, male and female, would have to endure each other’s very close company with the world watching for over a year and might just become a bit unhinged. The reentry systems would have to function flawlessly after a year in deep space.
Except for the blast-off, flyby, and reentry, all involved must be hoping it will be very, very dull. Excitement in space means unexpected danger . . .
How inspiring will this mission be? Except for the blast-off, flyby, and reentry, all involved must be hoping it will be very, very dull. Excitement in space means unexpected danger, and no one would like to see that. Yet, this project, if it has enough funding to get off of the ground, is being billed as an inspiration. I’m sure that it will inspire those who focus much of their thinking on our neighboring red planet and on space travel in general, for example the members of the Mars Society.
The rest of us will become inspired by something a bit more than a mere flyby. Mention has been made of a visit to Phobos, Mars’s larger and closer moon. It’s rather small by Earth standards with a diameter of just under 7 miles. The likelihood of such an event so soon and with funding still in doubt is very small indeed. Scientific discoveries are not likely to be made either because of the large number of unmanned missions already made and underway. Some say that Mars has been more carefully studied than the bottoms of our own oceans.
The inspiration must come from the mission itself, the fact that human beings have been within 100 miles of the surface of Mars. The next step surely will be landing there. The Mars One people are shooting for such a landing with takeoff just five years later than the 2018 date of Inspiration Mars. Few think that they’ll make that date, and many doubt that the mission will ever take place. Instead of 2023, they might make 2025 or 2027 if they do manage to solve all of the technical and financial issues surrounding this greatest of all space missions to date.
Another problem for such an ambitious project is that it’s billed as an American mission unlike the international Mars One program. Large-scale space programs have become increasingly international in scope for obvious reasons. Should we really be planning somewhat chauvinistic space programs? Wouldn’t the likelihood of success, especially of funding, be enhanced by inviting the world to participate? Shouldn’t the entire world and not just one country be the target of inspiration?
Should we really be planning somewhat chauvinistic space programs? Wouldn’t the likelihood of success, especially of funding, be enhanced by inviting the world to participate? Shouldn’t the entire world and not just one country be the target of inspiration?
I think that passing Mars at an elevation of just 100 miles will be an inspiring event just because it’s never been done before and because it will blaze a trail to Mars. Will it be enough to get us there soon? Who can say. We aren’t in an expansionist period right now but might be of a very different mind in five or ten years. I hope so.