COMMENTARY | The Houston Chronicle’s Eric Berger poses the question: can Dennis Tito’s idea for a Mars flyby mission be just the thing that “saves” NASA? Inspiration Mars, as it is called, promises to be the most exciting space mission since Apollo.
Dennis Tito, the wealthy philanthropist, former private space traveler, and former NASA scientist, caused a great deal of excitement earlier in 2013 when he proposed sending a pair of astronauts, a man and a woman, on a free return mission around Mars. It would take advantage of a planetary alignment that permits a launch around late December 2017/early January 2018 that would result in a just over 500 day voyage.
Tito ventured before a congressional committee and proposed that the Inspiration Mars mission be a joint NASA/private space voyage. NASA would provide $700 million and a heavy lift Space Launch System. The private sector would chip in another $300 million.
The way it would work is that NASA’s SLS would launch the interplanetary craft consisting of a habitation module, a service module, and an Earth return capsule into low Earth orbit. Then the two astronauts would ride to the ship in a commercial spacecraft like the SpaceX Dragon. The two astronauts would fire the SLS upper stage to send the ship around Mars.
The Inspiration Mars mission is beguiling for a number of reasons. It would answer quickly a lot of questions about the long term effects on the human body of interplanetary voyages, including testing technologies to mitigate the same. It would engender a certain degree of excitement that the longest voyage in history would bound to achieve. And, most important, it is cheap.
Cheap is the operative word here. Obama rejected going back to the moon because he said it would be too expensive and that, besides, Buzz Aldrin had already been there. The president’s alternative to visit an asteroid has not stirred a lot of excitement. Going around Mars would be cheap (according to Tito) and exciting all at once.
If one were actually serious about opening up the high frontier of space, going back to the moon, because of its proximity and resources, and paying for it would be a no brainer. But while that is being argued about, a billion dollar spectacular to and from Mars would be kind of cool in a lot of ways, combining the best of NASA and of the commercial space flight sector.