Another Giant Leap – Inspiring America with a Manned Mission to Mars

April 2, 2013

In T-minus five years, human beings will go to Mars. That is the plan millionaire, entrepreneur rocket scientist and the first-ever space tourist Dennis Tito recently announced, saying he will foot the bill for a two-person trip to Mars in 2018. The plan is ambitious, and while the technology, math and experience needed to undertake such a journey are within current capabilities, the 501-day trip is unparalleled in human history. 

Tito was the world’s first space tourist when he paid $20 million to the Russian space agency to ferry him to the International Space Station (ISS) for a six-day, life-changing opportunity. Now 72 years old, Tito isn’t going anywhere, but with his Inspiration Mars Foundation, he is looking for a pair of intrepid explorers to take another trip of a lifetime. The mission climax will be a Mars flyby with the astronauts just 100 miles above the planet’s surface.  In many ways, this flight will replicate the legendary Apollo 8 flyby of the Moon but eclipse it by truly going where no one has gone before. 

Given that the spacecraft will need to carry all the oxygen, water and food needed for a year-and-a-half long journey, and that once beyond Earth orbit they are effectively on their own, there is almost no room for error.  Mars Society President Robert Zubrin gives the Mars flight a one-in-three chance of mission success, but for Tito, success is about more than reaching the Red Planet. 

Doable but Difficult

The length of this particular Mars mission will truly dwarf the past missions to the moon. The moon is roughly 240,000 miles from Earth. At its closest orbit, Mars is about 35.8 million miles away. To put that in perspective, if a trip to the moon is like walking across Manhattan, from the Hudson to the East River, a trip to Mars is like walking from New York City to Toronto, Canada. 

The spacecraft would not use rockets to reach Mars, which would require an unrealistic amount of fuel. Instead, it would rely on the concept of “free return” – using gravity to slingshot the spacecraft towards its destination. This was the principal used on the Apollo missions, and it was also successfully used on unmanned probes to Venus and Mercury in the 1970s. For the Mars mission, the spacecraft would first fly towards the sun, building speed as it is sucked around our star’s massive gravitational pull. Leaving solar orbit, the craft would hurl towards Mars, where it would again fall into orbit and slingshot back to Earth. It sounds simple, and to a degree, it is but it takes a lot of smarts to make it simple. 

The technology and capability needed to reach Mars already exists. Yet, just because a boat can float did not guarantee Columbus would make it to the New World. There are many unknowns in any exploration, and this mission will test technological and human limits. 

At his National Press Club announcement, Tito explained that he will pay for the rockets and spacecraft built and operated by private companies while seeking additional private funding sources to assist him.  As to the crew to make the journey of a lifetime, he shared that the ideal candidates  would be a married couple, as 500 days cooped up in a small space capsule will take a heavy toll on human psychology and emotion. Tito thinks a husband and wife would be able to rely on the closeness of their relationship to sustain them through a long and lonely journey. Of course, with the U.S. divorce rate around 50%, sending a married couple could go well or very badly. 

By some estimates, the odds are stacked against the mission. The astronauts could miss the necessary orbit and go shooting past Mars or Earth, never to be seen again. Oxygen could leak, micro asteroids could puncture fuel tanks and hundreds of other issues could spell failure for the entire mission. There is no extra-planetary ambulance waiting to save the day, or Home Depot to stop by for spare parts and duct tape to keep the mission going.  Furthermore, the space explorers will not even try to land on the Red Planet. So why do it? 

Inspiring the Next Generation of Space Explorers

At the Inspiration Mars Foundation press conference discussing the upcoming mission, a reporter asked if a failed mission wouldn’t dampen inspiration for future attempts. The widow of the Commander of the Space Shuttle Challenger, Dick Scobee and the Founding Chair of the Challenger Center, June Scobee Rodgers responded:  

"Without risk there's no knowledge, there's no great discovery, there's no bold adventure...The greatest risk is to take no risk...After the loss of Challenger and that beloved crew, our inspiration was to build Challenger Center. The inspiration lives." 

New knowledge comes from attempting new things. The Wright brothers were lunatic inventors…until their wooden contraption actually flew. Henry Ford’s attempts to build a reliable engine that could outpace a horse were unrealistic…until they weren’t. Now, standing on the precipice of space exploration of the kind never before attempted in history, there is great potential and peril. The mission might fail, but it might not. For Tito, reaching and returning from Mars is the mission objective, but the purpose of the trip is to inspire. Speaking of the Apollo program, Tito told Fox News

“The '60s for me were just really exciting times. It had a whole impact on my generation. I know the space program caused me to get my engineering degree. But what happened to the interests of this generation in science? It's really on a decline. And I think if we have this first mission to Mars, even though it's far from our goal of landing, I could see it jumpstarting interest in space. I could see the potential of recreating what existed 50 years ago during the space race. I think it will be a big step in America's leadership role in the world.”

Supporting the Business of “New Space”

Tito’s Mars mission will accomplish something else – it will be evidence that private money and companies can make history in an area where only NASA and the federal government have previously ventured. U.S. companies are ramping up efforts to compete in commercial space (aka “New Space”). Part of that means supplying service and capabilities to the U.S. government, but as several experts and industry leaders noted at the recent Business Horizon’s series program, Free Enterprise and the Final Frontier, inconsistent government priorities are frustrating business growth and investor confidence. Former White House Director of Space Policy Peter Marquez said: 

“Successful space programs have been designed around national imperatives. If our nation can’t figure out what it wants, we won’t have a space program. I’m talking about the entire U.S. government apparatus. If goals are constantly changing, we are doing horrible damage to industrial space.” 

Marquez made the point that changing priorities and uncertainty puts a wet blanket on investment. Businesses and investors risk funds and resources on the potential for success, but if companies supplying federal space efforts are uncertain of how government priorities will change between administrations, they are more hesitant to take that risk. 

This is one reason why investors may be particularly interested in Tito’s endeavor – the mission priorities will remain consistent despite elections and DC politics. Yet, the Mars mission’s greatest potential result could be in restoring the national imperative for exploration, inspiring future generations to continue in the tradition of Louis and Clark, of the Wright brothers and Ford, and of all Americans who dared dream of making the impossible possible. As well as cultivating would-be astronauts, this will propel generations of Americans into technological, scientific and other high-skilled fields, becoming a catalyst for national prosperity, growth, jobs and global leadership. 

The people who will rocket away from Earth in 2018 will take a giant leap into the unknown. Some will call them crazy, and to a point, they will probably need to be. Yet, the brave souls who will make the journey will embody the human ambition that led our kind out of Africa 40,000 years ago, who settled from arctic tundra to barren desert to dense rain forest, and everywhere in between. David R. Scott was Commander of Apollo 15 when he walked on the moon in 1971. His words were as iconic and eternal as any that America’s astronauts uttered: 

"As I stand out here in the wonders of the unknown at Hadley, I sort of realize there's a fundamental truth to our nature. Man must explore, and this is exploration at its greatest."