Land safely on Mars? Great idea, but hold the “safely.”
Let us know if any part of the following scenario sounds like a good idea: A wealthy entrepreneur is planning a last-minute (as space exploration goes) mission to Mars because the only viable launch window closes in January of 2018. This requires a lot of unproven technology to be fast-tracked so it will be ready in time for a middle-aged married couple to pilot this high-risk flyby-only mission. They’ll be sealed in a tiny inflatable capsule on a 501-day trip where they’ll be within 60,000 miles of the red planet for only about 10 hours. They won’t orbit, land or get to do much research, other than possibly prove whether or not humans will die attempting this kind of stunt. Oh, and they’ll be lining the interior walls of the space capsule with their own feces as extra radiation protection. (Who said space flight isn’t romantic?)
We’re being a little flippant here, but this is more or less what multimillionaire and veteran space tourist Dennis Tito has in mind now that his pet Mars mission has been green-lit by his nonprofit group, Inspiration Mars. The cost of this mission is estimated to be around $1 billion, which is chump change for a Mars mission (the rover Curiosity cost $2.6 billion), and Tito is fronting a lot of the money himself with the rest hopefully coming from donations. This budget price is possible because no landing is taking place, which would make the trip enormously more complex (landing on Mars is very difficult). Mars will also be in the right position so that almost no fuel will be necessary. Gravity will do most of the work, flinging the vehicle past the Red Planet and back toward our blue home. Tito calls it a “free return” mission, because once it has started, there’s nothing to do except sit back and make sure life support keeps running. Unfortunately, the launch vehicle, space capsule and life support system needed for this trip don’t even exist yet, at least not in a final form approved for carrying humans. Add to this the vague plan for dealing with the unprecedented radiation exposure the crew will experience which, according to their own feasibility study, simply says, “Further study needs to be done to find creative solutions for radiation protection, including the amount of radiation and the level of risk of a high radiation event deemed to be acceptable.”
The high radiation levels are why an older couple is desirable. They won’t be having any radiation-mutated DNA to pass on to their children, and they’ll have less time left alive if they make it home to develop cancer from exposure during the trip. We hope they’ll remember to bring paper clips, chewing gum and a box set of MacGyver DVDs, or at least MacGruber.
We’re all for private investment in space. SpaceX has been a big success, and if the Inspiration Mars mission goes forward, SpaceX will probably provide the rocket and space capsule for the trip. People need to be inspired, and sending humans to Mars would be an incredible achievement. It’s just that NASA would never attempt something like this — it’s too stripped down and too dangerous. NASA tried “Better, Faster, Cheaper” over a decade ago and all they got were a lot of failed Mars missions and bad press. A crew of two, let alone two people with a strong emotional attachment, might be a mistake. That’s why NASA prefers crews of 4/6 when possible. What if a spouse becomes gravely ill or dies? Imagine being trapped in a tiny, feces-lined capsule with the corpse of your dead husband or wife, the only comfort being an iPad full of movies you’ve already seen 10 times, and the interactions you do have with home are all on a 20-minute delay because you’re tens of millions of miles from Earth. Outside the window, there’s nothing but a black void.
If Tito’s mission takes place and is successful, it will be inspiring and we may learn many things about what it’ll take to get humans to actually land on Mars. If it isn’t, and we end up with a dead crew crashed on Mars or hurtling forever into deep space, it might hamper progress by eroding public support. Everyone wants to go to Mars, but it has to be done correctly. It’s going to be dangerous enough with the best technology and a full crew. The payoff here isn’t worth the risk of a catastrophe, which some experts are now estimating at 66%.