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'Private' mission to Mars requests federal dollars, gets rejected

Multimillionaire Dennis Tito told Congress said that his plan to send two people to visit Mars’ galactic address as early as 2018 would not go forward without a pledge of federal financial support.

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Dennis Tito's ambitious plans call for a manned flight to Mars to launch in 2017. The multimillionaire says he needs NASA financial backing for the plan, once billed as a private endeavor, to go forward.

NASA/AP

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In a surprise announcement on Wednesday, multimillionaire Dennis Tito said that his plan to send two people to orbit Mars as early as 2018 would not go forward without NASA bankrolling. In a less surprising statement, NASA, which is fettered with numerous budget woes, said that it would not put up the requested sums.

Mr. Tito, who in 2001 became the world’s first space tourist, had announced his original plans for a manned Mars flyby back in February. He called his mission to send a husband-and-wife team to tour the Red Planet’s cosmic neighborhood Inspiration Mars.

At the time, Inspiration Mars was billed as a nonprofit mission: Tito would pull most of the needed funds out of his own deep pockets and furnish the rest through private donations. The needed hardware would be modeled on existing NASA technologies and designed in partnership with various subcontractors.

But in testimony presented yesterday before the House of Representatives science subcommittee, Tito unveiled a vastly different business model for his Mars flyby: a financial partnership between Inspiration Mars and NASA.

The new proposal, while still drawing in part from private funding sources, now requests the bulk of the $1 billion in expected expenditures from NASA. Such federal bankrolling is essential to assuring prospective investors of the worthwhileness of the cause, Tito told Congress. Investment in ambitious space exploration now would also spur the creation of future, deep space-probing commercial space industries, he said, taking Earthlings to Mars and beyond.  

“The proper government role in fostering growth in the commercial space sector begins with moving the entire industry forward by having NASA do the really hard deep space exploration missions for which there is no business model,” said Tito, in his comments before Congress. “This cutting edge role for government is the catalyst for the private sector to follow behind.”

Included in Tito’s testimony is a 90-day feasibility report developed in consultation with dozens of NASA scientists and industry experts. The report calls for the use of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), a mega rocket still in development, to blast into Earth’s orbit an empty capsule modeled on NASA’s Cygnus spacecraft. Another rocket launch would then send up a second craft to meet the Cygnus capsule. The astronauts would board Cygnus and take it to Mars. They would re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in a pod derived from NASA’s not-yet-in-use Orion capsule.

The proposal’s timeline for the Mars mission is tightly constrained to just four years, putting blastoff on Christmas Day in 2017. That’s because, at this time, the planets will be aligned so that the 340-million-miles trip to and from Mars would take just 501 days, with little fuel expenditures on the return part of the trip. This neat planetary alignment occurs only every 15 years. If Inspiration Mars is going to make a 2017 launch, it will need assurance of federal funding soon, Tito said.

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Acknowledging the difficulties of pulling together a manned mission to Mars in so little time, Tito also offered a next best alternative for a launch in 2021. At that time, though, the trip would be 88 days longer than one when the planets are aligned. It’s also possible “that, by then, another country – almost surely, China – will have seen our missed opportunity, and taken the lead themselves,” Tito said.

The trip’s goal is to bring humans within a hundred miles of the planet, on the 226th day of flight in August 2018. The trip would be precursor to the long-term goal of putting a human footprint on Mars.

“Expected for decades, envisioned by presidents, and imagined for centuries even before the age of space travel, a landing on the Red Planet is within America’s reach,” the proposal says. “The flyby of 2018 will bring that day closer.”

Tito’s private-public-partnership approach is not without precedent. NASA is at the moment supplying several private developers with about $1.4 billion in financial support to develop the spacecraft that will replace the agency’s scuttled shuttle program and carry astronauts between Earth and the International Space Station.

But while expressing its commitment to sharing its know-how and furnishing commercial partnerships for space exploration, NASA said that it could not commit funding to Inspiration Mars’ ambitious plans.

“The agency is willing to share technical and programmatic expertise with Inspiration Mars,” said David Weaver, NASA associate administrator for communications, in a statement emailed to reporters, “but is unable to commit to sharing expenses with them.”

“However, we remain open to further collaboration as their proposal and plans for a later mission develop,” he said.

NASA, which has tussled with Congress this year over a cut budget, has its own plans for Mars – and those plans are for the 2030s, giving the agency some two decades to put the mission together. That’s because much about sending humans to Mars is still unknown, noted Dr. Weaver, in the statement. Outstanding questions include how long-term exposure to radiation might waste human bodies, as well as about the psychological toll that long-term confinement with other people might take on Mars-bound astronauts.

But Tito, tapestrying the mission to Mars in nationalist tropes, told Congress that if NASA takes decades to answer those questions the US’s chances at collecting Mars as another bauble in its crown of firsts in space could dim. The US is credited with putting the first man on the moon, the first unmanned craft on Mars, and the first man-made craft in interstellar space, among other celestial ”firsts.”

“The first flight to Mars can be an achievement of this decade,” the proposal says. “Other nations have designs and aspirations to make this achievement their own. For America, this is our last chance to be first.”


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