Imagine taking two human beings and sealing them in a box for 500 days. The pair must survive on only the boxes of food and water crammed around them. Throughout their confinement they are at risk of being sprayed with a lethal dose of radiation. This is not the cruel and unusual punishment meted out by some fiendish despot, rather this could be Inspiration Mars, mankind’s first adventure into interplanetary space.

Welcome to Mars. How does this HST image of the planet compare to the view from the Dragon’s window. (image credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), J. Bell (Cornell University), and M. Wolff (Space Science Institute, Boulder) )

 

We could see a mission to Mars with a crew onboard by the end of this decade. Multi-millionaire Dennis Tito, the first space tourist,  is proposing and possibly even planning to send a privately financed manned mission to Mars in January 2018. The  journey would last 501 days. Tito, who paid about $20 million to visit the International Space Station in 2001, has founded a new nonprofit company called the Inspiration Mars Foundation.  The company will hold a press conference on  27 February 2013 to explain how the mission would be accomplished. Rumours say the plan is for a two-person free-return Mars mission that would fly by Mars without going into orbit or landing. The 501 day mission would set off in January 2018 using a modified SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launched by a Falcon Heavy rocket (also from SpaceX). This will be no joy-ride,  the crew’s comfort would be  “limited to survival needs only”.

The  proposed mission is a flyby of Mars with a free return back to Earth, without stopping. This is type of low-energy trajectory which needs only the initial escape from Earth and insertion to solar orbit. It has the advantage that the spacecraft, once launched, will swoop around the Sun, passing within 100 miles of Mars, with no further engine firings needed. This requires a special set of orbital circumstances; if the mission misses the 2018 launch window there will not be another opportunity until 2031.

This is a fantastically bold suggestion, unless there has been a misunderstanding Tito is proposing that in five years time we will have:

  • Cleared the Dragon spacecraft to carry a crew (Dragons have successfully carried cargos to the ISS, but the first Dragon flight with astronauts on board is planned for no earlier than mid-2015).
  • Enhanced the Dragon’s thermal protection system (heatshield) to survive re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere at an interplanetary, rather than orbital velocity. The mission profile includes an aerobraking manouever, followed by re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere at  14.2 km/sec. This would be the fastest ever reentry by any crewed spacecraft.
  • Improved its lifesupport system, currently optimised for a few days in orbit (and which has yet to be demonstrated) to enable a 16 month interplanetary mission. Note that the interplanetary travellers will not have the benefit of regular resupply flights bringing up water, food and spare parts, as crews on the ISS do.
  • Upgraded the Dragon’s radiation shielding to protect the crew from the solar and cosmic radiation absorbed in a 500 day flight beyond the van Allen Belts. Note that it seems impossible to add enough shielding to the Dragon so protect the astronauts from a Coronal Mass ejection. If the Dragon passes through a CME in interplanetary space the crew will die.
  • Cleared the Falcon Heavy rocket (which has yet to fly) to carry passengers.
  • Set up or arranged a suitable tracking and communications network for the mission.

None of these milestones are impossible; SpaceX is one of the rare “New Space” companies to actually deliver on its promises (although it tends to run slightly behind schedule). Still, I believe it will take luck and an astonishing degree of commitment (ie money) to get the all the technology ready in time.

The greatest weakness of this very stripped down interplanetary mission lies in the human factor. This 500 day mission would set a new human spaceflight endurance record (longest flight to date was that of cosmonaut Valeri Vladimirovich Polyakov who spent 438 days on the Mir spacestation). Keeping the crew healthy for so long will be challenging. Muscle tissue and bones waste away rapidly in zero-gravity and space station astronauts must take regular sessions of vigorous exercise to prevent their bodies’ deterioration. How the two occupants of the relatively small Dragon will do this is hard to imagine (especially as the craft will have to be stuffed with the food and water needed to keep the astronauts alive for 500 days).  It is unclear how the two crew will cope with the confinement and isolation; there have been earthbound Mars mission simulations but these have assumed larger crews and more living space and privacy than available on the Dragon.

Is it worth doing? I don’t see the point. Manned planetary flybys were considered by NASA fifty years ago. These would have used large Apollo-derived vehicles and taken place in the 1970s. The crew would have released probes and taken pictures during the encounter Obviously these never happened, and unmanned spacecraft technology has passed them by. We’re expecting the crew to endure nearly a year and half in hellish conditions for what? To snap a few pictures of the night side of Mars through the Dragon’s window as it hurtles past. Please don’t get me wrong, I would love to see meaningful human exploration of the Solar System but a crash-project in the twenty-first century to carry to out a scaled-down version of an obsolete mission with a high chance of ending in disaster seems quixotic and pointless.

UPDATE: the details of the proposed mission are now available, I have amended this post slightly to reflect them more accurately. The official site is at www.inspirationmars.org.

See inside SpaceX's passenger-carrying Dragon space capsule in this SPACE.com infographic.
Source SPACE.com: All about our solar system, outer space and exploration

(Article by Colin Johnston, Science Communicator)


11 Comments

Robert N. · July 2, 2013 at 04:59

I don’t know if this mission would pointless, but there’s plenty of room
for improvement:

1.
Change the mission profile from a dark side flyby to an orbital stay of 30 days, with
the ship going into a highly elliptical orbit around mars with a periapsis (low point)
of 100 miles above the Martian Surface & period of 24-48 hrs; Adjusted so that the
Argument or position of periapsis is above the daylight side at all times.

2.
Stay in orbit from 2-4 weeks; Do plenty of science: take 3D Photos, explore the surface
via real-time control of the Curiosity rover and/or a rover brought along, unmanned
sample returns from the Martian Surface and/or the Martian Moons.

3.
Modify Dragon with additional propellant tanks & Drago engines in the trunk for
insertion into and escape from Mars orbit as well as maneuvering; Use Wet Oxidation
Reactor to recycle liquid & solid wastes to extract N2, Water & CO2(to be converted
to O2 by Sabtier process or Photosynthesis). Replace solar arrays with nuclear RTGs
for constat power without dealing with attitude control/pointing issues along with
risk of micrometoroid damage.

4.
Modify Bigalow Module to fill with water and/or foam to provide protection from
both solar & cosmic radiation once deployed; Install onboard shower (good for
both hygiene & crew moral);

5.
Start the mission off with 2 Falcon Heavy boosters:

Booster #1: Bigalow Module w/upper stage (Modified Centaur, New Lh2/LOX
Stage or even a NERVA nuclear engine).

Booster #2: 2 Man Dragon to rendezvous & dock in Earth orbit, inflate and
checkout Bigalow Module/upper stage, then off to Mars!

I think with the above changes; This mission has an excellent chance of
success in which the returns can be enourmous!

David Jones · March 3, 2013 at 11:05

Rather them than me

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23230-mars-trip-to-use-astronaut-poo-as-radiation-shield.html

What did I say about the smell?

ChriisG · February 27, 2013 at 21:59

I agree, a pointless trip. It’s like driving a thousand miles to Wally World and then never getting out of the station wagon, just whizzing by the parking lot.

David Jones · February 26, 2013 at 14:36

Pointless? Well, maybe, but let me put another point of view.

I’ve been hoping to see a flight to Mars in my lifetime, but the conventional route (NASA) looks increasingly unlikely. I find it hard to believe in a 2030s schedule because that will involve Congress funding NASA appropriately and consistently for 20 years. This is the same Congress that will put federal agencies into hibernation in March because they can’t agree on taxation and budgets. Hmmm.

So I suggest that it’s either the Chinese that will get there, or a privately driven project (perhaps with NASA involvement).

I like the Tito plan, because it acts as a pathfinder for later trips. Sure, it has no scientific value, but then very little of manned spaceflight ever has – with the exception of the later lunar landings, and the occasional LEO initiative (e.g. fixing Hubble). Cynics have observed that the Shuttle existed to service the ISS, and the ISS existed as a destination for the Shuttle. But to give an example of how even a ‘pointless’ flight can make a mark, 45 years on we remember Apollo 8, with the Christmas broadcast and the Earthrise photo.

So what are the later trips? I don’t like Mars One – sending people on a one-way trip troubles me – but I’ve always been a fan of Mars orbit missions, with a craft in areostationary orbit. That would be about 11K miles up, and with suitable bandwidth, crew on board could control surface rovers in real time through VR interfaces and do an extraordinary amount of science – much more than current (slow) rovers – and with far greater coverage than manned landings. And you could develop systems for sample returns to orbit, Aldrin cyclers to service the orbiter from Earth and carry crew back and forth. 3D printers in orbit or on the surface would construct some new hardware on site. And one day perhaps you’d land.

The challenges involved in this – and the Tito flight – are very substantial, but perhaps not much greater than the challenges facing NASA in 1961 when faced with a 9 year target of a lunar landing. You mention some of these in your article; food and fluids are perhaps the biggest. Clearly it would be best to send two (small) women. With a minimum daily intake of 1200 calories, they could survive with 2/3 of the food a two-man crew would need. But it still means leaving Earth with 1.2 million calories on board. I think you could cram that into a Dragon capsule, but I’m not sure. You’d certainly need good menu planning so you ate your way towards a window by the time you got to Mars. It would be better if you could dock with a Bigelow inflatable before leaving and use that for storage.

But the overriding problem is smell. Stories say that US Navy swimmers involved in getting astronauts out of Apollo capsules would gag when the hatches were opened. And that’s after 10 or 12 days. Imagine what it would be like after 500 days with no plumbing, piles of discarded food cartons and just a box of wet wipes between the two crew members. Any country downwind would have to be evacuated.

Andrew W · February 26, 2013 at 04:45

To each his own, some people think football is pointless.

GDR · February 25, 2013 at 08:53

I suppose climbing Everest for the first time and Visiting the North and South Pole were also pointless. It’s hard to measure. I for one find it inspirational.

    admin · February 25, 2013 at 19:53

    Polar exploration is very important for science and being first to climb the world’s highest mountain is certainly an impressive feat.

    An Everest expedition which sets off without any climbing gear to drive two thousand km across country to the foothills of the Himalayas, then stops to look at the distant summit of Everest through binoculars before immediately turning around and driving straight back is in some ways admirable but also pointless.

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