Private Mars Mission in 2018?

An entrepreneur wants to launch two interplanetary buddies on the ultimate joyride: A mission to Mars. But the timeline is tight -- as in 5 years time "tight."

This random piece of spaceflight news is brought to you by Dennis Tito, multimillionaire and founder of the non-profit Inspiration Mars Foundation. Tito also knows a thing or two about space - he was the world's first space tourist who, in 2001, spent a little over a week living on board the International Space Station. He reportedly spent $20 million for his orbital trek.

And now, it seems, he has far loftier goals.

Tito will host a press conference on Feb. 27 detailing his "Mars-shot" plan. But what is known is that he intends to hire Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, to blast a spaceship beyond low-Earth orbit. SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket - that is currently in development - should fit the bill quite nicely. According to a NewSpace Journal report based on an Inspiration Mars paper detailing the proposed mission, a modified SpaceX Dragon capsule will be the spaceship of choice.

Because of the short timeframe to develop the necessary technology to make this mission possible, the mission will be strictly no-frills. It will use existing tech for life support and will not make any attempt to land on the Martian surface or orbit the planet. It will simply be a fly-there, fly-by, fly-back mission. Attempting such a feat would be one for the history books, surely catapulting the hopes and dreams on Earth to the Red Planet where far grander missions will be attempted later on.

By Tito's team's reckoning, the mission will launch in the January 2018 launch window (when Earth and Mars are in a favorable positions) and last 501 days.

"This 'Mission for America' will generate new knowledge, experience and momentum for the next great era of space exploration," officials from the Inspiration Mars Foundation wrote in a media advisory on Feb. 20 (via "It is intended to encourage all Americans to believe again, in doing the hard things that make our nation great, while inspiring youth through Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and motivation."

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This all sounds very noble and exciting, but until next week's press conference, it's hard to comment on the details.

Mars Frustrations

Discussing human Mars missions can be frustrating. NASA has been aiming its human spaceflight dreams at the Red Planet for decades and yet we keep sending robots in place of astronauts. Robotic exploration of Mars is awesome, but you can't totally replace the human experience with hi-tech emissaries. Tito seems to "get" that - he wants to inspire America to undertake the farthest manned expedition since the Apollo era.

Unfortunately, simply cramming a skeleton crew into a capsule using existing technology and catapulting it at Mars seems to fly in the face of studies into the psychological and physiological impacts on humans in space and extreme isolation. Although the impressive SpaceX Dragon capsule is "roomy" by current spaceship standards, will the volume be large enough to support two people plus their water and food needs for 501 days? "Crew comfort is limited to survival needs only. For example, sponge baths are acceptable, with no need for showers," says the paper. Only hard-core survivalists need apply?

As the joint Russian-European Mars500 experiment that recently ended proved, we are far from fully understanding how individuals react to long-term isolation. Also, the impact of high-energy particles on the brain during long-duration spaceflight are only just beginning to come to light. And then there's the degradation of drugs in long-duration spaceflight. And muscle atrophy. And bone wastage (you get the point).

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But there's a flip-side to this coin. We live in a risk-adverse society where "doing bold things" require a disclaimer that makes the Facebook privacy agreement look like a haiku. Pushing the human exploration envelope invokes fear of lawsuits, injury and death rather than advancing mankind beyond low-Earth orbit. Sure, spaceflight is bad for your health, but is there a greater danger of not doing these things? These fears, plus the inevitable political strain of securing funding for awesome science projects, ultimately stymie the opportunities for doing an "Apollo 2.0″ and landing a human on Mars.

For privately-owned entities like SpaceX and entrepreneurs like Tito, many of these factors can be circumvented and, perhaps, they can lead the next great era of human space exploration of the solar system.

So, we wait to hear the details of Tito's plan; let's just hope the details are as achievable as the challenge is formidable.

For more information on Tito's plans, also check out Mike Wall's article.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (Mars rendering), SpaceX (Dragon capsule art), edit by Ian O'Neill

When Dragon Met Harmony May 26, 2012 -- On Saturday morning at 5:53 a.m. EDT, astronauts aboard the International Space Station unlocked the Dragon hatch and ventured into the first commercial spacecraft in history to be attached to the orbiting outpost. The Dragon, built and operated by the private space company Space Exploration Technologies (or SpaceX), was launched on May 22 and successfully carried out a complex series of orbital maneuvers before berthing with the space station on May 25. Throughout Dragon's rendezvous with the Harmony module of the station, European astronaut and flight engineer André Kuipers -- who is currently on board the space station as a member of Expedition 30/31 -- captured some key moments in high-resolution through the lens of his camera. Here are the highlights.

Dragon Over Namibia During one of the Dragon's "fly-unders," Kuipers snapped the private spacecraft as it passed over the Namibian desert.

10 Meters and Closing The Dragon moves toward the station's Canadarm2 robotic arm.

Dragon Grab On Friday at 9:56 a.m. EDT, NASA astronaut Don Pettit radioed Mission Control in Houston, Texas, to say: "Looks like we've got us a Dragon by the tail." Using the space station's Canadarm2, Pettit grappled the Dragon to begin the gentle process of berthing the unmanned cargo capsule with the station's Nadir port on its Harmony module.

Sci-Fi Spaceship "Like this it looks a bit like a model from a 70's sci-fi film," Kuipers remarks on his Flickr page.

Teamwork in the Cupola NASA flight engineer Don Pettit (front) and André Kuipers work in the space station's Cupola during the Dragon berthing.

Dragon Glow The Dragon capsule and Canadarm2 reflect lights from the space station as sunlight catches the Earth's horizon.

On Target The docking camera shows the Dragon's hatch as it nears berthing.

Berthed! Kupers: "And the Dragon is in its lair! Task accomplished."

"The gate to the Dragon's lair" Kuipers' reflection can be seen the Dragon's hatch window.

"Of course it is from Los Angeles." Once the hatch was opened on Saturday morning, Don Pettit remarked that the Dragon's interior smelled "like a brand new car." Kuipers went even further, saying: "Inside of the Dragon module. Beautiful. Spacious, Modern. Blue LEDs. Feels a bit like a sci-fi filmset. Of course it is from Los Angeles." Now the Dragon is attached to the station, the astroauts will unload the cargo and then reload the capsule with equipment and experiments to be returned to Earth. Undocking is scheduled for May 31 before the capsule will reenter and splash-down off the coast of California.

For more incredible space station photographs and high-resolution versions of the photos shown here, be sure to browse André Kuipers' Flickr photostream.

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