SPACE pioneer Dennis Tito launched the ultimate recruitment challenge last night as he unveiled plans to send a crew of one man and one woman on an 832 million-mile voyage to Mars.
Setting out his vision for “the most engaging human endeavour in modern history”, Mr Tito, 72, a former Nasa engineer, intends to dispatch the private astronauts on a “challenging but attainable” fly-by mission that will take them within 100 miles of the surface of the Red Planet.
Cooped up for 501 days in a ten-ton capsule that will offer just 600 cubic feet of living space after food, life-support systems and water tanks have been fitted, the duo – who will be chosen through a “rigorous selection process” – would be mankind’s first ambassadors to Mars. Launch is planned for January 2018.
“I’m just really excited about this. There are no showstoppers… this is a challenging but attainable goal,” Mr Tito announced at a press conference in Washington DC.
The multi-millionaire chief executive of Wilshire Associates, a California-based investment management firm, Mr Tito became the first private citizen to pay his way into space when he bought a seat on a Russian flight to the International Space Station in 2001.
The price tag then was $20 million (£9m). The Mars mission will be several zeroes costlier.
The tycoon will fund the first two years of the five-year project from his own pocket and is seeking donors – not investors – for the remainder, a challenge about which he said he felt “comfortable” and confident.
“This is not a commercial mission… Let me guarantee you, I will come out a lot poorer,” he said. “But my grandchildren will come out a lot wealthier through the inspiration that this will give them.”
The risks of the voyage, for which a launch opportunity exists only once every 15 years, are so great it would fail Nasa safety criteria, were it a government mission.
The crew would launch on hardware that has not yet even been built and tested – almost certainly a Falcon Heavy rocket currently under development by SpaceX – endure potentially life-threatening doses of cosmic radiation and other health risks, and in the knowledge that if something goes wrong there is no chance of an abort or rescue.
The upside, said Mr Tito, who has ruled himself out as a candidate, would be the opportunity to go where no human has gone before, inspire the next generation of explorers and lay the groundwork for a future manned landing on Mars. Nasa has set itself a goal of journeying to Mars by the mid-2030s.
“I’ll be 95 years old. I don’t want to wait until that time,” said Mr Tito. “We need to do something innovative and exciting. We need to have missions in between to gain engineering experience and the life sciences.
“How do humans behave when they get away from the Earth… when they see this pale blue dot that they can barely differentiate from a star?
“We need to learn all that before we send a crew to land on Mars.”
The trip will be a “fast, free-return mission”, meaning the capsule will hurtle past Mars, then harness its gravitational field to slingshot itself back to Earth.
The chief medical officer of the Inspiration Mars project is Dr Jonathan Clark, a former Nasa flight surgeon whose wife, astronaut Laurel Clark, was killed in the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003. He served as medical chief to Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner’s space freefall project last year.
Long space voyage could leave astronauts sick and blind
The 501 days it is estimated the mission to the Red Planet will take would put the astronauts’ minds and bodies under immense strain; above, an impression of the Inspiration Mars capsule. The risks and effects of long-duration deep-space flight on the human mind and body are immense.
While facing psychological stressors, such as cramped and primitive living conditions, prolonged social isolation and the profound effect of seeing one’s home planet disappear from view, a Mars-bound crew will also face physical risks, such as brain decay, muscle deterioration and bone erosion.
Once astronauts venture beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), they face bombardment by cosmic radiation capable of causing cancer and damaging the central nervous system.
A study funded by Nasa determined last year that the radiation dose experienced during a return mission to Mars could also cause cognitive impairment and accelerate the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Aside from the radiation delivered by hydrogen protons from solar flares, astronauts travelling to Mars would be exposed to a powerful form of radiation known as HZE from highly charged particles – such as iron particles – whose mass and speed allow them to penetrate solid objects.
Even if Tito’s team make it to Mars, they could find themselves unable to savour the view. The effects of micro-gravity can damage astronauts’ eyeballs and optic nerves, blurring vision. Left untreated, such damage could even lead to blindness.
A Mars crew could live off water produced as a by-product of the spacecraft’s fuel cells – and by recycling urine.