I generally take a dim view of people who say we shouldn’t spend money on space when there are plenty of problems down here, but this may be the first instance I’m inclined to agree with them.
Inspiration Mars, for those of you who are unfamiliar with it, is a private venture sponsored by space tourist Dennis Tito. The idea is to take advantage of a once-every-15-years launch window that allows a flyby of Mars with minimal energy requirements (i.e., smallest amount of fuel required). This window, however, is next open on Jan. 5th, 2018- less than 5 years away. This, in addition a desire to keep costs as low as possible, means that this mission will feature the barest of essentials. The crew will be made up of two people, preferably a married male-and-female couple past their childbearing years (since they don’t have to worry about accidental sterilization from the radiation environment in deep space). The crew will be housed in a space about 600 cubic meters (which is roughly equivalent to my living room, if I’m not mistaken), for a period of 501 days before returning to Earth. It’s a free-return trajectory mission- meaning, you don’t need to do anything to get back to Earth, as the spacecraft will return there on its own; however, it also means there’s no abort mode- once you’ve made your final burn, you’re locked into your trajectory for good, and can’t go head back any earlier.
Now, I have to admit, I am kind of impressed by the sheer audacity of the mission. After all, all of this is at least theoretically possible with near-current technology. And such a bold move may inspire others, by demonstrating that this sort of crazy thing is, in fact, entirely possible (which is probably why they named it Inspiration Mars, and is arguably the main goal of the project).
However, I can’t help but wonder if this really is the best use of money and resources. Never mind the rather spartan conditions of the crew- they won’t be bringing any science equipment (too much mass), and while they’ll pass within 100 miles of Mars (which, admittedly, is pretty awesome to think about), it’ll only be for a matter of hours, and, on top of that, because of the orbital mechanics, their closest approach will be to the night side of the planet, so they won’t be able to see anything anyway (though there is now talk of them taking night vision goggles with them to make up for this. Seriously). The only real thing that would come out of this mission is to simply prove that it can be done- and that assumes the crew will make it back alive and in good health (God help human spaceflight if they don’t).
There is, of course, also the matter of logistics. Inspiratio
n Mars requires that, within the next 5 years, the following vehicles and technology be flight-ready (and ideally flight-tested):
-human-rated SpaceX Dragon capsule
-human-rated habitation module, probably derived from a Bigelow module
-human-rated SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket (which would be the only thing that’s going to be available at the time that can get that much mass into space)
-a really, really good environmental control and life support system (ECLSS)
None of which technically exists yet (although, to be fair, it is likely most or all of it will exist by 2016 or so).
And they also need to raise the $1-2 billion to pay for it all.
So, I’m guessing the odds of getting all the logistics in place by that 2018 deadline are probably pretty slim anyway.
Still, this isn’t to say that this project is entirely a waste of time -if nothing else, it could advance the development of long-term ECLSS, which would be helpful, both in space and here on Earth.
But if it were my money, I’d probably chose to spend it on something a bit more practical. Like, say, climate change mitigation, or, if you want to remain in the arena of human spaceflight, something like NAUTILUS-X. Or whatever Elon Musk is up to.*
*Damnit, Elon, it’s been 3 months since you promised that you’d finally reveal what the deal with the “Mars Colonial Transport” was. Quit teasing us!