Dennis Tito announces crewed Mars flyby – requires technical advances

by Chris Bergin

Millionaire Dennis Tito has announced plans to send a human couple on a 501 day flyby mission to Mars, via an optimistic schedule that will require several major advances in long duration space flight capabilities. The project will receive two years of initial funding via Tito, with an aim of launching in January, 2018.

Inspiration Mars:

The announcement on Wednesday introduced a non-profit foundation called “Inspiration Mars”, an organization that will also serve as the primary contractor for the mission, overseeing planning, training, systems development, processing and operations.

The plans are notional, not least from the hardware standpoint, with no launch vehicle or spacecraft selected.

The mission’s hardware will consist of a modified capsule launched out of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) using a single propulsive maneuver to achieve the Mars trajectory, heading for a 100 mile altitude flyby of the Red Planet. An inflatable habitat module will be deployed after launch and detached prior to re-entry.

Inspiration MarsInspiration Mars’ overview notes the flyby architecture lowers risk, with no critical propulsive maneuvers after leaving Earth vicinity, no entry into the Mars atmosphere, no rendezvous and docking, and represents the shortest duration round trip mission to Mars.

The January 5, 2018 launch opportunity also coincides with the 11-year solar minimum providing the lowest solar radiation exposure. The next optimal opportunity will be in 2031.

Mr Tito is no stranger to space flight, even becoming the first space tourist, following his six day trip to the International Space Station (ISS) back in 2001, launching and landing via the Russian Soyuz. As such, he will be aware of the ISS’ continuing advances in key space technologies, such as life support.

Getting to Grips with ISS' ECLSSOften a challenge for ISS crews, the Station’s Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) requires continual care and attention, via routine maintenance and occasional repair. For the proposed Mars mission, this technology will have to work for over 500 days, with only minimal on-board spare parts and a crew that will have to be fully briefed in repairing such a system.

The Mars spacecraft will utilize a closed-loop life support, designed for simplicity and “hands-on” maintenance and repair, according to the foundation. They have already signed up a company to aid with the development of their life support, namely Paragon Space Development Corporation, who are involved with ECLSS efforts on both NASA’s Orion spacecraft and the crewed version of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule.

Keeping the crew – likely to be a “tested, married American couple” – alive is the number one priority for the foundation. This challenge is by no means exclusive to the life support system, but also related to protecting them from radiation exposure.

NASA’s own plans for deep space exploration has spawned numerous studies that have cited the need for specific protection – from events such as Solar Radiation Storms – as a vital aspect of any mission beyond Earth’s protective magnetic field.

Radiation ShelterA Boeing-proposed mission to a Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) noted the need for a Radiation Storm Shelter that would consist of a “shelter in hard inner core of the inflatable habitat.” This shelter would consist of “stored water and polyethylene … to line the walls of the shelter” for radiation protection for the crew.

During the announcement, Inspiration Mars member Dr. Jonathan Clark, associate professor of Neurology and Space Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and space medicine advisor for the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, pointed to potential medical applications – such as personalized medicine – via Space Life Sciences research to aid the protection of the crew.

Claiming the radiation risk is not a show stopper, but a super concern, Dr Clark added the increased risks of developing cancer as a result of radiation exposure will be relayed to the potential astronauts to allow them to make an informed decision about applying for the mission.

“The real issue is dealing with acute radiation that impacts on the crew performance, because so many of the activities in the vehicle’s operation will be dependant on the crew,” Dr Clark noted. “So our focus is making sure the crew are still alive, viable and operational. If you get back and you have cancer, we can deal with that on Earth.”

The foundation also announced they have a Space Act Agreement (SAA) with NASA Ames for the development of a heat shield that will be able to endure the 14.2 km per second velocity re-entry at the conclusion of the Mars mission.

NASA’s own heat shield technology for deep space missions will enjoy its first real test next year, when Exploration Flight Test -1 (EFT-1) tasks Orion with a re-entry close to that expected from a return from the Moon.

Orion Heat Shield via L2Orion’s heat shield approach is to cover the blunt end of the capsule with an ablative material, which was also used on the Apollo capsules.

NASA’s Orion Thermal Protection System Advanced Development Project considered eight different candidate materials, before down-selecting to an Avcoat and Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator – with a technical name of AVCO 5026-39 HCG (Filled Epoxy Novalac in Fiberglass-Phenolic Honeycomb).

Orion’s backshell will have several hundred tiles
, exotically named as TUFI coated AETB-8 tiles, bonded to 10 panels of composite laminate facesheets on a titanium honeycomb core. Originally, the baseline for the backshell was a SLA-561V material with plasma sprayed aluminum coating for on-orbit thermal control. However, the AETB-8 tiles provide more mass-efficient MMOD (Micro-Meteoroid Orbital Debris) protection.

Notional Mars Inspiration ShipInspiration Mars will also utilize a capsule to bring the crew home, per notional graphics, although it is not yet known how advanced their heat shield evaluations are at this stage.

While the technical challenges require serious development, albeit to existing technology, Mr Tito went to great lengths to portray the goal of inspiring children and industry into thinking more about setting their sights on missions to Mars.

“When nations boldly follow opportunities, rooted in curiosity and guided by technological innovation, they grow, prosper, learn and lead. And this is what makes a nation great,” noted Mr Tito.

“Human exploration of space is a critical catalyst for our future growth and prosperity. “This is ‘A Mission for America’ that will generate knowledge, experience and momentum for the next great era of space exploration. It will encourage and embolden all Americans to believe, again, in doing the hard things that make our nation great, and inspire the next generation of explorers to pursue their destiny through STEM education.”

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Even if his project doesn’t succeed, there is the potential that the drive of Mars Inspiration – and any technology advances it may foster during the developmental stage – may provide a timely kick up the backside to space industry, and more so NASA, who hold interest in conducting missions to Mars.

Boeing's Mars Ship, via L2The US space agency has every intention of conducting crewed missions to the Red Planet – sometime in the mid 2030s – as the final leg of their exploration roadmap.

However, despite a huge amount of documented evaluations via their Design Reference Mission (DRM) efforts, an actual plan is yet to be released. The most recent Mars mission outline came via an in house publication from Boeing, separate to the DRM process.

NASA managers continue to note a detailed exploration plan – including an “Exploration Gateway” option – has been created, but remains unpublished due to the uncertainty surrounding the Agency’s long term budget outlook.

(Images: Via Mars Inspiration, Boeing, NASA and L2 content from L2’s specific sections, providing full exclusive Exploration Planning coverage. To join L2, click here:

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