Dennis Tito

This is for inspiration; it’s a test flight to show we can get there.

Dennis Tito

TitoDennis Tito wants to go to Mars and he wants to leave January 5, 2018. Well, at 72 and despite his credentials as the first space tourist, he’ll actually leave the travelling to a younger crew. He has in mind a married couple in their 50s. Prior astronauts are preferred but experience isn’t necessary as he demonstrated with his seven day vacation aboard the International Space Station (ISS) back in 2001. That trip cost him $20 million but the Mars excursion is expected to top $2 billion. He’s putting up $100 million of his own money for the project and created the Inspiration Mars Foundation to arrange the rest. While the astronauts won’t be expected to kick in for the flight, they will have to be handy. It will be up to them to fix anything that breaks during the 501 day flight. Tito points out that one of the benefits of sending a married couple to Mars is that when the emotional strain becomes too much, they can always hug. And there’s likely to be a good deal of strain. Though experience isn’t necessary, the couple will have to demonstrate that they can live together under very tight conditions. For close to seventeen months, they’ll live in a space roughly the size of a residential bathroom. Also, in the back of their minds will be their potential exposure to cancer producing levels of both cosmic and solar radiation. Altogether, this could generate a lot of hugs!

Sounds pretty crazy, doesn’t it? But maybe not. Tito’s mission won’t land on Mars. Instead, it will loop around the red planet and slingshot back to earth. That’s why the launch date is so important. In January 2018, Earth and Mars will be at their closest point. They won’t be this close again for another 15 years which is also why NASA’s tentative Mars mission isn’t until the 2030s. Tito doesn’t think he’ll have trouble finding astronauts. He points out that over the last forty years, more than 600,000 people have volunteered to be astronauts. The couple selected will spend ten hours at roughly 100 miles above the surface before beginning their free return trajectory back to Earth. Importantly, the mission will use the same off-the-shelf technology employed for near earth projects such as the ISS. Experts agree that it’s technically doable and doable on Tito’s aggressive schedule. In fact, even NASA has signed on as a partner. The only limiting factor is financial. Here, Tito is hoping to build momentum by demonstrating the mission’s feasibility, the urgency of the launch date and the epic nature of the flight itself. He’s hoping to inspire industry, governments and most importantly, everyday folks.

So, is Dennis Tito a visionary or a nut? Launching a mission to Mars in less than five years sounds crazy until you look a little closer. Both science and the human spirit say it can be achieved. That raises the question, “why haven’t we done it?” Risk aversion, institutional inertia, lack of vision all contribute. It seems greatness has to be inspired. There has to be a person, an idea or objective that fires our imagination. We can thank Tito for trying to awaken a zeal for science that has been long dormant. But nearer than Mars, we might ask, are we inspired? Is your eye on something greater than yourself? Are you willing to take a risk? Are you willing to stray from the safe path in search of something epic? It doesn’t take interplanetary travel to awaken the soul. It just takes imagination. So think about it. What’s your Mars mission and when will you launch?          —Ebert

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