Tito's Inspiration Mars: The Fly in the Flyby Ointment

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Private enterprise can do a manned flyby of Mars with existing technology every 15 years, and the first one could happen in 2018.

That is the takeaway from Dennis Tito's press conference Wednesday announcing his Inspiration Mars foundation's project. The ramp up to launch is fast and furious, reckless for a space project of this magnitude.

But, as Tito pointed out, so was the Apollo program. Between 1961 to 1968, NASA went from "How do we do this?" to Apollo 8's historic flyby of the moon. A huge accomplishment.

Tito didn't mention that a flash fire on the launch pad of Apollo 1 killed three of NASA's finest. Seems relevant. With new undertakings of this complexity, the devil is in the detail.

The 2018 target takes advantage of a periodic alignment of our planet with Mars that allows for a rocket to swing within hundreds of miles of the Red Planet and loop back to Earth in a much shorter time and with far less expenditure of energy than would be possible otherwise.

Many known dangers and many unknowns are certainly arrayed against the astronauts. To name a few:
  • Life support systems will need to be more rigorous and reliable than even those aboard the International Space Station.
  • The project is leaning toward the Falcon Heavy and Dragon capsule from SpaceX as the launch rocket and crew vehicle. While the dragon has been used on cargo voyages the Falcon Heavy, a larger version of the Falcon 9 currently being used, has not yet flown -- a hugely powerful, untested device.
  • The dangers of solar radiation outside the Earth's magnetic field are potentially deadly. Critics of manned Mars missions often point to this single fact as the biggest practical challenge. Many feel Mars will forever remain out of reach as a result. The more optimistic, including Tito, feel the danger can be mitigated.
  • To make the prospect even more daunting the astronauts will not have the advantage of being able to abort their mission. Once it launches and they are under way, the next stop is 501 days later, using Mars gravity as a slingshot for the return trip. Anything goes wrong and they've three choices: live with it, die with it or fix it.
  • Assuming they make it back, descent through the atmosphere will be riskier than usual as their capsule sets a record for manned flight reentry speed.

    Sounds ambitious, yes? Requires the right stuff, a disciplined team of hardline achievers, focused engineers, do-or-die warrior-genius adventurers. Do we have that?

    Sort of . . . well, no, not really.

    Aside from being filthy stinking rich, Tito's biggest claim to fame is being the first tourist in space, paying Russia a boatload of money to be taken to the ISS and back home. So add that to his resume: Was once Extra Baggage.

    Tito's fascination with Mars led him early to an engineer post at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratories in the 1960s charting flight paths for NASA's Mariner probes to Mars. But that wasn't going to make him rich, so he quit in 1970 and founded the investment firm Wilshire Associates. His net worth now is estimated in the low-to-mid hundreds of millions.

    The other three members of the Mars project team at the press conference were space medicine expert Dr. Jonathan Clark of Baylor University, who worked as Felix Baumgartner's Red Bull Stratos team, and Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter, who were part of the controversial Biosphere 2 project of the early 1990s and are now directors of Paragon Space Development, a company specializing in life support systems.

    Biosphere 2 bears more explanation. That project locked MacCallum, Poynter, six other individuals and dozens of animals into an airtight dome housing a simulated ocean, rain forest, desert and other natural components of an Earthlike environment, with the sun supposedly as the only outside influence. They wound up enduring prolonged semi-starvation, problems related to the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide and psychological issues related to their confinement.

    The science behind the Biosphere project was questioned from the beginning, and the data collected was of dubious value. Egos got in the way at every step. In particular, there seemed to be a reluctance on the part of those involved in the project to admit the mission had been compromised, even when they were accused of smuggling in food or forced to pump oxygen into the dome.

    The Vanity Express

    Tito is able to fund the initial phase of this Mars project through his own private fortune, just like he did with the space-tourist stint.

    Likewise Biosphere 2 was funded entirely by billionaire Ed Bass. The lack of outside funding allowed it to rely on a small, close-knit group of people, compounding suspicions in the public and the scientific community of a conspiratorial hoax.

    Instead of bringing funding onboard from a variety of respected sources as a way to build credibility, both of these projects decided they could use wealth to buy trust at a discount.

    At this point, Inspiration Mars has no significant partnerships, from NASA or SpaceX, for example, or others in the commercial space industry. SpaceX offered its Dragon capsule and designs for the Falcon Heavy but has made no serious commitment or endorsement; NASA offered to help develop certain systems if funding for the work came from Inspiration Mars but has said specifically it is not endorsing the Mars mission.

    No outside funding commitments, no professional partnerships, yet the team announced anyway. Why? Because the four of them thought this was a good idea? What are they, a rock band? Is this Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure to Mars?

    Vanity. It has a way of alienating people from the very cause you seek to promote.

    A reviewer of Poynter's memoir of the Biosphere 2 experience on the American Scientist Web site speaks for much of the scientific community when she says book and project both seemed "haphazard" and "seem to have lacked a clear plan."


    Real Inspiration

    At the press conference quoting Helen Keller, Dr. Clark said: "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."

    Maybe so, but how we approach it can mean the difference between a daring successful adventure and a daring disastrous adventure. (I had this very conversation with my 17-year-old daughter this morning -- every parent knows what I'm talking about.)

    Tito needs funding -- he's not a billionaire, he can't afford the Mars trip alone and that's a good thing. That need might finally force him out of his wealth bubble, force him and the Biosphere folks out of the public eye and get good, disciplined people and companies involved as active partners.

    If he can't make that leap, he needs to turn his foundation into something else, an information clearinghouse for Mars missions perhaps. He does not have the freedom to do a half-baked job of a manned Mars flyby, to muck it up. That's one thing he can't do.

    This is no mere personal quest, no joyride, no clubhouse game. As he and his team were fond of noting at the press conference, they are setting themselves up to represent the entire species with this project. If they're going to be so bold as to claim they can do it, they have an obligation to get it right.

    -- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park

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