This bold undertaking is planned by the Inspiration Mars Foundation, a non-profit company founded by millionaire and space tourist Dennis Tito that was officially unveiled on Feb. 27 after early details leaked. Though the spacecraft would not land humans on Mars or even put them in orbit, it would bring people within a few hundred kilometers of the Martian surface — roughly the same distance between the International Space Station and Earth — and represent a major milestone in human spaceflight. If successful, the mission would go down in history as the first time a private company accomplished something government agencies were unable to do in space.
The mission is extremely ambitious, well beyond anything previously accomplished by the private sector and it faces plenty of obstacles. The company has an aggressive schedule to keep if it wants to hit its 2018 mark and needs to make sure the necessary technology is developed and well-tested. Despite its deep-pocketed backer, the mission has nowhere near the funding it needs to launch and will require raising greater sums than have ever been done for a private space endeavor. Its designers also need to figure out exactly how to keep the crew healthy, both physically and psychologically, for the 501-day duration of the flight as they face dangers from radiation, bone and muscle loss, fatigue, and depression. Mission designers will have to ensure they can get the crew safely to the ground when the capsule returns to Earth at a screaming 30,000 mph.
Yet despite these hurdles, of all the bold announcements from private spaceflight companies in recent years, this one seems the most achievable.
“The reason this entire thing is possible is because it’s actually a very simple mission,” said Jane Poynter, president of the Paragon Space Development Corporation, which makes life-support systems and has partnered with Inspiration Mars. “We’re not trying to land, we’re going to fly by and we’re using extant technologies that NASA and the space industry have been developing for years.”
Inspiration Mars isn’t looking to sell a product in an unknown market, like the asteroid-mining Planetary Resources or the national-moon-ferrying Golden Spike Company, and doesn’t have incredibly aspirational aims, like the planet-colonizing Mars One. It hopes to undertake a straightforward mission that could spur innovation, inspire young scientists and engineers, and move human spaceflight forward.
“You have to have a reasonable degree of skepticism and realism,” said Taber MacCallum, who co-founded Paragon with Poynter (and is also her husband). “We might run into some insurmountable obstacle 18 months in. But with proper engineering, support, and a good mess of luck, we could see this done.”
Now all they have to do is actually fly to Mars.