The plan to send a pair of American astronauts on a 500-day trip around the planet Mars and back hit a snag this week, when NASA told Inspiration Mars head Dennis Tito that they'd be happy to lend technical expertise to the mission, but he was going to have to find a way to pay for it himself.
Tito, who became the world's first space tourist back in 2001, outlined his plan earlier this year — a spacecraft would carry two astronauts (preferably a married couple) to fly by the planet Mars, then swing close to the orbit of Venus to help it catch up to Earth, and the couple would safely splash down in their capsule, mission accomplished. In Tito's original assessment of the whole mission, it seemed that he would be able to handle the financing on his own and through investors, however, a new feasibility study apparently indicated they were going to need some help. Specifically, they'd need to 'borrow' one of NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS) rockets, which are scheduled for testing just before Tito's 2017/2018 launch window opens, and NASA would pretty much be on the hook for that bill.
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Tito went in front of the U.S. Congress on Wednesday to make his pitch, including the following warning: "If I may offer a frank word of caution to this subcommittee: The United States will carry out a Mars flyby mission, or we will watch as others do it — leaving us to applaud their skill and their daring. If America is ever going to do a flyby of Mars — a manned mission to another world — then 2018 is our last chance to be first."
It seems that Congress wasn't inspired.
According to SpaceRef.com, NASA spokesman David Weaver penned a reply to Tito, outlining the challenges the mission plan will have to overcome and saying: "The agency is willing to share technical and programmatic expertise with Inspiration Mars, but is unable to commit to sharing expenses with them. However, we remain open to further collaboration as their proposal and plans for a later mission develop."
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There is a later mission in the works, in fact. Tito's plan mentioned that if they miss the December 25, 2017 to January 5, 2018 launch window, another similar window wouldn't open until around 2032. However, a window of opportunity for a backup mission exists in 2021. The only problem with that is the flight path for this backup would take 88 days longer, and the spacecraft would have to dip inside the orbit of Venus, both of which would raise the radiation exposure of the astronaut pair.
NASA's reply isn't all that surprising, given the budget woes they're suffering lately. Missions like this one, and the Mars One efforts to build a colony on the Red Planet, may seem frivolous, but its efforts like these that drive technology and will likely spur us into becoming an interplanetary species in the near future. Hopefully Mars Inspiration can find more support to keep the mission going, or it doesn't look like we'll be making it to Mars anytime soon.
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