Friday, February 22, 2013

An Early Manned Mission to Mars in 2018?

On 27 February Dennis Tito, who paid his way to the ISS as a tourist back in 2001, will be announcing the plans of a new private space company, the Inspiration Mars Foundation.  The rumor mill has it that their purpose is to launch a manned expedition to Mars as early as January 2018. 

According to several sources, the mission would be a 501-day free-flying flyby (neither orbiting nor landing on Mars).  It would be lifted into space by a Falcon Heavy launch vehicle and with crew accommodation for two people in the form of a modified Dragon capsule, of recent ISS fame.  This scheme would incorporate ideas already put forward by SpaceX’s Elon Musk, who is a vocal advocate of both private space development and the exploration and eventual colonization of Mars.

The mission would be financed privately and would advance on a much more ambitious schedule than any governmental or intergovernmental project could reasonably expect to achieve.

For those who instinctively disbelieve the concept that private enterprise can provide access to space cheaper and on a larger scale than governmental entities can, a refresher course on SpaceShipTwo, the Bigelow inflatable space station module, the Dragon capsule, and the dozens of companies that have set their sights on providing low-cost private access to space would be in order.

This seems to be a typically American thrust, but in fact Canadian, European, and other companies are also engaged in these pursuits.  In fiction, the first manned mission to the Moon was envisioned by Jules Verne (De la Terre a la Lune; 1865) as being a private venture funded by rich American industrialists, building on Civil War military technology, and launched (fired!) from Florida by a giant gun.  In fact, strangely enough, the first technically plausible suggestion of how to get humans into space was in a novel, “Beyond the Planet Earth: In the Year 2000”, written by the pre-Soviet Russian visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovskii in 1916.  In it, the impetus for the development of manned spaceflight came from an international team of scientists and a group of private investors whom we would now call venture capitalists.

Travel to Mars (“Barsoom”) was a standard theme of the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Percy Gregg’s novel “Across the Zodiac” (1880) recounts a visit to Mars.  Another early tale of interplanetary travel, like Tsiolkovskii’s novel also set in the year 2000,  was “A Journey in Other Worlds”, authored in 1894 by John Jacob Astor IV.  These and many other books, such as E. E. “Doc” Smith’s novels, generally attribute space travel ventures to innovators and private individual, not governments.

Perhaps Dennis Tito’s announcement will bring that spirit of non-governmental initiative not just into space, but all the way to Mars.

1 comment:

Kelly said...

Hey, Dr. Lewis! It's Kelly Parks, your student/intern from long, long ago. I remember you asking me to plot the orbit of a mission just like this (as a potential Soviet project). Who knew, right?