Monday, March 4, 2013

Married to Mars


I watched Dennis Tito at his Inspiration Mars press conference, and my mind has been percolating on the subject since. The space press and network news channels splashed the nutshell version with varying degrees of accuracy:

The year 2018 will see a periodic alignment of Earth with Mars that would allow a space craft to perform an elliptically-swinging "flyby" of the Red Planet in the shortest possible time, with minimal energy expenditure. There will be no landing, no contending with the complex Martian atmosphere and low gravity, just a trip in a capsule by a man and a woman. The envisioned married couple, preferably past their fertile years, would celebrate a wedding anniversary in space, over a 500+ day mission.

Inspiration Mars

Science reporter Miles O'Brien was on hand for introductions, and the song'n'dance show starred Tito's personal money (funding the first two years of the project), poetic astronaut widows, and optimistic technical advisers who made pretty statements about the nature of exploration -- but gave precious few details about how we might overcome the health issues, radiation problems, propulsion, or hardware limitations.

While live-tweeting the event, I received two humorous marriage proposals, and suddenly Twitter was abuzz with stereotypical fluff about how much marriage sucks and why it's a bad idea to share a tin can with your spouse for the sake of quite possibly the most ambitious undertaking in the history of human science. The big question: WOULD YOU? 

Inspiration Mars

I felt the normal tingle of exhilaration when met with lofty announcements by billionaire hopefuls, but I detect many flies in the Flyby ointment.

Official NASA spokesman David Steitz weighed in with this gem:
"This type of private sector effort is evidence of the timeliness and wisdom of the Obama Administration's overall space policy. It's a testament to the audacity of America's commercial aerospace industry and the adventurous spirit of America's citizen-explorers. NASA will continue discussions with Inspiration Mars to see how the agency might collaborate on mutually-beneficial activities that could complement NASA's space technology and Mars exploration plans."

Audacity is right! Flurries of speculation and information followed, including mission parameters from Inspiration Mars, including the official 18-page Feasibility Analysis For a Manned Mars Free-Return Mission. The latter document is detailed, to be sure, and shows an impressive amount of forethought, research, scheduled mission phases, orbital dynamics, life support systems, projected supplies, operations, NASA support and accountability.

Inspiration Mars

Well worth the read… Unfortunately, what it will never have is any assurance that even if the astronauts survive the mission, there will be no long-term ramifications of prolonged weightlessness, radiation, and psychological isolation. Do we always have assurances when pioneering? Of course not. Look what Cristoforo Colombo and Fernão de Magalhães (aka "Magellan") accomplished without the benefit of MISSION CONTROL, back in the day.

We've lost lives in the name of conquering the Moon, lost even more in learning our way around low Earth orbit, and it remains a solid possibility that the first two humans to attempt a flyby of Mars will simply be the first people to die near Mars. There are no emergency rooms, no dialing 911, no aborting, and no returning early… for any reason.

Inspiration Mars

As ever, I was energized about hopeful talk about Mars, because I want so desperately for this trip to occur during my lifetime. However, as always, when the launch plumes clear, my skepticism soars. Will ample investors be found? Haven't Biosphere2 and Mars500 taught us this is far more complicated than originally thought? How will the crew be selected and trained? 

Humans are great at solving problems. However, space is much better at killing. But don't take my word for it...

Dennis Tito's Mars Flyby Has 1-in-3 Chance of Success

Millionaire Dennis Tito Plans To Send Woman & Man to Mars and Back

Mars Trip to Use Food and Fecal Matter as Radiation Shields

9 Questions for Dennis Tito on Private Martian Trips

Wanted: Married Couple for Private Mars Voyage in 2018