Dennis Tito, billionaire first space tourist, aims for 2017 Mars fly-by

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 November, 2013, 10:37pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 November, 2013, 3:06am

A US billionaire, tired of being told that we can't send humans to Mars just yet, has revealed his scheme for launching two astronauts to the red planet as early as December 2017.

Dubbed "Inspiration Mars", the fly-by mission would exploit a rare alignment of earth and Mars that minimises the time and the fuel it would take to get to Mars and back home again, according to Dennis Tito, who in 2001 paid US$20 million to become the first space tourist.

The astronauts would come within 160 kilometres of the Martian surface before being slung back to Earth. "It would be a voyage of around 800 million miles around the sun in 501 days," Tito told a hearing of the US House of Representatives subcommittee on space.

"No longer is a Mars fly-by mission just one more theoretical idea. It can be done. Not in a matter of decades, but in a few years." Grab this opportunity or risk seeing China get to Mars first, Tito told the members of Congress.

The plan would require co-operation from Nasa and a great deal of Nasa equipment. The agency is building a jumbo rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), which is supposed to be ready for its inaugural, uncrewed test flight in 2017. Tito's plan would essentially borrow the SLS for the Mars mission.

Nasa officials did not immediately respond to Tito's proposal.

Tito's Inspiration Mars Foundation released a feasibility study on Wednesday which concluded that Nasa's new Orion capsule wouldn't meet the mission requirements as the primary habitat for the astronauts.

Instead, Tito's organisation would use the new Cygnus capsule developed by Orbital Corporation, based in the US state of Virginia, which recently made a successful, uncrewed cargo-hauling trip to the international space station.

The journey to Mars wouldn't come cheap. Tito described Inspiration Mars as a "philanthropic partnership with government". He said private donors would probably give about US$300 million for the mission, and the government would need to provide about US$700 million - in addition to the money Nasa is already spending, under current programmes, on rocket and spacecraft development.

The timing of the mission also presents a challenge. The Tito plan would require that Nasa and the private partners adopt the project wholeheartedly and immediately.

The planetary alignment, which happens only once every 15 years, presents a narrow launch window between Christmas day 2017 and January 5, 2018, to take advantage of the orbital dynamics of the planets.