A prominent astronomer says that Dennis Tito's planned Mars flyby in 2018 is the most serious humanity has ever been about sending humans to the planet, and estimates his team has about a 33 percent chance of succeeding.
Earlier this week, Dennis Tito, a millionaire entrepreneur, and the first man to pay his way into space, announced the founding of the Inspiration Mars Foundation, a nonprofit that hopes to send a married couple on a flyby of Mars in January 2018, when the planet will be at its closest point to Earth. The mission will take about 501 days and the spacecraft would not land on Mars. Tito says a couple would be ideal because they would be able to withstand the long journey and could keep each other company. Landing on Mars would make the mission much more difficult and dangerous, as landing and taking back off of the Mars surface would raise many technological concerns.
At a news conference in Washington, D.C., Tito said he's tired of waiting for NASA to send humans to Mars, and that he'd help finance the between $1 and $2 billion needed to complete the mission.
"We have not sent humans beyond the moon in more than 40 years," he said. "I've been waiting, and a lot of people my age, have been waiting. And I think it's time to put an end to that lapse."
Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, an organization that wants to "further the exploration and settlement of the planet Mars" says Tito's plan is feasible with existing technology, but its biggest challenge will be coming up with the money to pay for the mission. Tito has said he's willing to spend $100 million of his own money to fund the astronauts' years of planning, but that much of the money will also have to come from sponsorship opportunities, media rights, and private donations.
"It's entirely doable—it's doable on this time schedule," Zubrin says. "I think very highly of what they're trying to do, which is inspire the country and reassert that we still have the stuff that got us here in the first place. That Lewis and Clark aren't members of a different species than us."
Zubrin says that besides a brief flirtation with sending humans to Mars in the 1960s, NASA has never been as serious about sending humans to Mars as Tito is now.
"I give them a 1-in-3 chance, but not for the technical reasons. It's a question of can they raise the money," he says. "This raises the question to NASA—'How come you haven't done this?' NASA has had a billion dollars before."
For its part, NASA says it will "continue discussions with Inspiration Mars to see how the agency might collaborate on mutually-beneficial activities that could complement NASA's human spaceflight, space technology, and Mars exploration plans."
So far, NASA has no plans to pitch in money to help Tito, but Zubrin says that if the mission gets closer, it'd "be difficult for NASA to refuse them certain services" such as use of its Deep Space Tracking Network, launch help at Cape Canaveral, and help developing an orbital trajectory. NASA doesn't have a planned human spaceflight until 2021, and is unlikely to try to send humans to Mars until the 2030s.
Tito's colleagues in the commercial spaceflight industry have responded positively to his announcement. Elliot Holokauahi, head of the Space Foundation, said Tito's Inspiration Mars is a "pioneering enterprise."
"Missions like this one, organizations like Inspiration Mars, and all parts of our space industrial base, must be part of human kind's epic journey—not just for NASA to succeed, but for all human kind to benefit," he said in a statement.