Plans are underway for the first manned mission to Mars -- just five years from now.
The privately financed fly-by in 2018 would take a man and a woman -- both Americans -- on a modified existing U.S. spacecraft to within 160 kilometers of the surface of the Red Planet, and return them safely to Earth.
The historic 501-day mission is being organized by American multi-millionaire Dennis Tito -- a former NASA scientist and the world's first private space tourist, who once paid 20 million dollars to visit the International Space Station. Now, Tito is putting up millions more in start-up money for his Inspiration Mars Foundation
. The non-profit is already assembling the hardware and scientific expertise for the fast-track, low-budget mission, which will eventually cost between $1.5 and $2 billion dollars to complete.
Flanked by former NASA scientists, academicians and private space developers, Tito told a Washington news conference Wednesday the Mars fly-by represents a bold first step in America's long-range plans for human space exploration. "This is a challenging but attainable goal for advancing human experience and knowledge. Now is the time," he said.
The two person crew, selected as much for compatibility as for technical skills, would inhabit a 600-square-meter living space during their voyage.
The mission's technical challenges are being handled by a private group called Paragon Space Development, with support from NASA and an assortment of private aerospace companies. Paragon's CEO, Taber MacCallum, a former NASA scientist, said the mission will be risky. The two astronauts will face extended exposure to solar and cosmic radiation, and the rigors of a year and a half in close confinement with life-support systems never before tested in deep space. But MacCallum said taking risks is part of America's heritage as a nation of innovators and explorers. "That's the kind of bold thing we used to be able to do," he said. "We don't do that any more...I think even just seriously contemplating this mission recalibrates what we believe is a risk worth taking for America."
Organizers say the Mars mission is tentatively set to launch on January 5, 2018. The craft would reach Mars 228 days later on August 21, looping once around the red Planet for a 273-day journey back to Earth and an ocean splashdown on May 21, 2019.