Jeff Foust has posted a very interesting bit of information in his blog NewSpaceJournal, which appears to close the case that next Wednesday’s National Press Club announcement by the Inspiration Mars Foundation will indeed reveal feature a crewed mission to, or rather around Mars, scheduled to take place in 2018, taking advantage of a nearly ideal window for a free return trajectory. This supposition is based on a presentation being given by none other than Dennis Tito at the IEEE Aerospace Conference in Big Sky, Montana on Sunday, December 3rd. The subject of the speech: Feasibility Analysis for a Manned Mars Free Return Mission in 2018.”
Having obtained a copy of the paper, Foust reveals that the 501 day mission would take place onboard a modified Dragon Capsule launched by a Falcon Heavy Booster, and consist of just a two person crew living in rather austere accommodations. Also, while the mission would be essentially private, NASA would play a role in supporting Environmental Control and Life Support Systems Development (ECLSS) and thermal protection. The particular launch window which would permit the trip does not occur again until 2031, hence the rush.
Based on just this limited bit of information regarding the mission architecture, combined with a few reasonably known quantities such as SpaceX’s estimate of a $140 million price tag to NASA for a Commercial Crew flight to ISS, as well as current pricing (2012) for the Falcon Heavy as $128 million, it is entirely plausible that free a return mission, with no orbital entry (at least for the Dragon itself, hitchhiker payloads are another matter) could be mounted for under $2 billion, possibly way under. If that is the case, then this mission is both financially viable and entirely achievable, with the outcome depending on the launch campaign for the Falcon Heavy. An early failure could be a show stopper, but an initial success could all but guarantee we are going to Mars.
And by we, the meaning should be clear. The growing phenomenon of crowdsourcing will almost certainly be employed to harness a global funding stream which is just as likely to result in an embarrassment of riches as it is to come up short. Unlike publicly funded space missions, anybody who feels inclined is likely to have a venue to participate. Though only an opinion, and clearly not quantifiable, a sizable fraction of this nation’s population and perhaps many more around the world might be ready for a venture which harkens back to older, bolder days. As for a prediction, quoting from Billy Joel, “And the cowboys and their kin, like the sea came pouring in.” This will work, and more importantly, it will set the stage for a Mars landing in the next decade.
What about the implications for SLS and Orion which would spend ten times that amount to go around the Moon on a flight lasting 14 days three or four years after the fact? Let’s wait for next week’s press conference before the real speculation begins.