Late yesterday, NASAWatch published a press announcement on behalf of new organization, Inspiration Mars Foundation, which is scheduled to introduce a privately funded Mars mission to be launched in January 2018. The formal introduction will come at the National Press Club, 1:00 PM EST on February 27. At the moment, the nature of the mission is not at all clear, and drawing inferences from the handful of individuals related to the venture leads to divergent possibilities.
The first and most prominent name is that of Dennis Tito, the world’s first space tourist, and the new organizations’ founder, suggesting that the mission will manned. Also lending credence to that notion is the presence of Dr. Jonathon Clark, an expert in space medicine at Baylor.
On the other hand, besides moderator Miles O’Brian, the other two names mentioned in the press release, Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum, could mean that the mission will not be crewed by humans, but instead by plants or even animals. Both were members of the Biosphere 2 project, and are working at Paragon Space Development, where MacCallum is CEO. Paragon specializes in developing life support systems for extreme environments, is a supplier to the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, as well as SpaceX, and was an award winner itself under Phase I of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program, all of which would lend to a conclusion that mission, officially called “Mission for America” will be manned. Except for this fact, Paragon is also aligned with Google Lunar X PRIZE participant Odyssey Moon in a proposal to grow the first plant on the Moon in a small greenhouse attached to that company’s lunar lander. Consequently, it also seems possible that mission will not be crewed, but will instead a much smaller and more affordable robotic mission intended to demonstrate that a Mars trip is both achievable, and more importantly survivable in terms of radiation exposure. With the Curiosity rover measuring surface level radiation well within human tolerance for long duration stays, the last remaining significant risk to be retired is radiation exposure en-route and returning. There are of course hundreds or even thousands of lower level technology development items with their own individual risks, but space radiation is the last of the “here there be dragons” warnings Robert Zubrin asserts are standing in the way.
Assuming more information does not leak out prior to the press conference, we will all know on the afternoon of the 27th what the proposal is really all about. Isn’t it fascinating though, that in the NewSpace environment the concept of what is possible, thanks in great part to the SpaceX effect, has advanced so dramatically in just the past few years, that a first ever human Mars mission on an immediate time frame is now a plausible subject for discussion? In other words, even if the inspiration Mars Foundation project is an automated, pathfinder mission (personal prediction), almost no-one would be surprised, and surprisingly few would laugh, if in fact they are swinging for the fences. And if the time frame were only a few years later, say 2022 rather than 2018, we would expect the mission to crewed, and disappointed if it weren’t.
One other observation, despite NASA’s absolutely critical role in enabling the COTS and Commercial Crew Program, and thus giving SpaceX legs it otherwise would have been much slower in developing, we may be approaching, or even now passing, the point where more people would be surprised if NASA plays a lead role in the first human mission to Mars than if it does not.