≡ Menu

Mars Flyby: Daring to Venture

Existential risks, as discussed here yesterday, seem to be all around us, from the dangers of large impactors to technologies running out of control and super-volcanoes that can cripple our civilization. We humans tend to defer thinking on large-scale risks while tightly focusing on personal risk. Even the recent events near Chelyabinsk, while highlighting the potential danger of falling objects, also produced a lot of fatalistic commentary, on the lines of ‘if it’s going to happen, there’s nothing we can do about it.’ Some media outlets did better than others with this.

Risk to individuals is understandably more vivid. When Apollo 8 left Earth orbit for the Moon in 1968, the sense of danger was palpable. After all, these astronauts were leaving an orbital regime that we were beginning to understand and were, by the hour, widening the distance between themselves and our planet. But even Apollo 8 operated within a sequenced framework of events. Through Mercury to Gemini and Apollo, we were building technologies one step at a time that all led to a common goal. No one denied the dangers faced by every crew that eventually went to the Moon, but technologies were being tested and refined as the missions continued.

Inspiration Mars is proposing something that on balance feels different. As described in yesterday’s news conference (see Millionaire plans to send couple to Mars in 2018. Is that realistic? for more), the mission would be a flyby, using a free return trajectory rather than braking into Martian orbit. The trip would last 501 days and would be undertaken by a man and a woman, probably a middle-aged married couple. Jonathan Clark, formerly of NASA and now chief medical officer for Inspiration Mars, addresses the question of risk head-on: “The real issue here is understanding the risk in an informed capacity – the crew would understand that, the team supporting them would understand that.” Multi-millionaire Dennis Tito, a one-time space tourist who heads up Inspiration Mars, says the mission will launch in 2018.


Image: A manned Mars flyby may just be doable. But is the 2018 date pushing us too hard? Image credit: NASA/JPL.

We’ll hear still more about all this when the results of a mission-feasibility study are presented next weekend at the 2013 IEEE Aerospace Conference in Montana. Given the questions raised by pushing a schedule this tightly, there will be much to consider. Do we have time to create a reliable spacecraft that can offer not only 600 cubic feet of living space but another 600 for cargo, presumably a SpaceX Dragon capsule mated to a Bigelow inflatable module? Are we ready to expose a crew to interplanetary radiation hazards without further experience with the needed shielding strategies? And what of the heat shield and its ability to protect the crew during high-speed re-entry at velocities in the range of 50,000 kilometers per hour?

For that matter, what about Falcon Heavy, the launch vehicle discussed in the feasibility analysis Inspiration Mars has produced for the conference? This is a rocket that has yet to fly.

No, this doesn’t feel much like Apollo 8. It really feels closer to the early days of aviation, when attention converged on crossing the Atlantic non-stop and pilots like Rene Fonck, Richard Byrd, Charles Nungesser and Charles Lindbergh queued up for the attempt. As with Inspiration Mars, these were privately funded attempts, in this case designed to win the Orteig Prize ($25,000), though for the pilots involved it was the accomplishment more than the paycheck that mattered. Given the problems of engine reliability at the time, it took a breakthrough technology — the Wright J-5C Whirlwind engine — to get Lindbergh and subsequent flights across.

Inspiration Mars is looking to sell media rights and sponsorships as part of the fund-raising package for the upcoming mission, which is already being heavily backed by Tito. I’m wondering if there is a breakthrough technology equivalent to the J-5C to help this mission along, because everything I read about it makes it appear suicidal. The 2018 date is forced by a favorable alignment between Mars and the Earth that will not recur until 2031, so the haste is understandable. The idea is just the kind of daring, improbable stunt that fires the imagination and forces sudden changes in perspective, and of course I wish it well. But count me a serious skeptic on the question of whether this mission will be ready to fly on the appointed date.

And if it’s not? I like the realism in the concluding remarks of the feasibility study:

A manned Mars free-return mission is a useful precursor mission to other planned Mars missions. It will develop and demonstrate many critical technologies and capabilities needed for manned Mars orbit and landing missions. The technology and other capabilities needed for this mission are needed for any future manned Mars missions. Investments in pursuing this development now would not be wasted even if this mission were to miss its launch date.

Exactly so, and there would be much development in the interim. The study goes on:

Although the next opportunity after this mission wouldn’t be for about another 13 years, any subsequent manned Mars mission would benefit from the ECLSS [Environmental Control and Life Support System], TPS [Thermal Protection System], and other preparation done for this mission. In fact, often by developing technology early lessons are learned that can reduce overall program costs. Working on this mission will also be a means to train the skilled workforce needed for the future manned Mars missions.

These are all good reasons for proceeding, leaving the 2018 date as a high-risk, long-shot option. While Inspiration Mars talks to potential partners in the aerospace industry and moves ahead with an eye on adapting near-Earth technologies for the mission, a whiff of the old space race is in the air. “If we don’t fly in 2018, the next low-hanging fruit is in ’31. We’d better have our crew trained to recognize other flags,” Tito is saying. “They’re going to be out there.”

In 1968, faced with a deadline within the decade, NASA had to make a decision on risk that was monumental — Dennis Tito reminded us at the news conference that Apollo 8 came only a year after the first test launch of the Saturn 5. Can 2018 become as tangible a deadline as 1970 was for a nation obsessed with a Moon landing before that year? If so, the technologies just might be ready, and someone is going to have to make a white-knuckle decision about the lives of two astronauts. If Inspiration Mars can get us to that point, that decision won’t come easy, but whoever makes it may want to keep the words of Seneca in mind: “It is not because things are difficult that we dare not venture. It is because we dare not venture that they are difficult.”


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • GaryChurch February 28, 2013, 12:09

    How are they going to achieve escape velocity? Apollo 8 had two hydrogen upper stages; private space has no such technology.

    How are they going to shield against solar events. Apollo 17 narrowly missed dying and this was one of the reasons the late Apollo missions were canceled. It takes a hefty shield and they are already underpowered without hydrogen propulsion.

    How will they keep from getting sick and dying? One mutated flu bug will kill them and antibiotics do not keep in space because of the radiation. There will be no coming back to earth if someone gets sick.

    So, I do not think it is going to happen.

  • Tom B February 28, 2013, 13:08

    I just have to wonder when the next flyby possiblity might be for Venus, perhaps that could happen at a later day and give more time. Do not know
    about the orbital arrangements, but it seems to me with Venus being somewhat closer it could have a shorter flight time. Of course going for
    a Venus flyby would with out a doubt increase radiation risks. I am just doing a thought experiment and thinking out loud.


  • Bob Andrews February 28, 2013, 13:22

    Excelent post Paul and spot on with your observations.

    I also wish Inspiration well and perhaps the world will at last wake up to the potential of space flight and exploration.

  • don wilkins February 28, 2013, 13:39

    Good day.

    A long time ago I read a SF sotry about going to Mars. One of the subplots had NASA sending only married couples. The author said there were many rapid marriages among scientists to qualify for slots on the expedition and just as rapid divorces when couples were not selected.

    I’d volunteer in a heart beat but I expect my wife would nix it.


  • Eric February 28, 2013, 13:58

    A nice summary. And I love the feasibility study. We’ve all been waiting soooooo long for something like this. Let’s hope big donors (Branson? Cameron? ) and manufacturers (SpaceX? Boeing? Bigelow?) get excited and on board. Involvement of the Entertainment industry will also be key, since a miniturized ultra HD IMAX/imaging system onboard and mounted outside the ship would make a huge difference in keeping people engaged and telling a classic story of adventure that no one knows how it’ll turn out – for full multimedia experience (Weta? Lucasfilm? Big media companies?). Big hi-gain antennae would be critical for this. Also a picture window, or cupola like the one on ISS, would be a huge plus. Unsure how you’d do that on a Bigelow module. And to pull this off, this needs to be the media event of the century. The Mars flyby, if handled right, could be the most-watched event of the last 50 years. Media bonanza is an understatement. Don’t want to get my hopes up too much, but the little boy who went to Huntsville space camp back in ’86 (i.e., me) really wants this to happen, for me and my two little ones (they’ll be 9 and 7 in 2018).

  • NS February 28, 2013, 14:17

    The distances across the Atlantic flown by Lindbergh etc. were not orders of magnitude beyond what had ever been flown before. The distances and mission times to Mars ARE orders of magnitude beyond what manned spaceflight has achieved thus far. The Inspiration Mars mission is impossible or impossibly reckless in the time frame proposed.

  • Leonidas February 28, 2013, 14:39

    The Inspiration Mars project is a high-risk and inspiring one! You’re right Paul, even if it misses its launch date, even the thing that someone’s considering something like this and tries to put the wheels in motion, is really something! Who knows what the outcome might be because of this endeavor? We really need motivation like this!

    Yes, there are so high risks and dangers and this project may well not be succesful. But I’m irritated when people start pouring out negativity like ‘Oh, it’s crazy, it will never get done’ and stuff. The only way it will never get done is by not trying at all.

  • Dmitri February 28, 2013, 14:49

    There is also Danes w/ Mars One corporation. They plan send manned mission in 2023 who will permanently settle there.


  • J. R. February 28, 2013, 15:16

    I am rather excited about this. It has the same feel as those early daring flights that kick-started the aviation industry into high gear.

  • JohnHunt February 28, 2013, 15:17

    The Falcon Heavy is scheduled to launch in 2014. This will give the Falcon Heavy plenty of time to be available. The Falcon Heavy is based upon the Falcon 9 which will have a fair amount of flight experience by 2018. Early spending on Inspiration Mars (IM) will be for mostly studies so most of the risk will not be coming from the availability of the Falcon Heavy.

    I’m not sure this is a suicidal mission. The longest cumulative radiation exposure for a cosmonaut was 803 days. For GCR exposure, that is about the equivalent of 400 days in free space or about 80% of IM. For zero-g exposure, the longest single mission for a cosmonaut was 438 days which is 87% of IM. I see the possibility of a large CME as being a possible threat though although I am sure that all of that dehydrated food will help with smaller CMEs. However there are some medical strategies which might help (e.g. RLIP76).

    I think that the possible significance here for manned interstellar concepts is the idea of a private group willing to bear significant private risk in a way that the government can’t. In the case of IM, if it is a successful mission, then the medical studies and just the fact that none of the concerns were show-stoppers might help NASA move forward more quickly.

  • Mike February 28, 2013, 16:22

    Great post Paul.

    The concept of risk is an interesting one. In undertaking a full risk analysis of the mission I wouldn’t be surprised if the technological risk of rushing to the 2018 launch dominates. Almost argues for a, say, 2022 launch and a 2- year trip…

  • coacervate February 28, 2013, 16:31

    My wife is married. Oh right, COUPLES….nevermind.

  • David February 28, 2013, 16:31

    Tom B Venus Orbit is in the flyby Venus wont be available or they would have added it . There were strong hints it will be Falcon heavy.
    I am kind of suprised the Russians havent tried to join in …Do they have any Engergia left?
    They claim radiation wont be a problem with this duration Re entry is thei main concern
    Interesting NASA(NASA TV) had a Press Conf on Orion yesterday.
    How Fast could PROJECT Orion go if it was launched from an ateroid. What not coombine asterid protection with an interstellar launch with the only technology we have……..

  • railmeat February 28, 2013, 16:32

    Like some other commentators I am very skeptical that this will ever launch, or that it will succeed if it does launch. However I hope it does launch. It would be fantastic if they actually make it work.

    Whatever happens with this project it is very encouraging to see so many private sector space projects starting up. Eventually one of them has to work. Exciting times.

  • FrankH February 28, 2013, 16:51

    If this goes forward, we’ll know the names of the first two people to die in interplanetary space.

    If they make it back alive, they will have been exposed to a considerable amount of hard radiation exposure; they may develop radiation induced cancers or suffer from cosmic ray induced brain or nervous system damage.
    Do we even have a closed water recycling system that works reliably (without replacement parts) in the limited space that will be available for 500+ days?

    While it’s great to inspire people with a flight to Mars, this proposal is somewhere between stupid and irresponsible. Maybe they should try a 500 day mission on Earth – with two people cooped up in 600 sq feet and see what breaks first.

  • coolstar February 28, 2013, 17:05

    Suicide is rarely inspirational.

  • NS February 28, 2013, 18:10

    I agree with FrankH, although 500+ days in earth orbit with no resupply would be a more definitive test, with maybe a trip around the moon and back.

    And IIRC, a number of the initial attempts to fly across the Atlantic didn’t make it.

  • Dan Ibekwe February 28, 2013, 20:02

    Thanks for the excellent post!

    Kennedy set a 10-year goal for Apollo; to set a five year goal to Mars is…breathtaking. Whatever the outcome, this is incredibly exciting, and, yes, inspirational. Whether the mission ultimately flies in 2018 or not, the work done between now and then will surely benefit later attempts.

    Planetary Resources, SpaceX, Golden Spike, and now IM; this is what one eight-year-old kid who watched Neil Armstrong step onto the Moon has been waiting for ever since. The Final Frontier is finally open for business.

  • Enzo February 28, 2013, 20:07

    I’m not inspired at all and I’m disappointed that it does not include a landing. That would have saved $6B for the Mars sample return mission and NASA could have got back to a more balanced exploration program instead of the current Mars obsessed one.

    This will fail to inspire the ordinary person for the same reasons that everyone knows who landed on the moon but nearly none knows that was circled first, let alone the names of the people that did it.

    I checked with my 13 years old son.

    “Wow, they are going to Mars!”

    “Well, actually no, they are locked in a small cabin for 501 days and briefly see Mars from a distance before heading home without stopping”

    “WHAT? What’s the point of that ? Meh!”

    Interesting engineering project, almost nil science value except for the effects of the galactic proton exposure.
    I’m not sure what’s trying to prove :
    1) We know we can launch large payloads to Mars having sent heaps of smaller ones.
    2) We know we can stay in space for that long as it has been done in LEO already for almost that long.
    3) We know people can survive locked up in a small space for 18 months+ (done multiple times).

    As I said, best scientific result is probably the radiation exposure.
    Not sure what they are trying to prove. If they are really serious about colonization and living off the land, they better got something like Biosphere2 to work first because so far it hasn’t really.

  • Bounty February 28, 2013, 20:16

    It’s interesting to see all the negativity… I guess this is what mid 1961 looked like?

  • James Jason Wentworth February 28, 2013, 20:25

    NASA was planning precisely this type of mission–crewed planetary flyby–in the 1960s, and it would have utilized Apollo hardware. The only new hardware required was a “Mission Module” that would have taken up the space occupied by the Lunar Module on Moon landing missions. As well as housing the cruise phase life support system, the crew’s main stocks of food & water, and the planetary encounter instrumentation (and being fitted with solar panels for electrical power), the Mission Module would also have provided the physical and psychological space necessary for high crew morale. Also:

    In his 1968 non-fiction book “The Promise of Space,” Arthur C. Clarke pointed out (regarding the Apollo Command & Service Modules) that “In fact, if it were not for food and air requirements, this combination would allow even a trip around Mars or Venus.” In the book he also covered the then-planned crewed planetary flyby missions, which would have encountered Venus or Mars and taken as long as 686 days to complete. No technical “show-stoppers” for these missions were found, even with the less-sophisticated spacecraft technology of those days. The table of launch windows that he included even contained one (December 1978) that would have had a Venus flyby *and* a Mars flyby in one mission! Like most of NASA’s other post-Apollo plans, these missions were eliminated for budgetary reasons. In addition:

    I think such crewed planetary flyby missions are a necessary first step toward landing missions, but *not* for technological reasons. I think the main barrier is *psychological*–that the very thought of sending people so far from Earth for so long makes space mission planners nervous–and that this in turn makes crewed planetary orbiter and lander missions (in which more things could go wrong) so worrisome that they get deferred indefinitely (although budgetary pressures are also a big factor in this, of course). Therefore:

    I do not see the 2018 launch date of the “Tito mission” as being premature at all. When Apollo 8 left for the Moon, the Saturn 5 had flown only twice–and very poorly (having nearly shaken itself apart) the second time, and the Apollo Command & Service Modules had only flown with a crew onboard once before. If humanity can’t summon the nerve to attempt a crewed planetary flyby mission for which they *do* possess the necessary technology, maybe Dr. Edward Purcell’s criticism of interstellar spaceflight (“All this stuff about traveling around the universe…belongs back where it came from, on the cereal box.”) was valid after all…

  • Paul Titze February 28, 2013, 20:45

    Hi Paul,

    Interesting mission, however if they made this announcement back in 2008, I think the mission would have better chances of actually being realized, 5 years is cutting it fine. I wish them luck though. Think their biggest problem getting it off the ground will be funding, $1bn (x2=$2bn) is a lot of money. If I had that kind of money available I would scrap the mission, use those funds in speed tracking R&D in the VASIMR propulsion system for a more useful future Mars mission and Breakthrough Propulsion Physics.

    Cheers, Paul.

  • GaryChurch February 28, 2013, 21:54

    “-most of the risk will not be coming from the availability of the Falcon Heavy.”

    I respectfully disagree; without a real escape system it will never be cleared to fly humans. The SLS has a real escape tower- not a dangerous and anemic hypergolic dual purpose system more useful keeping inflatable space stations in orbit than escaping a launch vehicle failure.

    We learned from the shuttle that “when people start pouring out negativity” it might be a good idea to listen.


  • James Jason Wentworth February 28, 2013, 22:44

    Regarding the launch vehicle for the “Inspiration Mars” flyby spacecraft, one already exists and is flight-proven. The “Spaceflight Now” report on the mission (see: http://www.spaceflightnow.com/news/n1302/27tito/ ) says that either the operational ULA Delta IV Heavy or the SpaceX Falcon Heavy (formerly called the Falcon 9 Heavy, or F9H for short) will be used. Also:

    From the standpoint of propulsion requirements (the following figures are from “The Promise of Space” by Arthur C. Clarke), crewed planetary flyby missions are much easier than landing on the Moon and returning to Earth, which requires a total propulsive Delta V (change of velocity) of more than 35,000 miles per hour (including the lunar landing and takeoff). The Earth departure velocities for the Apollo CSM + Mission Module/Saturn 5-based Venus and Mars crewed flyby missions that NASA was planning in the 1960s lay in the range of 27,000 – 28,000 miles per hour. Other than minor mid-course trajectory “trimming” burns (which are typically on the order of just a few miles or tens of miles per hour), the Earth departure velocity is the total propulsive Delta V for the Inspiration Mars mission.

  • Alex Tolley March 1, 2013, 0:42

    However risky we may perceive this trip, it will go down in the history books if it is attempted. Failure will be perceived like Amelia Earhart’s around the world attempt, and a success will immortalize the astronauts.

    This is classic pioneering and I hope that someone will successfully make the trip and show it can be done on a relative shoestring.

  • Dmitri March 1, 2013, 2:31

    @David “I am kind of suprised the Russians havent tried to join in …Do they have any Engergia left?”

    Russians revaluated their goals after Phobos-Grunt failure to develop new generation re-entry vehicle nicknamed “Rus” (“Русь”), test on Moon unmanned, later have manned mission there. On success and experience of these missions utilizing same technology have manned trip to Mars. If all goes well 2024 they plan send a new probe to Venus.

    If Inspiration Mars don’t plan to buy launch vechicle from Russians they won’t be in. Even then they’ll consider it twice as it might meddle with their thigth schedule.

    Russian’s re-entry vehicle Rus is to some extent similar to Orion capsule. Their difference is Orion won’t have Moon landing capability.

  • Mephane March 1, 2013, 4:46

    “I agree with FrankH, although 500+ days in earth orbit with no resupply would be a more definitive test, with maybe a trip around the moon and back.”

    I concur. If they want to do this, first they should test the entire setup in Earth orbit, where if something goes wrong they could still perform a deorbit and reentry (which, of course, should be tested beforehand with an unmanned capsule).

  • tom March 1, 2013, 7:47

    The danger criticism is vague. And I think the viewing audience is over estimated… then again think of the O.J. Trial & Big Brother? The space and medical issues aside… it’s the financing that I see as the big challenge.
    If entrepreneurial capital can accomplish this task… the big government, big aerospace franchise will have to ‘downgrade’ their prices.
    Realistically, this isn’t re-inventing the wheel. Getting into orbit is more pricey than dangerous, I don’t expect it to be as safe as ‘space jumping’; however all the problems will be addressed before its done.
    Most experience in the field of manned spaceflight is ‘who made the mistake’ when things go wrong…. this leverage won’t be apart of a private space effort. The purse strings issue deals with a different set of goals.
    First flyby to Mars manned, well… Yuri, Neil & Mr. & Mrs. whatever will be in the history books for the next 10,000 years!

  • Alex Tolley March 1, 2013, 10:54

    @Enzo Does your son actually know:
    1. Who flew around the moon first? (in Apollo 8, not the orbiting of Apollo 10 as implied by your question)
    2. Who landed on the moon?
    3. Who was the first person to orbit the earth?
    4. Who was the American to orbit the earth?
    Going back further:
    5. Who first flew a powered aircraft?
    6. Who was the first person to fly across the Atlantic solo?
    7. Who was the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound?

    I would hazard a guess, based on my experience with students and my own kids, that they don’t really know the answers to any of these questions.

    Aviation and space history is not something today’s kids care much about.

  • Alex Tolley March 1, 2013, 11:14

    @ GrayChurch – all your objections – radiation, mutating flu bugs etc, are similar to those who pooh-poohed other pioneering endeavors. Didn’t people think that traveling in a train over 35 mph would suffocate the passengers as the air would be sucked out of the cabin? Didn’t people say heavier that air flight was impossible. Weren’t Lewis and Clark facing both unknown natural dangers plus potentially hostile natives? The list of imagined, or overblown hazards is endless. And then someone achieves the “impossible”.

    When people started the great migration West, the risks remained high, with death from a variety of causes from disease, starvation and hostiles quite common. Yet people attempted the journey and quite a number survived.

    This mission may fail, but we will learn from it. Others will attempt it and eventually, by luck and skill, someone will succeed and enter the history books.

    IMO, NASA has become too timid. Test pilots died by the planeload flying military aircraft. The astronauts were elevated from obscurity to national celebrity. It was the moon mission goal that allowed NASA to overcome the Apollo 1 fire tragedy. But by Challenger, the loss was not leavened by any mission urgency, and so celebrity deaths seemed pointless.

    It is about time we celebrated real heroes, achieving difficult, historic firsts, not the fake ones in sport and business.

  • GaryChurch March 1, 2013, 11:58

    “NASA was planning precisely this type of mission–crewed planetary flyby–in the 1960s, and it would have utilized Apollo hardware.”

    And the 800 pound space radiation gorilla kept it from happening. It has always been the dirty little secret that a massive radiation shield is required and this bumps everthing up into the realm of nuclear propulsion; chemical rockets would be really enormous. Battlestar Galactica.

    The Apollo 17 crew missed being killed in a solar event by a few weeks.
    Skylab’s main instrument was a solar telescope to research solar event prediction because it was accepted that solar events were the showstopper.

    IMO this is a PR exercise to attract money to private space. And that is all it will amount to.

    Thanks to Paul for being completely fair and showing both sides of this story. Most forums are biased one way or the other and are not shy about denying critics or advocates on the other side a voice.

  • Mike March 1, 2013, 13:53

    If it was my money to spend I would rather fund a new space telescope capable of searching for possible bio-markers at nearby exoplanets. That interests me a lot more then a Mars fly-by. But it’s not my money so best of luck to them.

    One concern though if the mission fails and the crew is lost will that frighten off public and government support for future crewed interplanetary missions? Will it throw a pall over the whole business? I hope not.

  • FrankH March 1, 2013, 14:43

    @James Jason Wentworth – Look at the studies and works that you’re quoting – The NASA flyby paper study and comments by Clarke are all from the 1960s before the damages caused by cosmic rays and charged particles from the Sun were fully understood. At the time, the longest manned flight was 14 days in LEO.

    We aren’t technically capable of sending non-Kamikaze humans to Mars because we wasted 30+ years on the non-useful Space Shuttle and to some extent, ISS when we could have actively been studying and building spacecraft or habitats that could support humans for 100s or 1000s of days in deep space.

    One of the few things the ISS has been good for is as a test bed for life support equipment. The atmosphere support system may be adequate for a 500 day trip (if it’s had significant failures, there have always been on board supplies), the water recycling system… not so much. Radiation protection? Basically nil.

  • Tarmen March 1, 2013, 15:08

    This is what we’ve been waiting for. An initiative with heart. Many fifty -something couples will volunteer. And other true believers will want to help. Adventure like a twenty something again. Wish Tito and co the best of luck.

  • vincent March 1, 2013, 16:16

    This reminds me of the time I supported LM Undersea Systems on the design of the Alvin 2 manned undersea vehicle for Woods Hole to take 2 men down to 4500m . The vehicle has manually directed grappling arms and lights to examine and recover samples and return to its host ship which it is tethered to. The question I asked was why is a man needed to be in the vehicle when he can see and manipulate no better then a remote operator on the ship? Well the question was finally answered by a marine scientist from MABARI when he gave a talk at our Lab in Palo Alto. He had been on the NSF committee who recommended that the Avlin 2 be an unmanned vehicle however Congress in their infinite political wisdom changed it to a maned vehicle since Japan had on that went to that depth but failed to provide the additional funds [2x] needed for the environmental chamber. NASA cannot afford to even initiate a manned Mars mission but can send upgrades to MSL since the estimated cost of such a mission is > 2x their annual budget. It will take commercial ventures with some bold ideas to take the first leap and this may be he easiest step to Mars.

  • GaryChurch March 1, 2013, 18:37

    “-all your objections – radiation, mutating flu bugs etc, are similar to those who pooh-poohed other pioneering endeavors.”

    I have to imphatically disagree with that one; it is not the great plains, it is not an ocean- it is a hard vacuum seething with radiation and an order of magnitude farther than anything on Earth. There is nothing similiar in the history of humankind- it is out of this world. The comparison is not valid IMO. Sorry, but such analogies do not make much sense to anyone who has done some homework on space travel.

    “It was the moon mission goal that allowed NASA to overcome the Apollo 1 fire tragedy.”

    Actually, it was political pressure by way of outraged constituents (people’s votes used to matter). The Aerospace industry was given a choice of either losing the present day equivalent of hundreds of billions of dollars in contracts or cleaning up their act. Oversight was enforced and all the profitable cheap and nasty practices of contractors were ruthlessly eliminated. This correcting mechanism was swept under the rug by the time of the shuttle as the aerospace companies took action to undermine oversight authority. Going cheap in pursuit of easy money is what killed two shuttle crews. Spaceships are hard money and not attractive compared to cold war toys.
    In space, there is no cheap.

  • Enzo March 1, 2013, 19:17

    @Alex Tolley,
    I checked with my son and, as expected, he only knew about Neal Armstrong.
    I knew most of the answers but not all and only because I stumbled upon them because of my interest in space exploration not because I’m interested in human space flight.
    Basically everyone I know, especially in Italy, knows about Armstrong landing on the moon. None I know, including myself, knew specifically about Apollo 8, even though I vaguely knew that they must have done some testing.
    Based on this, I don’t think this mission will inspire any ordinary person (one of Tito’s stated objectives), it’s just preaching to the converted.
    Good engineering project though, very light on science.

  • James Jason Wentworth March 2, 2013, 2:34

    I must say that the majority opinion that is expressed in the responses to this article dis-heartens me, and I hope it is not indicative of the attitude of the space community in general. Also:

    To those who say that NASA’s planned crewed planetary flyby missions of the 1960s were cancelled due to the radiation dangers, I must reply that this is simply not true. The millions of hours of solar (including solar flare) and galactic radiation data that were collected beyond Earth’s magnetosphere (as well as near Mars and Venus) by the Explorer (IMP), Luna, Lunar Orbiter, Mariner, Mars, Pioneer, Ranger, Surveyor, Venera, and Zond spacecraft made NASA well aware of the radiation dangers to interplanetary spaceship crews back then. Even James J. Hagerty’s space-related children’s books of that era mentioned the necessity of providing radiation shielding for crews of missions to the other planets. In addition:

    Because the Apollo Command Modules of the CSM + Mission Module Mars/Venus flyby spacecraft would have re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere at higher velocities than from lunar missions, at least one unmanned Command Module heat shield qualification test flight would have been necessary, and NASA could not spare a Saturn 5 to expend for such an interplanetary velocity re-entry test (they didn’t even have enough funding to buy a second production run of Saturn 5s). The lack of money for this test, for developing and testing the radiation shielding, and for developing the Mission Module (plus NASA’s then-growing interest in a Mars landing mission) was what killed the crewed Mars and Venus flyby missions. As well:

    These missions were made technologically obsolescent and superfluous by the highly successful (and much cheaper) unmanned Mariner flyby and orbiter spacecraft. Toward the end of the 1960s, even the main scientific feature of the crewed flyby missions–dropping landers on the planets they visited–was known to be do-able with unmanned orbiters, as the Viking program (which was initiated in 1968) demonstrated in 1976. (The Soviet Union achieved the first successful unmanned orbiter/lander mission in 1971 with Mars 3, but the lander transmitted for only 20 seconds from the surface, likely due to the effects of the planet-wide dust storm that was raging at the time.) And:

    In the late 1960s, NASA’s interest switched to a more rewarding–but far more expensive–crewed Mars landing mission that would have used two large spaceships, each of which would have been powered by multiple NERVA nuclear thermal rocket modules. As the 1970s dawned, America’s waning interest in space travel, along with the costs of the Vietnam War and the Great Society social welfare programs, caused the Congress to reduce NASA’s budget to the point that such interplanetary adventures had to be deferred to the indefinite future; NERVA, having no other use, was cancelled…and here we are today. This, along with the history of aviation (and of technology in general) should be a cautionary lesson for those who say, “We should develop a better propulsion technology like VASIMIR *first*, THEN go to Mars.” Here is why:

    The history of technology shows that the simplest device to solve a particular problem, however crude the device is, is almost always developed first–as soon as it becomes possible–and is improved upon later; indeed, the improved device would likely never be developed unless a crude predecessor already existed. Marconi did not wait for the invention of the vacuum tube to build a wireless telegraph–he used a spark gap, which worked well enough. Ditto for the development of flight; the Montgolfiere brothers didn’t wait for a practical dirigible engine to be developed before taking to the skies in a free balloon, and if they hadn’t first proved that lighter-than-air flight was possible, the dirigible (and later, heavier-than-air flying machines that worked even better) might never have been developed. Chemical rockets are crude, but they work, and they’re available NOW. Once the first successful crewed interplanetary flight is conducted using chemical propulsion (proving that people *can* survive such journeys), engineers will jump into the breach to perfect VASIMIR, nuclear thermal, solar thermal, and other faster and more efficient deep-space propulsion systems…but we have to start *somewhere*, and Inspiration Mars is good enough.

  • GaryChurch March 2, 2013, 11:59

    “-flyby missions of the 1960s were cancelled due to the radiation dangers, I must reply that this is simply not true.”

    “-spacecraft made NASA well aware of the radiation dangers to interplanetary spaceship crews back then. Even James J. Hagerty’s space-related children’s books of that era mentioned the necessity of providing radiation shielding for crews”
    “The lack of money for this test, for developing and testing the radiation shielding, ”
    “In the late 1960s, NASA’s interest switched to a more rewarding–but far more expensive–crewed Mars landing mission that would have used two large spaceships, each of which would have been powered by multiple NERVA nuclear thermal rocket modules.”

    Like I said. (this bumps everthing up into the realm of nuclear propulsion; chemical rockets would be really enormous. Battlestar Galactica. )
    Why do you say it is “simply not true”?
    What is not true? Please explain.

  • GaryChurch March 2, 2013, 12:03

    “Chemical rockets are crude, but they work, and they’re available NOW.”

    I think everyone understands they are available now. But they are not crude in any sense of the word. They are appropriate for getting from the Earth to the Moon but not for much else concerning humans traveling in deep space.

    It is all about the radiation. Like I said, they had a solar telescope on Skylab to research trying to predict solar events.

  • Alex Tolley March 2, 2013, 12:31

    Some historical parallels are valid, IMO. Two examples that are more than comparable to the radiation impact come to mind.
    1. Scurvy. Figures for the British navy showed death rates in excess of 2/3rds of the crew for ships at sea for 10 months. Despite the low odds for survival, the British navy was actively increasing Britain’s colonial ambitions.
    2. Malaria. This was the main killer of Europeans in tropical areas.

    The point is that we didn’t wait for the respective cures before we engaged in such activities.

    As James Wentworth states far more eloquently, we use the most simple technologies first, then improve them. The space radiation hazard is endurable as long as you don’t encounter a solar flare. Which is similar to saying that flying long distance in the troposphere is doable as long as you don’t get caught in a storm. Same with ocean sailing.

    Heyerdahl managed to sail over 4000 miles in 101 days on the Pacific in a balsa raft. One major storm would have killed him and his crew.

    Compare these data with a Hohmann trajectory to Mars and Earth return. Once on your way, the major failure modes are going to be mechanical (life support fails in some way) and a solar storm. Ordinary radiation may eventually give you cancer, but that won’t result in a failed journey. Life support should be as simple as possible, with no fancy closed system to reduce mass. O2 could be stored as water and hydrolyzed, with simple CO2 scrubbers to keep the air non-toxic. CH4, H2S and other gases will need to be handled as well. I rather like their idea of using dried feces as part of the radiation shield. O2 consumption is about 1 kg/day – so a 500 day, 2 person flight needs just 1 tonne of O2. Food consumption is about 1/2 kg (dry) /day, so call it 5 kg wet = 5 tonnes of wet food. These minimal numbers are trivial for the vehicle. 10 tonnes of food (freeze dried) and water should be adequate for the journey. I personally would throw in enough extra water that can be recycled for bathing. These masses are of the same order as the Apollo lunar module. The Bigelow 330 inflatable hab is about 20 tonnes.
    So we are not talking about launching masses that we haven’t done before. This isn’t a Mars landing and return trip that requires a lot of propellant to be carried to Mars for the return trip.

    OK, I know this is hand waving away known life support issues, but the point is that the main issues can tackled now (life support reliability), so that the prospective crew has a decent shot at a successful trip.

  • Alex Tolley March 2, 2013, 13:53

    Another thought on radiation protection.
    Since the acute problem is a CME, we can use some behavioral adaptation. What we will need is a not an enclosing shelter, but rather an umbrella shield to create a radiation exposure shadow. Suppose we have our 10 tonnes of water and food on board. So pack the materials in a column 10x1x1 meters, and orientate it (spacecraft?) towards the sun. Then huddle behind the 1×1 space. Uncomfortable? yes. Whether it is enough I leave to the experts, but the general approach might work as long as the radiation acts mainly like a point source. This vastly reduces the shield mass requirement compared to an enclosing shelter.

  • NS March 2, 2013, 15:26

    I didn’t see any posts that advocated waiting for more advanced propulsion. The concerns I did see (including mine) were about systems that have not been tested at all or not tested for endurance over anything close to the length of time required, how well humans will fare in the mission environment (including radiation and psychological hazards), and the rather short timeframe proposed until launch (most unmanned interplanetary missions take far longer to plan and develop). These are not frivolous worries.

  • NS March 2, 2013, 15:52

    My error — there were indeed a couple of posts that advocate waiting for more advanced propulsion, but most of the concerns are for the issues I state.

  • James Jason Wentworth March 3, 2013, 3:37

    GaryChurch wrote (in part):

    [Like I said. (this bumps everthing up into the realm of nuclear propulsion; chemical rockets would be really enormous. Battlestar Galactica. )
    Why do you say it is “simply not true”?
    What is not true? Please explain.]

    First, when I referred to chemical rockets as crude, it was in comparison with (although I did not write it) more powerful and/or efficient propulsion systems such as nuclear thermal, solar thermal, and electric rockets. Now:

    It is not true, as you stated above, that the radiation problem kept the proposed crewed Mars/Venus flyby missions from being flown; it was a matter of money. The radiation shielding, the Mission Module, and the beefed-up Command Module heat shield required more funding than NASA had available in the late 1960s (plus an unmanned flight test of the improved Command Module heat shield at interplanetary return velocity would have required a Saturn 5, which they could not spare). Also:

    By that time (the late 1960s), NASA was losing interest in crewed flyby missions due to the successes of the Mariner Mars and Venus probes, and they were formulating a “wish list” for the 1970s. This included a NERVA-powered crewed Mars landing mission (it was anticipated to fly in 1981), a 100-person Earth orbit space station, a space shuttle fleet (with reusable geosynchronous orbit transfer vehicles), and a lunar base that would be served by NERVA-powered lunar shuttles. The post-Apollo 11 political and economic situation whittled these programs down to just the shuttle (and a “poor man’s version” of it, at that, which cost less to build but was more expensive per-flight than the original fully-reusable versions would likely have been). In addition:

    Alex Tolley’s figures for the British Navy’s scurvy death rates at sea (thank you–I did not know they were that high!) show how risk-averse we’ve become. Interplanetary–let alone interstellar–travel will never come to pass if we don’t allow (and encourage) those who wish to take the risks to do so (with them being fully informed about the risks, of course). As well:

    A smaller, “directional” solar flare radiation shield (as Alex Tolley suggested) should reduce the required shielding mass, and “brute-force” life support methods such as those that he suggested sound practical. (For additional “just in case” insurance, they could also stock plenty of “oxygen candles,” for contingencies in which the crew might need to shut down and repair the life support equipment). And:

    The Inspiration Mars mission is as psychologically necessary as it is technologically necessary, to prove that it can be done. Once a crewed Mars flyby is achieved (and the first mission may fail–perhaps with fatalities–as did some of Charles Lindbergh’s predecessors), better, safer, and faster spaceships will follow; their crews will land on Mars’ moons and, one day, on Mars itself. But we have to learn to fly(by) before we can walk (on Mars)…

  • GaryChurch March 3, 2013, 12:17

    I apologize for posting three times in a row but I become perplexed when so many comments are made that drive me to again comment on these analogies. Space is not an ocean. You will not survive a solar event like you might survive a storm at sea. It is completely different. It is not a valid comparison in any sense including length of mission.
    The claims being made by private space and the announcement of these supposed missions are exciting but unrealistic. IMO opinion, there are people who are capitalizing on the general lack of knowledge about the intricacies of space travel. There are no off the top of the head fixes for these problems of radiation and propulsion; they would have thought of them in the sixties. Physics has not changed and material science will not discover any magic material or force field to substitute for mass and distance. The elemental table is what there is and forces of electromagnetism cannot deflect heavy nuclei traveling at relativistic speeds.
    I do not believe we will be going anywhere without a Heavy Lift Vehicle with hydrogen upper stages with which to build a base on the Moon- from which to assemble, test, and launch a nuclear mission.
    I am in the habit of repeating my views on how to procreed because it is simpler than arguing every little point- such as comparing balsa wood rafts and hot air balloons to nuclear powered and propelled spaceships.

  • GaryChurch March 3, 2013, 14:37

    “It is not true, as you stated above, that the radiation problem kept the proposed crewed Mars/Venus flyby missions from being flown; it was a matter of money. The radiation shielding,-required more funding than NASA had available -”

    I concede- it was the money; there is no cheap.

    “-they could also stock plenty of “oxygen candles,” for contingencies in which the crew might need to shut down and repair the life support equipment).”

    I would like to know how much 250 days of oxygen candles would mass for the pair. Not disrepecting the suggestion; it might not be that bad but I am thinking high pressure steel tanks- just like they use on the space-station- are the best emergency source- what might be critical is air scrubbers.
    Like in Apollo 13.

  • GaryChurch March 3, 2013, 16:04

    “A smaller, “directional” solar flare radiation shield (as Alex Tolley suggested) should reduce the required shielding mass-”

    There is no reducing the required shielding mass; the more you add the more secondary radiation you generate to compound your problem. This stops with about 14 feet of water (the must useful form of shielding). This is why either total protection or zero protection is necessary.
    All or nothing.
    The only compromise is a radiation sanctuary like a coffin an astronaut could retreat to in case of a solar event. It would actually elevate cosmic ray secondary radiation exposure but would of course save the astronaut from dying in a solar event over the short term.