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Millionaire Plans Manned Mission to Mars in 2018

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Mosaic of the Valles Marineris hemisphere of MarsYesterday, a mysterious group called the Inspiration Mars Foundation announced vague plans for a “historic journey to Mars and back in 501 days” scheduled for 2018. The group neglected to mention if the trip would be manned, instead directing the public to a press conference scheduled for February 27. But new information reveals that the individuals behind the Inspiration Mars Foundation plan to send two people on a flight to Mars and back—presumably in one piece.

The Inspiration Mars Foundation was formed by millionaire Dennis Tito, 72, the first person to pay for a ticket to the International Space Station. He and his partners will be giving a talk next month at the IEEE Aerospace Conference on “Feasibility Analysis for a Manned Mars Free Return Mission in 2018.” According to the NewSpace Journal, which obtained a copy of the paper the group plans to present at the conference, the Mars mission would use a modified version of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which last year made a successful delivery of cargo to the ISS. (Dragon was designed to carry people as well as cargo, but has not yet carried any astronauts into space.) The capsule would venture out to Mars and slingshot back around toward Earth on a 501-day mission. Timing is critical: the orbits of Earth and Mars line up for a small window beginning in January 2018; the next available window for a mission like this is in 2031.

Of course, the mission will not be as simple as shooting two astronauts in the right direction. Perhaps the biggest challenge will be shielding astronauts from the unyielding torrents of radiation found outside Earth’s protective magnetic field. An astronaut would reach a dangerously high radiation dose after a year’s journey; a 501-day mission is nearly 40 percent longer. (Fortunately, the 11-year solar cycle is expected to be near its minimum in 2018.) In addition, the mission would depend on unproven technology such as SpaceX’s Dragon Heavy rocket.

Mission architects from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently detailed in Scientific American an incrementally ambitious plan to send astronauts to asteroids, the moon and Mars, yet such a plan wouldn’t be ready to start launches for at least another decade. Will the Inspiration Mars Foundation beat NASA to our neighbor? There’s cause for skepticism. (As a colleague just quipped: “if anyone gets beyond Earth orbit in 2018, I’ll eat the magazine.”) But exploration is not the stuff of little plans.

Image of Mars courtesy NASA’s National Space Science Data Center

About the Author: Michael Moyer is the editor in charge of space and physics coverage at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @mmoyr.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. sault 3:28 pm 02/21/2013

    While the Solar Cycle might be in a lull during 2018, the lower solar activity also allows more Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCRs) in that have MUCH higher energies than particles from the Sun. I don’t know if the shielding spectrum of aluminum / water or whatever they’ll use on this mission is different for protons compared to GCRs, but the raidation exposure danger is still there. Admittedly, the risk of a solar flare or a CME is a lot lower dring a solar minima though.

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  2. 2. geojellyroll 3:32 pm 02/21/2013

    Scientific America, where are your actural science journalists?

    Another bottom scraping ‘garbage’ article.

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  3. 3. singing flea 5:27 pm 02/21/2013

    Another waste of taxpayer’s money. How is that if private enterprise does it? Easy answer, there is no profit in it, so it will all just be one big tax write off for excess income that should have been taxed fairly in the first place. Oh, lest I forget, a huge profit for the gamblers that bet against the Marsnaughts returning safely.

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  4. 4. ablmf 5:35 pm 02/21/2013

    I would suggest let’s give the funding to computer scientist to improve Artificial Intelligence first. Since the robots have much longer life span than human does, theoretically, we can send them to places that are much further away from Mars.

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  5. 5. dwbd 8:58 pm 02/21/2013

    Terraforming Mars is the most important project that humans have ever undertaken. And the most ecologically sustainable. It would be the greatest event in the history of Terrestrial Life since the pre-Cambrian explosion. There is NO other task humans can do that even compares remotely to Mars Terraforming and Colonization. Our failure to embrace that, an endeavor easily within our technological and economic capability, is the biggest act of environmental destruction that human civilization has ever done. As in failure to do a positive = a negative.

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  6. 6. LoPan 10:02 pm 02/21/2013

    The article says “unproven technology such as SpaceX’s Dragon Heavy rocket.” The rocket is Falcon Heavy. Dragon is the spacecraft that would carry the crew.

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  7. 7. 13inches 2:18 pm 02/22/2013

    Is the Inspiration Mars Foundation planning on LANDING on Mars ? … or just sling-shotting two human guineau pigs AROUND Mars ? What good is a 501 day human sling-shot mission around Mars ?

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  8. 8. Lenedwin 4:39 pm 02/22/2013

    Why on Earth would anyone want to do that?. The atmosphere is 99% co2 and the air pressure is very low so a human could only survive in a ‘Moon’ suit. If there were any resources on Mars they couldn’t be exploited because of the lack of heavy equipment. There’s no oil,gas or coal and if there was it couldn’t be burnt because of the lack of oxygen.
    It’s a dead, uninhabitable, hostile, useless lump of rock and best left to the robots to explore.
    If you guys have millions of Dollars to waste, send them to me. I can think of thousands of better things to spend it on

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  9. 9. Lenedwin 4:58 pm 02/22/2013

    dwbd. has been reading too much sci-fi. Mars will never be ‘terraformed’ or ‘colonized’ by man. Why even try? The great deserts on Earth are proving to be difficult to reclaim and Earth is blessed with vast oceans of liquid water. So the chances of making Mars habitable, given its lack of liquid water and poisonous atmosphere, is zero.

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  10. 10. dwbd 12:10 pm 02/23/2013

    Lenedwin you don’t have the remotest idea of what you are talking about. Scientists & Engineers who have forgotten more about Mars Development in the past 5 min than you know have thoroughly analyzed the method – entirely feasible & practical.

    Robert Zubrin shows how we can Terraform Mars in a few decades:

    “…In a matter of several decades, using such an approach Mars could be transformed from its current dry and frozen state into a warm and slightly moist planet capable of supporting life. Humans could not breath the air of the thus transformed Mars, but they would no longer require space suits and instead could travel freely in the open wearing ordinary clothes and a simple SCUBA type breathing gear. However because the outside atmospheric pressure will have been raised to human tolerable levels, it will be possible to have large habitable areas for humans ..simple hardy plants could thrive in the CO2 rich outside environment, and spread rapidly across the planets surface. In the course of centuries, these plants would introduce oxygen into Mars’s atmosphere in increasingly breathable quantities..”

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  11. 11. dwbd 12:26 pm 02/23/2013

    lendewin claims: “..lack of heavy equipment. There’s no oil,gas or coal and if there was it couldn’t be burnt because of the lack of oxygen..”

    Are you kidding me? A ridiculous statement. You’ve never heard of Nuclear Energy? What do you think submarines run on underwater for six months and refuel once in 34 yrs. We even want to convert to a NON-OXYGEN based, Nuclear-Electric economy here on Earth.

    “.. great deserts on Earth are proving to be difficult to reclaim..”

    Actually large areas of desert have been reclaimed. The idea is not to reclaim ALL deserts on Mars but release the already trapped CO2 into the atmosphere and the vast stores of frozen water onto the land. Entirely feasible.

    “..So the chances of making Mars zero..”

    Another ridiculous comment. You are claiming you know the future of all human tech for the next 10,000 yrs or more. Fact is you don’t even know the tech available next year, never mind thousands of years in the future. So nope, you’re wrong, at first a CO2 atmosphere of about Earth pressure, with large oceans of liquid water, perfect conditions to facilitate plant growth, which will release oxygen to the atmosphere.

    It is easy to make Sulfur Hexafluoride out of minerals known to exist in Martian soil, using Nuclear Energy. It is the most potent Greenhouse Gas known, 22800X larger than CO2. And regions of human colonies can easily be heated to 20 degC with orbiting Solar Concentrators, while the low atmospheric pressure on Mars will slowly dissipate localized heating.

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  12. 12. CharlieinNeedham 12:29 pm 02/23/2013

    Why not spend the money on cancer research instead?

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  13. 13. dwbd 1:20 pm 02/23/2013

    “..Why not spend the money on cancer research instead?..”

    It’s a big world dude. We can do more than one thing at a time. We throw $trillions down the sewer financing corrupt screw-up banks, on Oil Wars that only make Oil companies richer, on defending Middle East Oil we don’t need, on nutty renewable energy scams and a myriad of political pork-barrel boondoggles. Mars exploration, colonization and terraforming would be the greatest and longest lasting achievement in the history of human civilization. Nothing we have ever done compares to it.

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  14. 14. neilrued 7:44 pm 02/25/2013


    They probably questioned the wisdom of the Apollo 8 mission, in which the crew did a slingshot around the Moon and back.

    The point would be to assess psychometric factors; as dwbd has pointed out, nuclear powered submarines run for six months due to the need to let the crew get shore leave because humans can tolerate living in a confined space for a maximum of six months, any longer than that and people start to go loopy.

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  15. 15. Dr. Strangelove 2:44 am 02/28/2013

    I go for remote control robots to Mars. Zubrin should go to Mars and do his terraforming. IMO it’s science fiction. But that’s not an insult to Zubrin. In 1873 Jules Verne wrote “Around the world in 80 days.” It was science fiction at that time. 88 years later, Gagarin went around the world in 1 minute 48 seconds.

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  16. 16. Joseph C Moore, Cpo USN Ret 4:17 pm 02/28/2013

    With the world’s economies going under, this seems to me to be a fantastic waste of resources. NASA was about impressing the other countries of the world by inefficient manned space exploration when robotic exploration could have provided much more information at a lesser cost.

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  17. 17. Lenedwin 5:36 pm 02/28/2013

    All pipe dreams. Technically the methods exist but practically they are way out of reach.
    Everything Zubrin talks about would require using large resources of Earths materials. Nuclear power stations,factories,mirrors etc.etc would require shipping vast quantities of material to Mars(or the asteroids)from Earth. Maybe it might become necessary to do this in the very distant future but for the next few thousands of years lets use our brains and resources to make life on this planet better. A lot of Zubrin’s conclusions are based on computer modelling. Well we can see how unreliable that is by the debate on Global Warming going on at present. Man induced GW has still not been proven decisively owing to the large variation in the factors input to the model. And the model itself might not be adequate. (I’ve done a lot of computer modelling). Hence Zubrin’s conclusions could be accurate or widely off target;there’s no way of knowing.

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  18. 18. Wayne Williamson 6:19 pm 02/28/2013

    @Dr Strangelove…I think you meant 1 hour and 48 minutes…

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  19. 19. rrocklin 6:19 pm 02/28/2013

    This is a PR joke!

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  20. 20. Dr. Strangelove 8:00 pm 02/28/2013

    Wayne, you’re absolutely right. I recall 108 seconds when the actual time was 108 minutes.

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  21. 21. StofbergCF 2:05 am 03/1/2013

    Don’t be surprised if the Chinese beat NASA to Mars

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  22. 22. timo455 3:47 am 03/1/2013

    Try the Moon first, Mr Tito.

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  23. 23. timo455 3:52 am 03/1/2013

    ….the Chinese are basically copy-cators. Not originators. At the moment they’re trying for the moon ‘cos some people has already been there. They will try Mars only after someone has gone there first. After coming up with the gunpowder and paper, they somehow prefer to rest on their laurels.

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  24. 24. edprochak 1:24 pm 03/1/2013

    Most of the people saying the money is better spent on other things keep thinking this is government expense. It’s not. Read the article!

    Let’s see 2013 to 2018. Five years to prove the technology for a fly by that is most feasible next in 2031, an 18 year wait. I say go for it. The preparations may inspire more youngsters to consider science and engineering careers, besides the real advances that may happen in the technology.

    Even missing the 2018 window, this could set things up for humans finally getting beyond earth orbit and then to Mars around 2031. If I’m lucky, I might actually see it happen. (born in the ’50s, I’m a child of the space age.)

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  25. 25. Quinn the Eskimo 9:49 pm 03/2/2013

    I read elsewhere that they are looking for a married couple for the Marsnaughts. Since it’s a 500+ day journey, what is the plan to keep them from KILLING EACH OTHER?

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