Inspiration Mars

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Credit: Inspiration Mars Foundation

Credit: Inspiration Mars Foundation

By now you have probably heard about Dennis Tito’s Inspiration Mars venture to send a man and woman to slingshot around Mars in 2018. The stated goal of the organization is to inspire people the same way that the Apollo missions did 50 years ago.

I love the concept of human spaceflight. I grew up being inspired by Star Trek, and still draw a great deal of inspiration from it and other sci-fi shows, movies, and books. So far, my reaction to Inspiration Mars is mixed.

First, let’s talk a little about the scientific value and the risk. We’ve never sent humans beyond the orbit of our moon, and we actually haven’t done that since Apollo 17 in 1972. The largest risk being discussed is radiation, which is a huge concern and challenge, and also an area where such a mission would return clear scientific value to making future interplanetary missions safer. This is also the clear reason for seeking a middle-aged couple. The astronauts going on this mission will receive a higher than safe radiation exposure even in the best case scenario, with increased long term health risks after they return.

Besides the obvious medical risk to the astronauts, there’s an inherent social risk with the radiation danger as well. Let’s be honest: any inspiration from such a mission could be very short lived if the astronauts come back suffering from severe radiation poisoning or shortly after are found to have any of numerous types of cancer. In fact, I think there is a risk such an outcome could poison public and political support for manned deep space exploration. That concern is however tempered by the fact that astronauts have given their lives before. There is no question that it takes a psychological toll, but that hasn’t prevented us from having the will to explore.

There is also scientific value in just having people in space for 500 days, though this has effectively been accomplished once already. In March 1995, Cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov returned from 437 days in orbit aboard the MIR space station not much the worse for wear, due to an extensive exercise regimen while in orbit. Interestingly, there is already a NASA mission scheduled for 2015 to put two astronauts about the ISS for 1 year for the purpose of testing human endurance in space with an eye towards solar system exploration. Since this mission would wrap up in 2016, this would provide additional data to the Inspiration Mars team.

Besides radiation, there are risks of micro-meteors, system failures, unforeseen medical issues, and the ever-present unknowns when trying something new. Of course, if it were safe and comfortable, it wouldn’t be exploration. The Inspiration Mars team is clearly aware of all these risks, and will do everything they can to mitigate them.

Reading the details about the proposed spacecraft, I wonder about the cramped space. This is a far cry from the mars explorer ships envisioned in science fiction, past Mars concepts, or even the space aboard the ISS. For comparison, the ISS has 13,696 cubic feet of habitable volume with a typical crew of 6. That’s about the equivalent of a 1,600 sqft house. The habitable volume of a Dragon capsule, used for the Inspiration Mars feasibility analysis, would be only 250 cubic feet for 2 people. They plan to include an additional habitat, either rigid or inflatable, with approximately 350 additional cubic feet of living space. With a total volume of 600 cubic feet, this is about the size of a 7×10 foot room (70 sqft). Now, I once lived aboard a 34 foot sailboat with a former girlfriend for about 5 months. The only thing that made that remotely work was the bathrooms were at the marina, and the fact that we didn’t spend most of our time on the boat. A 600 cubic foot volume doesn’t seem like much space for two people to spend 500 days. That in itself will undoubtably prove taxing on the crew.

Most important in all of this though is the social value of the mission: inspiring the next generation of engineers and explorers. All I can say to that is, I really hope so. History tends to gloss over all the objections and controversy that actually surrounded the Apollo program. What gets written about is a man walking on the moon, and a nation pulling together, when the reality was far more nuanced. I hope Inspiration Mars pulls off a similar feat.

One element I have to say I don’t find inspiring is the focus on this being an American mission rather than an international one. While national competition does exist, this feels like a political throwback.  At the end of the day, regardless of nations or private foundations, I see this is a human endeavor that I hope can inspire everyone regardless of nationality.

I wish the best of luck to the Inspiration Mars team. I also hope they aren’t afraid to postpone the mission to the next launch window 15 years later if after study, the risks prove too great. That outcome in itself has just as much scientific value, and is probably a better result than a failed mission.

What do you think?

Is Inspiration Mars inspiring, or just crazy? If given the chance, would you want to go?

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