When multimillionaire and one-time space tourist Dennis Tito announced Inspiration Mars early this year, it was billed as a non-profit venture, funded via philanthropy, to send two people on a 501-day Mars flyby mission that would launch in early January 2018. Tito said he planned to fund the mission primarily through donations; they were open to selling some data collected during the mission to NASA, but that was, at that time, the only kind of funding they were seeking from the space agency.
Less than nine months later, Tito and Inspiration Mars have changed course. In a report summary released yesterday, timed with testimony given by Tito before a hearing of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, Inspiration Mars rolled out an alternative plan that relies on a public-private partnership with NASA that makes use of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and a modified Orion spacecraft, as well as commercial crew transportation systems. It would also rely primarily on NASA funding to make the mission possible. This proposal would, in effect, reshape national space policy, with a very short period for Congress and the White House to endorse this approach in order to meet its launch window.
“The way that we’re proposing this is that this is a NASA mission with a philanthropic partner contributing to the mission,” said Inspiration Mars Foundation program manager Taber MacCallum in a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon. “This has to be, first and foremost, a NASA mission.”
MacCallum said that the shift in focus was driven by two factors. One was that the commercial systems they studied to do the mission “really didn’t come in with the kind of margins that gave us a good feeling about the risk associated with that.” The other was their growing confidence that the SLS could do the job. “It’s a good thing the SLS is being developed,” he said. “We really came around to independently validating the need for SLS. I didn’t frankly start off as an SLS supporter in this, and I came around to being one.”
The report summary itself does not go into great details about costs, other than Inspiration Mars expects the need for several hundred million dollars in additional NASA funding, primarily to accelerate development of the Dual Use Upper Stage (DUUS) for the SLS. That upper stage, needed to send the Inspiration Mars “Vehicle Stack” from low Earth orbit onto a Mars flyby trajectory, is currently not slated by NASA to be ready until the early 2020s. In his Congressional testimony, Tito indicated that up to $700 million in additional NASA funding—about $100–200 million per year over several years—would be needed to develop the DUUS and other elements, with Inspiration Mars providing on the order of $300 million.
To maintain schedule to achieve their planned mission—the spacecraft would have to depart in a window that opens Christmas Eve 2017 and closes less than two weeks later—Tito said they would need to get a commitment of support from Congress and the White House in the immediate future. “We have just a couple of months to get some signals that would indicate serious interest developing,” Tito said in the media teleconference. He and MacCallum said they have bene in touch with Congress and White House officials; on the latter, “we have had good discussions so far,” MacCallum said. Tito said later that an unnamed member of Congress would introduce a bill “in the next week or two” about the mission, but declined to name that member or members, or the contents of the bill.
NASA, though, doesn’t seem to be on board in support of that mission at the moment. “The agency is willing to share technical and programmatic expertise with Inspiration Mars, but is unable to commit to sharing expenses with them,” NASA spokesman David Weaver said in a statement provided to media. “However, we remain open to further collaboration as their proposal and plans for a later mission develop.”
NASA could, of course, be directed to support that mission by Congress and the White House, but there was no clear enthusiasm for the concept among members of the House Science Committee at yesterday’s hearing, some of whom were wary of Tito’s request for federal dollars. “Are you suggesting that the mission couldn’t be undertaken without additional NASA funding?” asked Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the space subcommittee. “Right now, I don’t see a lot of evidence that money is available,” Tito responded.
Inspiration Mars is already developing a fallback plan if support from the federal government doesn’t materialize in time for their late-2017 mission plan. Tito and MacCallum discussed an alternative trajectory for a 2021 mission that, while 88 days longer than the original plan, would include flybys of both Mars and Venus. Tito in particular said he was convinced someone would attempt that mission, claiming that Russia was planning to revive the long-retired Energia heavy-lift rocket for just such a mission (he admitted that he had no evidence to support such a proposal but “it seems pretty obvious to me.”)
“Why not move this mission to the here and now and now wait until the 2030s?” he asked in his Congressional testimony. Waiting until 2021, he warned, means that “another country, almost surely China, will have seen our missed opportunity and taken the lead themselves. May I offer a frank word to the subcommittee: the United States will carry out a flyby mission or we will watch as others do it. If America is every going to do a flyby mission of Mars, we’re going to have to do it in 2018.”