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Millionaire plans to send couple to Mars in 2018. Is that realistic? (+video)

The Inspiration Mars Foundation, led by space tourist and multimillionaire Dennis Tito, announces its plan to send a married couple on a flyby mission to the Red Planet beginning in 2018. 

By Staff writer / February 27, 2013

A drawing provided by the Inspiration Mars Foundation shows an artist’s conception of a spacecraft envisioned by the private group, which wants to send a married couple on a mission to fly by the red planet and zip back home, beginning in 2018.

Inspiration Mars/AP

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In 1961, President John F. Kennedy charged NASA with putting humans on the moon within the decade. Now, the world's first space tourist, multimillionaire Dennis Tito, formally unveiled plans to send two humans to Mars and back on a nonstop, 501-day mission, with the launch envisioned for January 2018.

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The race to go to Mars heats up in the private sector.

The audacious project, which Mr. Tito is bankrolling out-of-pocket for the first two years, is driven by a mixture of motives: part America first, part research, and an enormous dash of what he and his partners hope will be inspiration to a nation whose government space program is caught between tight budgets and an unclear direction for its human spaceflight effort.

NASA's current plans don't call for a human mission to Mars for more than a decade.

The Mars flyby mission announcement came Wednesday, shortly after the House Subcommittee on Space held hearings on the Space Leadership Preservation Act, a bill that would overhaul the way NASA is funded and how its leadership is structured.

During the hearing, Rep. Chris Stewart (R) of Utah spoke of goals for NASA and said, "It will be disappointing to some of us if Google goes to Mars before the government."

In this case, however, it's not Internet titan Google spearheading the mission, but the Inspiration Mars Foundation, a nonprofit group Tito and others established to execute the project.

A team from the foundation is presenting the results of a mission-feasibility study next weekend at an Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineering (IEEE) aerospace conference in Big Sky, Mont.

"All of the work done to date show the mission is possible, just barely," said Taber MacCallum, CEO and chief technology officer for Paragon Space Development Corporation and the Inspiration Mars Foundation's chief technology officer, during a press conference in Washington on Wednesday.

At the same time, however, the study also shows that it will take the Orion capsule and the space-launch system NASA is working on to pull off a mission to explore Mars with a crew of scientists, he said.

The Inspiration Mars mission is an austere one whose schedule is dictated by a very favorable alignment between Earth and Mars in 2018. The alignment allows a simple round trip to take 501 days, and the alignment won't appear again until 2031.

The two-member crew, a man and a woman, would launch Jan. 5, 2018, take one swing around Mars, coming to within 100 miles of the surface on Aug. 21, then return to Earth in an approach and reentry no one has tried before, landing on May 21, 2019.

In a version of the feasibility study papered for the IEEE presentation next Sunday, Tito and colleagues from three aerospace companies, NASA's Ames Research Center, and Baylor University's Center for Space Medicine in Houston envision a Spartan craft where sponge baths replace showers and the crew will recycle water and oxygen with technologies similar to those used on the International Space Station.

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