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Bold Mars Pursuit Truly Inspires

Mars. Credit: True-colour image of Mars by OSIRIS

The recently announced Inspiration Mars mission has been described as “audacious,” “extremely challenging” and “ambitious.” The announcement has rightfully been met with skepticism. Ironically, I am told that this is exactly how members of the Inspiration Mars team first reacted when presented with the unique opportunity to conduct a human mission around Mars and back to Earth in 501 days within five years. The team’s determination, after intensive study, to pursue this bold goal has me cheering them on.

On March 3 in Big Sky, Mont., this group of respected experts presented a collaborative feasibility study at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Aerospace Conference, outlining how a mission might be accomplished when the planets align in 2018 affording a “fast, free return” fly-by of Mars and return to Earth.

Dennis Tito, the leader of this group and the founder of the Inspiration Mars Foundation, has dubbed it “A Mission for America.” The project is designed to return America to the bold thinking, innovation and daring can-do attitude that many of us grew up with in the 1950s and ’60s. Inspiration Mars plans to send a man and a woman, representing all of humanity, around Mars, and hopes to inspire a new generation of explorers to pursue educations and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

In my book, “Spacewalker,” and other recent writings, I have advocated the need for America to once again dream big dreams, work toward difficult goals and consequently reap the benefits in education, technology and our economy just as benefits were realized when we first journeyed to the Moon. The Inspiration Mars mission presents exactly that kind of endeavor. While the team is optimistic that the mission will launch in 2018, independent of that outcome, the bold plans and efforts undertaken will excite the nation, will challenge engineers and scientists in pursuing its goals, and will ultimately assist in future human travel to the red planet.

For those who remain skeptical, history is our guide. Apollo 8 took seven years from the start of the Apollo program to orbiting the Moon with a much more challenging scenario. NASA rushed to build a launch vehicle and a crew vehicle, establish launch control and mission control centers, build launch pads, design space suits and life-support systems, and develop mission planning, training and operations teams — an order of magnitude more difficult and expensive and perhaps equally as audacious as Inspiration Mars.

To me, this all looks quite feasible. Investments in human space exploration technologies and operations by NASA and by the commercial space industry are converging at a time and in a way to make such a mission achievable. Much work will need to be done and the challenges will be many, but that is what makes this proposed mission exciting and worthwhile.

However, the crew will literally be boldly going where no man, or woman, has gone before — and therein lie the most significant challenges. This is not a mission to low Earth orbit. The vehicle technology available for the Inspiration Mars flight poses significant gaps in addressing the health, safety and productivity of a human crew traveling outside the Earth’s protective magnetic fields for an extended period of time. Flying both closer to and farther from the sun than ever before, the vehicle and crew will be exposed to significant radiation levels. The speed of the vehicle’s re-entry upon return to Earth will be unprecedented. These are only two of the critical issues that must be successfully resolved in the next couple of years to make the January 2018 launch window. Yet there are already positive signs of the progress being made to address these challenges.

Inspiration Mars has signed a reimbursable Space Act Agreement with NASA Ames Research Center to study and design the re-entry profile and the vehicle thermal protection system. NASA is embracing its can-do heritage in a new way — in the role of a facilitator. This is very good news. I expect there will be more Space Act Agreements to come for other NASA spaceflight centers to support development efforts in areas such as life support and crew health management. NASA’s expertise will be critical to the safety and success of the mission.

“This is going to be the Apollo 8 moment for our next generation,” said Jonathan Clark, associate professor of neurology and space medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, who is the chief medical officer for Inspiration Mars. This is a moving and meaningful statement coming from a friend of mine, a man who lost his wife, Laurel, in the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy.

I think most of us who have accepted the risk of flying to and from space will agree that this is the kind of mission that America should take on. That’s what great nations do.

 

Jerry Ross was an astronaut who supported the U.S. space shuttle program from before the first launch through the last. He set and now shares the world record for number of space launches — seven — and he ranks third in the number of space walks — nine. His new book is “Spacewalker: My Journey in Space and Faith as NASA’s Record-Setting Frequent Flyer,” published by Purdue University Press.

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