Our species has an ongoing fascination with the planet Mars. Perhaps that has everything to do with a NASA rover named Curiosity, or just an increased awareness of Mars and its habitable potential, but governmental organizations and private companies are all racing to explore the red planet. A new private mission, called Inspiration Mars, is planning what would be the first manned mission to Mars and back, by using a slingshot trajectory to send a spacecraft by Mars and Venus before returning to Earth.
Inspiration Mars is the brainchild of Dennis Tito, multimillionaire and the world’s first space tourist. In 2001, Tito spent eight days in orbit on a mission to the International Space Station. That trip must have inspired him, because he’s now making plans to send humans even farther, past both Venus and Mars, taking us closer to two planets (and farther from Earth) than we’ve ever been. Tito will need some help, though, and is asking NASA for equipment and expertise. The idea is to work with a modified capsule from NASA’s newly-designed Orion spacecraft, partnered with Orbital Sciences Cygnus module. The entire thing would be launched into space by NASA’s new Space Launch System rocket.
The two-person manned mission would use gravity assists to slingshot around Mars and Venus before returning to Earth. This sort of maneuver uses a rare alignment of the Sun and planets (hence the 2021 window of opportunity to fly by both Mars and Venus) that creates a gravity situation that will accelerate a spacecraft without the need for costly rockets. Inspiration Mars’ initial trajectory would be towards the Sun, whose gravity would help it pick up speed. Then it will get hurled towards Mars and Venus, flying by them, and finally, like a boomerang, it will swing back to Earth.
Last week, The U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space and Technology began hearings on Inspiration Mars, as well as discussing the technology that the project will need from NASA to actually fly the mission. The mission could be the forerunner to actually putting people on the surface of Mars.