When I first saw the headlines a few days ago that millionaire Dennis Tito, the first space tourist, was scheduled to announce a mission to Mars - I was immediately inspired and intrigued. And that was simply an announcement of a future announcement!
Sure, I'm already a convert - but it does go to show you the power that space exploration has to inspire people.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.If you haven't already heard, a new foundation has been created called Inspiration Mars Foundation, who's goal is to fundraise and organise a trip to Mars in 2018. They're not proposing a landing, or even entering orbit – but simply doing a fly-by and then returning to Earth.
Private Plan to Send Humans to Mars in 2018 Might Not Be So Crazy.
Rise of private missions
What impresses me most about this, and other recent announcements - such as the B612 Foundation and various space mining organisations that have formed, is that some very ambitious missions are being proposed and planned by private sector groups.
I remember following the final months leading up to the original Ansari X-Prize attempts, and seeing the first non-governmental organisation launch a human into space. It spurned a number of follow-on efforts, which one day soon will hopefully put short-duration space flights in the hands of ordinary citizens.
This sort of grandiose, inspiring mission normally was funded by governments, but we're seeing more and more of these exciting endeavours being proposed. And the flow-on effect to our youth and the workforce is obvious: NASA early last year reported they had the most astronaut applications since 1978 – 6,300 in all, and nearly double the 2,500-3,500 they normally receive.
Of course I'd love to see governments stepping up more – a mission like Dennis Tito is proposing, a fly-by of Mars is really something that NASA should have been leading with. They unfortunately seem stuck in a circular battle of budgets, American job-politics and 'Safe' approaches. I am intrigued by some commentary I hear about how we're afraid to take risks nowadays, how we're afraid to lose another human in space for something bold (See the executive summary section on Safe Is Not An Option: Our Futile Obsession In Spaceflight).
The Inspiration Mars mission strikes the right balance for such a big step. A relatively safe approach, from both the mission goals and technology-requirements perspective.
On the surface it seems like a "why bother" mission to travel so far, to simply look at Mars out the window – but in reality there are so many lessons to learn from such an experiment, in terms of small crew dynamics, radiation risks, etc. It's a great first step. NASA's Space Launch System will be doing an unmanned trip around the moon, as part of its test regime – so in terms of sending humans to Mars, this makes sense. And the mission profile is not too far removed from the first circum-lunar mission.
The real payoff of this mission is not the trip to Mars itself, but is in the title of the foundation itself - "Inspiration".
Millions of humans around the world will undoubtedly watch as the mission launches, during the flyby and of course the landing. Two humans will come back and be rockstars like Neil & Buzz.
But beyond those short engagement periods, there will be a huge opportunity to link the mission to education activities – and this is where I hope we at KiwiSpace can step up to the challenge.