Dennis Tito, the millionaire investment whiz who became the first paying passenger to visit the International Space Station in 2001, is said to be planning a privately backed, 501-day mission to Mars in 2018. But the full details — including whether humans will go along for the ride — may have to wait until a Washington news conference next week.
Word of the venture came out in a media advisory passed along by the SpaceRef website on Wednesday. The advisory, attributed to the Texas-based Griffin Communications Group, describes a "Mission for America" that would capitalize on a favorable orbital opportunity to launch a round-trip mission to Mars in January 2018.
The advisory includes an invitation to attend a news conference at 1 p.m. ET Feb. 27 at the National Press Club in Washington, issued by the Inspiration Mars Foundation, which is described as a "newly founded nonprofit organization led by American space traveler and entrepreneur Dennis Tito."
Tito, a former rocket engineer, made his fortune as the founder of Wilshire Associates, a multibillion-dollar investment firm based in California. He made history in 2001 when he paid a reported $20 million for a ride aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the space station. At the time, the eight-day round trip was highly controversial and required changes in the policies governing space station operations. Since then, six other high-net-worth individuals have taken similar flights with little or no controversy. The current published price for such flights is upwards of $40 million.
In the nearly 12 years since his flight, Tito has taken a relatively low public profile in the private-sector spaceflight industry. Meanwhile, other millionaires and billionaires, ranging from SpaceX's Elon Musk to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, have been in the vanguard.
Little is known about the Inspiration Mars Foundation, and the name doesn't turn up in databasesfor tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. The Internet domain names "InspirationMars.com" and "InspirationMars.org" were registered anonymously last October. But other than that, the only information that could be gleaned about Inspiration Mars comes from the media advisory, which says it's "committed to accelerating America's human exploration of space as a critical catalyst for future growth, national prosperity, new knowledge and global leadership."
"This 'Mission for America' will generate new knowledge, experience and momentum for the next great era of space exploration," the advisory said. "It is intended to encourage all Americans to believe again, in doing the hard things that make our nation great, while inspiring youth through Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and motivation."
In addition to Tito, the speakers listed for next week's news briefing include Taber McCallum and Jane Poynter, who are veterans of the Biosphere 2 life-containment experiment and the top executives at Paragon Space Development, which develops life-support systems for spacecraft. Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon who now serves as an adviser for several space ventures, is also due to appear. Veteran TV journalist Miles O'Brien, who was once in line to take a trip to the space station, is to serve as moderator.
Although a number of reports about the venture suggest that the 2018 mission would involve a human crew, the media advisory doesn't say whether astronauts would be flown. Considering the risks and the relatively short time frame, it seems more likely that the "Mission for America" would be a precursor for human flight, perhaps with animals or plants on board. That wouldn't be surprising: Three years ago, McCallum and Poynter announced plans to put a mini-greenhouse on the moon as part of a Google Lunar X Prize mission.
The manned-vs.-unmanned issue isn't the only question hanging over the media advisory: It's not clear how the project would be financed. It's also not clear what type of spacecraft might be used, although SpaceX instantly comes to mind: Musk has said his company could get humans to Mars in as little as 10 years, and there's been talk that a SpaceX "Red Dragon" capsule could be launched toward Mars as early as 2018 for as little as $400 million.