How not to get to Mars

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit.

Yesterday the world’s first space tourist, Dennis Tito, testified before Congress about the plans his organization, Inspiration Mars, has put together to make possible a manned fly-by of Mars by 2018.

The flyby mission would require two launches in quick succession. In the first liftoff, an SLS would loft four payloads to Earth orbit: an SLS upper-stage rocket; a 600-cubic-foot habitat module derived from Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus cargo vessel; a service module that would support the habitat module with power, propulsion and communications systems; and an Earth re-entry pod, which would be based on NASA’s Orion capsule. The second launch — this one likely using a commercial rocket — would deliver the two astronauts to orbit aboard a yet-to-be-selected private spaceship. The crewmembers would then transfer to the habitat module, and the SLS upper stage would propel them on toward Mars.

In making this announcement Tito and his organization challenged Congress and NASA to make it happen. They also admitted that they had initially thought this manned fly-by could be done entirely with private resources, but have looking at it closely realized it needed NASA money and hardware.

What a pipe dream. As much as I support Tito’s effort to accelerate the United States’ space effort, neither Tito’s original ideas as well as this new proposal are realistic. At no time do these dreamers show the slightest understanding of the challenges involved in flying humans in weightlessness for more than a year and as far away as Mars.

Take a look at their proposed architecture as outlined in their 26 page report [pdf]. Does it remind you of anything? To me, this kind of presentation is very familiar. NASA has released hundreds of such presentations for decades. It is engineering by PowerPoint. Just because you assemble a nice presentation showing your flight plan and how you would like to assemble it does not mean you have designed a mission to Mars. For example, nothing in this report deals at all with the medical problems of putting people in weightlessness for 500 days. All the data collected in the past forty years — in Skylab, all the Salyut stations, Mir, and ISS — show that after 500 days, the crew would be seriously debilitated. Worse, flying in a relatively tiny habitat (Cygnus combined with Orion), not a large vessel (like Mir), would further handicap them medically. This problem is not trivial. And it has not yet been solved.

Tito’s proposal makes believe the problem does not exist.

Tito’s plan is also utterly unrealistic in its assessment of the challenges involved with building an interplanetary vessel that can keep those passengers alive for 500 days. As yet, we have never built anything that can do this. All the space stations built so far have required spare parts from Earth and have required repairs that could not have been handled from Mars. While the engineering research to build such a vessel is on-going on ISS as well as China’s space station, these issues will not be solved by 2018. And they will certainly not be solved by the architecture described by Tito’s proposal.

Finally, Tito’s proposal does not seem to understand the actual cost of such a project, should NASA build it. It will be far higher than the one billion dollars that Tito suggests. At the moment Congress can’t afford such dreams considering the federal budget problems, and is looking for ways to trim NASA’s budget, not expand it.

And should by some miracle Congress fund it, we will not see it finished. It will instead become another fake NASA project, a place where billions of taxpayer dollars are dumped under the guise of an imaginary goal in order to justify more pork to Congressional districts. Haven’t we had enough of this bull?

Maybe the worst aspect of this proposal however is how completely detached from reality it is. Tito’s proposal imagines a mission to Mars can be mounted just like the Apollo program to the Moon. It cannot. Going to Mars is going to require a level of knowledge and engineering skill that we presently don’t have. And to gain that knowledge, we need to first build some test vehicles and do serious long term medical research in Earth orbit, research that NASA’s program at ISS is doing a very poor and unfocused job at attacking.

Inspiration Mars instead makes believe this lack of knowledge does not exist. And sadly, their approach is quite similar to almost all American proposals for getting to Mars. It is as if the American space community is stuck in the 1960s, repeatedly copying John Kennedy’s proposals, without any thought to the realities required to make this happen.

Until we all focus on those realities instead of living in PowerPoint dream worlds, however, nothing is going to happen. We will watch as the Russians and Chinese approach the problem methodically and eventually get there.


Every July, to celebrate the anniversary of the start of Behind the Black in 2010, I hold a month-long fund-raising campaign to make it possible for me to continue my work here for another year.

This year's fund-raising drive however is more significant in that it is also the 10th anniversary of this website's founding. It is hard to believe, but I have been doing this for a full decade, during which I have written more than 22,000 posts, of which more than 1,000 were essays and almost 2,600 were evening pauses.

This year's fund drive is also more important because of the growing intolerance of free speech and dissent in American culture. Increasingly people who don't like what they read are blatantly acting to blackball sites like mine. I have tried to insulate myself from this tyrannical effort by not depending on Google advertising or cross-posts Facebook or Twitter. Though this prevents them from having a hold on me, it also acts to limit my exposure.

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  • Pzatchok

    We need to build a self sustaining, or at least close to it, space habitat.

    Something using spin gravity. Which is needed for so many things.
    It keeps plants growing correctly, humans healthier, adds to the general cleanliness of the environment, far far more science experiments could be done in low gravity than in free fall.
    And quite frankly I don’t think one group is designing anything for this other than possibly Bigalow.

    Until we build something even close to this all the dreaming is just that. Dreaming.

    As much as I deride NASA even they know that a mission to Mars is not even close to a dream.

    If this guy was serious he would be investing in launching the largest habitation possible from Bigalow and assembling it in orbit.

    They could even design and build it with a plan to integrate it into an eventual mission to Mars.

  • ken anthony

    The problem with large habitats is mass. Putting it in orbit is not the problem. Sending it around mars is.

    I believe even the Sundancer is overkill, but it’s the best option I see. Zubrin had a better idea using a Dragon with an inflated porch.

    The medical issues are not trivial, but the point is to demonstrate they are not showstoppers either. Which is to say, let them worry about recovery after they get back, not figure everything out before they go. Trying to do that, they will never go. This is not to say we don’t include things that we can, but there is a time issue.

    We have a cost opportunity but that’s easy to blow by over analysing it. As long as the crew understands their risks, it’s their choice in taking them.

    If Tito is serious, he’s got some serious rethinking to do.

  • Bob, you’re right, of course. Mr. Tito has some high expectations of technology and knowledge that are not at all clearly simple to deal with. I could imagine a more constructive response to this, however, than just saying he’s dreaming and it can’t be done.

    The “Inspiration Mars” plan should be picked up by the community, and honestly analyzed for holes. And heaven knows, there are a whole constellation of holes in his mission profile. But let’s quantify them, list them out, and send them back to Tito’s staff and encourage them to plan out how those holes get filled. One thing that I see in space advocacy and private space discussion is a preponderance of rock-throwing, and little else.

    That needs to change, and it shouldn’t be all that hard.

  • I agree. We threaten to navel-gaze ourselves into inaction.

  • I am totally in favor of pushing these visionary ideas, as long as they are grounded in some reality. It is for this reason that I have been a big advocate of both SpaceX and Scaled Composites. These two companies don’t offer us “engineering by PowerPoint.” They come up with smart ideas and then build them.

    Tito’s group deserves some harsh criticism. They very clearly are completely ignorant of the challenges an interplanetary flight entails, and should be ashamed of that ignorance. Instead, they appear to be proud of it. After their sixty day study you would have thought their proposal this week would have dealt with some of the basic engineering and medical issues. It did not.

    What worries me most is that some members of Congress might run with this proposal, in order to justify pork, and thus steal needed cash from other much more worthwhile and much more likely-to-succeed projects (such as the commercial crew program). Sierra Nevada is building its mini-shuttle, and should they complete it and fly it, it will change manned space. Similarly, having them as well as Boeing and SpaceX providing us manned capabilities would be priceless. To lose this possibility so that Dennis Tito and some Congressmen can make believe they are sending two people to Mars would be beyond tragic.

  • I right on board with what you’ve written. I shouldn’t be very difficult to identify EVERY hole in this plan, log it on a spreadsheet or a rebuttal report, and directly request that Tito and Company explicitly address every pitfall, deficiency, and undefined assumption. If it’s wrong, why should we not directly tell him what’s wrong with it? If he’s serious, he’ll answer the questions. If he’s just fiddling around, that will become immediately apparent.

    Just reading the report and declaring it to be sophmoric (even if it is) doesn’t do much. And Tito or someone like him will just rewarm bad ideas and present them again. And if USGov decides to run with a bad plan when we knew it was a bad plan and didn’t tackle it to reality, we bear some responsibility for that.

  • The audience I want to reach is not Tito, but Congress. Tito was talking to Congress. I don’t want him to succeed in convincing them to finance any of this. It is for this reason I will be discussing this at length tonight on John Batchelor.

  • ken anthony

    The problem is congress doesn’t need convincing to spend pork. All Tito has to provide is a straw and congress will grasp it. The only thing that will kill SLS is an operational FH. Even then it will require embarrassing SLS supporters that don’t know shame.

    Orion is being positioned as a long range option. The fact they intend to add Cygnus to their configuration exposes that lie. You can’t get around the need for volume. But Cygnus only doubles the volume. It’s advantage is low mass but loses that once you add operational components.

    I don’t know why ILC Dover doesn’t offer price and specs to bid for this opportunity? They could come up with a Dragon porch that could go up in one launch with crew. That’s got to be less than $200m and all that would remain would be an earth departure stage (or refuel the upper stage that got them to orbit.)

  • Edward

    Dennis Tito did not learn the lesson of Dr. Alan Binder. He tried to launch a privately funded satellite, Lunar Prospector, to the moon but ran out of money, so he asked NASA to help. NASA agreed, but with all the additional bean counters and other support staff, the costs skyrocketed to NASA proportions. The satellite was built and went to the moon with great success, but Dr. Binder lost control of more than the costs. NASA likes success and takes it in the shorts whenever there is a failure, so they are willing to spend more to achieve success, especially when lives are on the line.

    Tito’s timing has always been tight, and NASA does not do fast very well. Apollo was successful, but at a price that many thought excessive. There aremany unknowns and risks involved. It is one thing for the private sector to take risks, but bureaucracies (and let’s face it, NASA is one) do not do risk very well. NASA has become very averse to losing crews, and I don’t blame them.

    With the recent realization that a regular trip to Mars will expose the crew to the limit of NASA’s allowed radiation exposure, I seriously doubt that NASA would sanction an even longer voyage with even more exposure.

    Not only is Tito barking up the wrong tree, but that tree is likely to fall on him unexpectedly.

  • Pzatchok

    How much mass do you think they will need to drive around Mars in their motor home?

    All that food and atmosphere plus at least one back up mass of atmosphere in case they get a hole.

    Water enough for a normal life.

    If you can move that you can just as easily move something two, three, of four times the size.

    Just add more fuel or dock with more robot fuel vehicles as you go.

  • ken anthony

    First of all, you do not need one back up mass of atmosphere in case they get a hole. If it’s not explosive decompression that kills them instantly, then it’s a hole they can patch before it drains them too much. Forget what you’ve seen in the movies. Liquified gas is highly compressed in any case.

    What you do need is about 8kg of consumables (O2, H2O and food) per day per person which includes packaging. So two people for 501 days is 8016kg or about 8m3 of space or about a quarter of all the space in an Orion & Cygnus combo. That’s without recycling. They might be a little more generous.

    It cost fuel to move mass so to keep cost down you want less mass. Orion, Cygnus, crew, consumables, and departure stage would be about 30mt requiring about 150mt of fuel (about $300m to get fuel to LEO.)

    Tito is figuring about $1b total cost but using SLS & Orion (if ready in time) will likely cost more although NASA might pick up the tab.

    Dragon with a porch and consumables might only be 15mt costing only $200m for fuel (including some extra fuel for course corrections.)

  • I get what you’re say, and yes, powerpoint plans are not often well thought out. As in never. My point is that you yourself said that these sorts of plan keep coming back, and I say they keep rising from the dead because you end up with folks who just blurt out “that’s stupid”, then walk off. There is no education as to WHY the plan has faults.

    It would be more productive to show the holes, make it clear in a calm but firm way that the deficiencies exist. Not just for Dennis Tito, but for the next person to come along. It may save Tito and/or the next contender some time, and possibly align people’s thoughts better towards a real plan. That’s all I’m trying to get across.

  • The whole thing is very disappointing. I’d been anxious to see what kind of mission architecture they’d come up with, and to find it 70% reliant on NASA funding…well, I gave up reading beyond that. At NASASpaceflight, I posted that this whole thing feels like a “Hail Mary” play that came once they figured out that commercial options had the best chance for success. That would require serious money to be on hand right now just to get started (which apparently they don’t/won’t have), so instead it ends up being offered to Congress as a fig leaf for SLS instead of just recreating Apollo 8. I’m guessing they figured that was the only shot they had left.

    And then there’s the whole radiation/microgravity/consumables/ECLSS thingy…yadda yadda, minor details. Which is too bad ’cause I was really hoping this would work. Maybe SpaceX can pull it off on their own with the 2021 Moon/Venus/Mars flyby window. IMHO that would be spectacular.

  • edward

    I agree that “design by PowerPoint” is not a good way to go. They are almost a year into their idea, and they need to present a preliminary design review soon (his schedule shows it will be next November) to identify all the holes, how they are going to plug them, how they will finance it (finding this funding is the point of the” PowerPoint” design), what hardware they need, when the not-yet-available hardware will have to be tested in order for it to be used (plus backup plans in case it does not become available), how much the project will cost and weigh, etc.. All of these must be realistic and achievable.

    It seems that Tito is losing confidence that commercial space hardware will be ready in time, so he is looking for another source of hardware. Unfortunately, he still depends upon hardware that is in development. He mentioned in one of the links that there is another, though longer flight, opportunity in 2021. It uses a flyby of Venus. He may need to state that as his fallback option, complete with a plan for succeeding at that mission.

    I support his inspirational effort to show that it can be done. This is part of the private, commercial space effort to bring to life the promise of the odyssey that we saw in Kubrick and Clark’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” These are exciting times in space, the excitement that I had hoped to join when I first got into the business.

    It does not matter that it has little practical value, it is inspirational and something for the rest of us to aspire to.

  • ken anthony

    There is absolutely no reason to wait for 2021. Everything exists to do it now for 2017 if you consider the lower mass Dragon with an inflatable porch. Everything, including crew and consumables can go up on a single F9 launch. That can be sent on the mission if the upper stage is refueled.

    Can Tito not afford two F9 launches?

  • wade

    all of these Designs have originated from people who have Never experienced Space.

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