Dennis Tito’s Mars 2018 flyby is a dumb idea and I won’t be going.

What do you think of Dennis Tito’s plan to send a married couple on a 501 day trip past Mars?

Composite panorama of Mars. Not going to be seen by the 2018 expedition, as they'll fly past the night side. NASA, public domain.
Composite panorama of Mars. Not going to be seen by the 2018 expedition, as they’ll fly past the night side. NASA, public domain.

I think it’s dumb. Three-course dumb, with a side-order of dumb.

What Tito’s apparently proposing is to jam two people into a sealed space the size of a large camper van – which means, in practise, that they will be living inside a commode after about Day 5 – soaked with radiation that will lift their chances of cancer by 3 percent. Or kill them, if there’s a solar flare. To get back, they have to endure a risky skip re-entry on Earth – where, if anything is wrong with the angle, they’ll incinerate on the first plunge or bounce into deep space forever, assuming the heat shield hasn’t broken. All that, just so they can scoot past the night side of Mars at interplanetary speeds. Uh – hello?

What happens if something breaks? Or one of them dies, leaving the other to spend eight or nine months trapped with the rotting corpse of their spouse? Ewwww.

Yeah, there’s the point of being the first humans to get near another planet, it’s heroic, the human spirit and the rest.

I took that into account when forming my opinion.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB 'wet lab' configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.
Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB ‘wet lab’ configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. The rocket stage accelerates them on the interplanetary transfer orbit, and once the LOX is burned, the astronauts move in and set up house (hence ‘wet’).  NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Flyby is not a new idea. The Soviets toyed with schemes in the 1960s, NASA studied ways of using Apollo hardware to send a modified Apollo CSM/Skylab on a Venus flyby. It was feasible, but the engineers couldn’t guarantee the astronauts would be alive at the end.

We know now they would likely have died. The mission was scheduled for 1973-74, and there was a coronal mass ejection on 5-6 July 1974, when the astronauts would have been in deep space on the return leg – heavy radiation, months away from home.

In the event, nobody could see much science from it anyway, and Congress killed the scheme on the drawing board in 1968, along with most of the rest of the Apollo Applications Programme.

To me, that zip science return is likely true of Tito’s Mars flyby, quite apart from the marginal safety of the venture. I suppose the FAA will see it the same way.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go to Mars – but let’s do it properly. It comes down to energy. Chemical rockets don’t provide enough That’s why the journey takes so long – everything we send has to use a Hohmann-type transfer orbit.

Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.
Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

The problem is that the laws of physics are clear about what can be done, and the more exotic your energy source, the harder it is to contain and direct it. We’re already pushing what metals, plastics and even carbon can do. However, the VASIMIR electric-ion system looks promising. In theory, VASIMIR might reach Mars in 39 days with the right planetary alignments – round trip in five months. That reduces the radiation, life-support and maintenance problems straight off.

There is one catch. Solar escape velocity at Earth’s orbit is 29.8 km/sec. Peak speed during the trip is 34 km/sec. If the motor breaks before your deceleration burn, you’re on a one-way trip to interstellar space. (“Goodbyeeeeeeee….”)

What it will really take is political will. Money. And, I think, wide public engagement of the Apollo-era variety – something which, alas, may not happen again.

What do you think of Tito’s idea? Would you go yourself? What do you think of sending humans into space anyway, when robots can do a cheaper job without risk to life? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Note: I was going to cover UFO’s this week – but Tito’s announcement is more interesting. ‘Inspirations’ moves to Wednesdays. And coming up, more writing tips, more ‘write it now’, and other fun. Stay tuned.


23 thoughts on “Dennis Tito’s Mars 2018 flyby is a dumb idea and I won’t be going.

    1. The problem I have with Tito’s idea is it’s under-resourced – it’s like trying to climb Everest without oxygen. A lot more will go right than wrong, I’m sure, but it’s that one crucial failure that’s gonna killa ya. The thing is, why let him define “the” Mars mission? We’ve been planning the trip since the 1950s, when Von Braun was trying to spend most of the US GDP on an 80-ship strong Mars mission. There are lots of better ways to do it than Tito’s ‘spam in a can’ idea – I mean, it’s so gimcrack they’re going to be using their own ordure to line the walls by way fo a radiation shield. I am not kidding.

      The history of human risk-taking is divided between the cowboys – who usually died – and the risk-takers who calculated it, minimised the dangers, maximised the chances to succeed – and got the glory. Look at Armstrong and Aldrin’s moon landing. A ton of preparation, rehearsals, lots of over-engineering. Collins still gave their Apollo 11 mission a 50-50 chance of success. And he was right – they’d have augered into that boulder field if Armstrong hadn’t been such a fantastic pilot.

      I put Tito’s plan into the cowboy bracket. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take the risk and go to Mars – but let’s do it properly. Better set up, more reserves, proper science goals and properly resourced flight systems for the journey. All it will take is the political will, and the money. It’s the lack of both that’s provoked such ventures as Tito’s. And even a properly developed Mars mission, let’s face it, is going to be risky – but that one, I think, will be worth it.

  1. I wouldn’t go just now. Certainly not without a system like VASIMIR. I wouldn’t go until a few robots, equipped with VASIMIR, had made the journey successfully several times.

    The most important thing is to get started, and we’re not even doing that. It takes a lot of political will as you say, and they only political will I see is the will to get re-elected. That’s got to change. I wonder if anyone is seeing the meteor breakup over Russia as a warning shot. A “gentle” reminder from nature that species unwilling or unable to change, do not survive. We need to get our collective butts into space post haste.

    1. I agree. VASIMIR or similar tech propulsion is definitely the answer, if it can be made to work on the scales needed. Your approach sounds sensible – and this is exactly how NASA got to the moon in the 1960s. What’s missing today is the political will – and, from that, the money. Sigh.

  2. If you’re interested in a long safe pointless life I agree this is a dumb idea. By you’re standards climbing Everest was a dumb idea. It’s still a risky undertaking. Diving to the bottom of the Challenger deep — another dumb idea. Breaking the sound barrier on the ground — very dumb idea. The list is endless. Yes the risks of dying here are great but glory has never been purchased on the cheap.

    1. By my standards there is no comparison between a properly calculated venture, with proper hardware – which all the things you mention are – and Tito’s cut-price effort to use off-the-shelf hardware, with compromises all the way. Everest wasn’t conquered – by my countryman Ed Hillary, incidentally – until they had a proper plan, with oxygen. Cousteau didn’t jump into a commercial submarine and drop to the Marianas trench – he used a properly designed bathyscaphe. As I said, let’s take the risk – but let’s do it properly. It’s what got men on the moon – and back. I think we can do it for Mars.

      1. Tito’s venture is Mallory, not Hillary. Admirable from a romantic point of view…

    1. Absolutely. All the ventures humanity has embarked upon in this sense – high-tech, risky stretching of what we can do – have all been done properly. Still risky, often in the extreme – and the heroism needed of those doing it has been colossal. But when it’s been short-cut, it simply spins out without result, wasting lives and the effort put in for – nothing.

      The problem with Tito’s scheme is that it is being purchased on the cheap, as space travel goes, it’s bare-bones – he’s trying to use off-the-shelf technology to do something it wasn’t designed for, and that’s a recipe for calamity. I put it into the same league as trying to climb Everest without oxygen, or trying to get to the bottom of the Marianas trench in scuba gear. Or, for that matter, Robert Scott’s Antarctic expedition. A lot of Tito’s plan seems makeshift – I mean, the crew will even use their own ordure to line the walls by way of creating a radiation shield.

  3. Something I wouldn’t ever thing of doing. I don’t even like roller coasters or anything that moves too fast! If you like to live on the edge it may be the thrill of it that grabs a person; and also it is a chance to make history. But you have to live through it.

  4. I would never do it and I don’t exactly see the point. So you fly by Mars, so what? What I do see though is potential for some great fiction based on this scenario – a married couple trapped in a tin can in space. Um, what if she gets pregnant? The potential for things to go wrong is almost unlimited. I think it could be hilarious!

  5. And not only this, but also the poor couple of astronauts, living together in such a small space, for the entire mission. Lots of things can go wrong! And more if they are married! 🙂

Comments are closed.