Spaceflight Insider

An open letter to Dennis Tito…

Photo Credit: NASA

Photo Credit: NASA

Dear Sir,

After a delay, I finally watched your plea that you made to the US House of Representatives Sub Committee on Science, Space and Technology to fully fund your Inspiration Mars Foundation’s 501 day flight for two people, male and female,  to circumnavigate the planet Mars and return to Earth in the 2017-2018 time frame. 

As I watched your testimony, the sage words of the Chinese Military philosopher Sun Tzu came to mind: “ He will prevail when he knows when to fight and when not to fight.”

Mr. Tito, this is hardly the time to fight.

I do agree with your thought that Mars is indeed the next logical step for exploration, so does NASA. The fact that Mars is the target of most of the current and planned robotic planetary exploration missions in the United States attests to that. There are however physiological and psychological variables we must first understand about we humans and compensate for them before we set out for Mars.

The most formidable of these hurdles is radiation exposure. As the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity discovered on its journey to Mars, the amount of radiation a human astronaut would receive on a flight to Mars would accede his or her career limits and increases cancer risk. The Inspiration Mars crew would indeed be making history, but  using the current radiation shielding known, upon return, may find their lives short lived. I ask you, is this even ethical to subject people to this unknown? This a problem that is not insurmountable but we need to understand it better and work out a proper solution.

There are other human factors, such as exercise, nutrition, medicine, and mentally dealing with the extraordinary conditions of being in an enclosed space for a little over a year. NASA is addressing these questions about the human creature today using the International Space Station as its test bed..

There are also numerous engineering and propulsion challenges to examine and overcome that, if we are successful, can curtail the transit time out to Mars. NASA too is working towards solving this puzzle, provided the US Congress and the White House see this as a worthy effort for the nation to do.

In the final analysis, NASA is working toward a human expedition on Mars in the early 2030’s but they are doing so in a methodical and logical manner. NASA is attempting to mitigate known risks the best it can, and give a human expedition to Mars a reasonable chance at success.

The impassioned plea that if the United States does not take this step in the 2017-2018 time frame, rival nations will so so and surpass the US in space leadership seems also to ring hollow right now. The fact is no single nation has answered all of the questions that Mars presents to we humans to allow us to touch her surface ourselves. Despite the calls for bold and brave missions, mounting a piloted mission to Mars under the current conditions is a fool’s errand.

A line from the 1986 science fiction film 2010 comes to mind . The leader of the fictional Russian mission to Jupiter asks the equally fictional American Scientist Dr. Heywood Floyd “Tell me what has happened to American bravery?” Dr. Floyd responds by saying “Its alive and well thank you very much. What has happened to good old fashioned common sense?” I think those words apply to this situation, too.

However, all is not lost. Just like the mythical Phoenix, a new dream can come from the ashes of this folly. If the true purpose of the flight is to inspire the next generation, that can still be achieved while also helping humanity unlock secrets and questions that Mars presents.

Instead of proposing a piloted mission that we are simply not technologically ready for in the 2017-2018 timeframe, there may be still time to launch a privately funded robotic orbiter to Mars. Its purpose would be two fold. The first would be to foster more public awareness and participation in planetary science and second to serve as a communications relay for NASA and ESA assets engaged in operations around Mars, now or in the future .

The spacecraft could be launched during the same 2017-2018 time window and be outfitted with the latest optical technology and sensors. Schools from the elementary to college level could devise observational programs for the on-board cameras and instruments. An organization like Slooh could also get involved, allowing its membership to submit an observation itinerary to buy time with the orbiter’s on board cameras, so could amateur astronomy clubs worldwide. An Inspiration One Scientific Review Board could be established to review and approve or deny applications for use based on scientific merit.

The second part of the Inspiration One Mars probe mission would be to act as a communications relay for robotic assets on-orbit or on the ground on Mars. Current communications assets are, as one NASA official observed, “getting long in the tooth”. So perhaps in turn for the Inspiration One mission making use of NASA’s Deep Space Tracking Network, the probe could serve as a communications link on occasion for assets like the Opportunity ,Curiosity and soon Mars 2020 rovers and may also support ESA’s ExoMars rover mission.

To fund the flight, the same foundation model could be leveraged. Perhaps for a certain investment level, one’s name or the name of a loved one could be placed on a DVD or microdot to be placed on board the spacecraft. This is the same method is being leveraged with some success by the B612 Foundation’s Sentinel Mission, a privately funded effort to track down Near Earth Asteroids. Sentinel currently has a launch date scheduled for 2018.

The Inspiration One Mars Probe would foster interest in STEM sciences and be an active partner in helping to unlocking the secrets of Mars. It would become a valuable asset in finding the answers currently eluding us about the Martian environment and encourage public involvement in planetary science. Above all, the mission could be realistically accomplished in the 2017-2018 timeframe.

So, Mr. Tito, I put this new challenge to you to be an active part of the solution to study Mars and to solve the riddles about this world so that one day human eyes will unlock the mysteries of Mars and behold its beauty in person and to rally public support in planetary science. The road to the Red Planet will be paved by engineering, science, and hard work through trial and error mitigating as many of the risks as we can along the way. It will not be paved by headlines and grandiose promises that will never be.

Think about it, Mr. Tito and  do let us know, but don’t wait too long. 2017 is looming in the headlights.

With Regards,

Gene Mikulka, Talking Space Radio Internet Radio Program

Gene is the founder and lead pundit of the Talking Space Internet Show heard on Astronomy.FM and downloadable on iTunes


SpaceFlight Insider is a space journal working to break the pattern of bias prevalent among other media outlets. Working off a budget acquired through sponsors and advertisers, SpaceFlight Insider has rapidly become one of the premier space news outlets currently in operation. SFI works almost exclusively with the assistance of volunteers.

Reader Comments

“NASA is working toward…”

You use this statement repeatedly in your article. So what? If we wait for NASA and NASA budgets … it will never happen!

There are many others working on it as well. Guess what, the US and NASA are not the be all end all of space!

Lou, Thank you for your comment, I do state in the essay that NASA is working on this provided that the White House and the US Congress think these are worthy efforts for NASA to engage in. The ISS has been set up to looking into overcoming some of the challenges that the microgravity environment presents. The propulsion puzzle also is being looked at with the proposed solar electric systems for the Asteroid Redirect and Recovery Mission (ARRM). You don’t really need to recover an Asteroid grant you to test a new propulsion system, it can be done with out doing so. Again this is predicated on budgetary concerns and I do give that caveat. I do not expect Commercial space to shoot for Mars unless they see dollar signs. The term commercial implies you make money in the endeavor. Exploration for exploration’s sake adds to scientific advances but is not profitable on its own. Before we shoot for Mars with Humans we have a lot to learn, and right now we don’t know those answers and don’t have the resources ready. Thanks again for reading.

You should give Mr. Tito a little more credit when it comes to this project. He is not someone who does things superficially. His team includes, among others, Dr. Jonathan Clark, the famous space medicine expert, and Paragon Space Development Corp, a leading firm in life support systems (e.g. their projects include NASA’s Orion capsule and Constellation space suit).

The team did an extensive study of the project’s technical feasibility and of human factors issues long before it became public. They only made their announcement in Feb because they decided the project could be done within a reasonable level of risk and cost.

The recent hearing and the docs released for it do not go into human factor issues but their Feb press conference focused almost exclusively on them.

Regarding radiation, for example, Dr. Clark spoke quite a bit about it. (The IEEE paper on the IM homepage also has a brief discussion.) He said that with sensible shielding efforts, they can reduce the effect of radiation to a 5% increase in the lifetime probability of cancer. (i.e beyond the normal 25% lifetime chance of getting cancer.) This might be higher than what NASA can allow but well within the risks that people take in adventure activities. (The Curiosity in-flight results are actually well within the levels that were expected.)

The shielding would involve surrounding the habitat volume with their water, food, waste, and misc other supplies. These are mostly hydrogen rich materials that are excellent for rad protection. Discussions of radiation usually assume an Apollo capsule or ISS module level of shielding. There is actually a lot of material that is taken along for such a trip and a vehicle can take advantage of it and do far better than those enclosures.

The IM project looks quite doable both technically and safety wise. However, it is only feasible if it takes advantage of low cost commercial launch systems and spacecraft. Making it a NASA project is the death of the project. The agency is simply not configured to take on a joint mission of this type. Perhaps someday, but not now.

Using commercial systems does not make it a commercial venture. It would have to be paid for privately. Apparently, Tito can raise a few hundred million but not the billion or so that the SLS/Orion approach requires. Eventually there will be ambitious private deep space missions like IM but this one will go down as just an early and flawed attempt at one.

Hi Clark,

First thank you for taking the time to respond

Let me state on the outset I am not attacking Mr. Tito personally. On the contrary, I applaud his accomplishments. However I am saying that the idea of an “eleventh hour” human Mars flight is folly for a plethora of reasons, the most important component of that is our technology is simply not ready to embark on this endeavor.

With reference to the radiation issue, I am citing the results of a study conducted by the Mars Science Laboratory Rover (aka “Curiosity”) team announced during a 30 May 2013 NASA press conference leveraging the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) instrument on board. The findings were also published in the 31 May, 2013 issue of the periodical “Science”.

Over the course of the 253 day cruise out to Mars, the RAD instrument was exposed to a 1.8 milliSieverts per day. According to one of the scientists on the panel, Cary Zeitlin as reported by the periodical “Popular Science” in a 30 May article, it is equal to getting a “whole body CT Scan once every five or six days.” thus exceeding the career radiation limit for current astronauts in one flight and increasing cancer risks by 5% . In my eyes this presents an ethical conundrum which I do elude to in my discussion.

To quote Dr. Spengler from the film Ghostbusters, “This would be bad.”

The results indicate not only issues for Mars, but for human interplanetary travel in general, and serve as a “red flag” hurdle that we need to overcome if we are to travel further into the solar system, our current propulsion systems just won’t cut it. So we need to work on getting to Mars faster, developing new propulsion systems that would reduce the round trip voyage. This is but one of the challenges we need to overcome in order to at least give a crew going to Mars a reasonable chance at Mission success.

We need to not only learn how to live in the microgravity environment but to also “live off the land” and study Mars for possible resources we may be able to leverage to support a crew on orbit and on the ground. NASA is attempting to negotiate these technical blockades provided that we decide this is a worthy thing to do as a nation.

However a private foundation with even more limited resources than NASA has may be further ill equipped to overcome these issues. All I am suggesting here is that the Inspiration Mars mission be altered to a more realistic and pragmatic profile. This new mission, totally doable in the 2017-2018 time frame if started now, would be part of the solution in solving issues that the Mars environment presents to us, and to support other robotic emissaries we send to analyze the Mars environment to bring us closer to the point when we are indeed ready to send humans.

Once more, I appreciate your input, and my thanks for your response.

Hi Gene, thank you for your response as well. Whenever I see the rad issue brought up, I can’t resist commenting on it. (I have a background in experimental particle physics.)

Yes, if a habitat had the same shielding as that which surrounded the rad detector on the Curiosity flight, it “would be bad” for the occupants. But the IM habitat would have far more shielding that that.

The reporting of the Curiosity results are unfortunately typical of how space rad measurements have been presented over the years. The reports usually make a particular measurement sound like it is an absolute dosage regardless of shielding. That is obviously fallacious.

And if there is any discussion of shielding it is usually presented as a binary choice between virtually no shielding as with the Curiosity case or “you need a meter of lead and that is obviously impossible”. In fact, there is a wide range of options between those two and the approach that Dr. Clark is advocating is one of those options. I.e. use the abundant amount of material available on such a mission as shielding and accept the fact that the resulting dosage will still be high enough to increase the cancer risk by a non-zero amount.

I certainly agree that there are lots of challenges to deal with before humans can go to Mars, especially to live on the surface. However, a simple, low-cost fly-around mission is a great way to accelerate the solving of those challenges.

In light of the decades that have passed since the Apollo program, it is difficult to understand why there is such immediacy about a mission to Mars. NASA will solve the problems set forth in this very well-written article, and we will have a human presence on the Red Planet within a reasonable time frame. Perhaps a successful fly by mission would spark some interest in John Q. Taxpayer for accelerated Mars exploration, but perhaps a disaster with dying volunteers pleading for their lives would create a backlash of “why risk human lives and waste billions of tax dollars to explore chunks of barren rock.” It’s highly unlikely that the general public would draw neat distinctions between “private adventure with volunteers” and “the space program, you know, NASA.” Those eager to de-fund NASA to the benefit of their pet project would delight in such a disaster. Gene is absolutely right in pointing out what so many choose to overlook: Commercial means “for profit”. Return on investment, profit, is the basis of the private sector. How much profit was made on Mariner, Viking, Phoenix, Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity? NASA routinely accomplishes “engineering miracles”, and it’s unfortunate that there are those whose loathing of NASA, for whatever reason, prevents them from even considering that possibility.

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