The space races of yesteryear pitted international superpowers against each other in a bid for geopolitical domination. But these days, NASA's main competition in sending a man to Mars comes from a 72-year-old millionaire with a space travel hobby. Yesterday, a group put together by former rocket engineer and current rich person Dennis Tito announced their plan to send the first manned mission to Mars in 2018. In 2001, Tito famously became the first civilian to fund his own trip to the International Space Station, earning him the title of "world's first space tourist." Tito's new project, called Inspiration Mars Foundation, seems to think it can send two people to Mars and back in 501 days (it's not clear yet whether Tito, who will turn 78 in 2018, wants to be on board). Their planned January 2018 launch date isn't arbitrary. Tito and his team chose it because that's when a brief orbital alignment window opens up between Mars and Earth (the next time we'll come that close to Mars will be in 2031). Disappointingly, the crew wouldn't touch down on the red planet, but if they pulled off the mission, they'd beat NASA in the manned Mars flyby race.
But can this interplanetary jet-setter beat NASA to Mars? The U.S. space agency has no concrete plans to send a human to Mars yet, though NASA administrator Charles Bolden has said that they hope to put a man on Mars in the 2030s. We'll learn more about Tito's mission on February 27, when the nspiration Mars Foundation holds its first press conference, but space industry news outlet NewSpace Journal has obtained a copy of the paper they're planning to present. They write, "NASA would also have a role in this mission in terms of supporting key ECLSS and thermal protection system technology development." So maybe this isn't so much a race between Tito and NASA as it is a race between Tito (with some help from NASA) against Elon Musk, who says his Space X company will put humans on Mars by 2021. Either way, astronomers and space travel experts say their plans may be overly optimistic (one Scientific American editor reacted to the plans by saying, "if anyone gets beyond Earth orbit in 2018, I’ll eat the magazine.").
NASA is currently focussing on sending more rovers to Mars. Such projects, including the current Curiosity rover, give us much more useful data than a manned flyby ever would, but they're short on inspirational sound bites.
Inset image: jasonb42882 via Flickr