Dreams in Martian Red

To the one, it’s always worth a try ….

Candor Chasma detail (ESA, 2008(Wanted: A man and a woman in their early to mid-50s, preferably married. Must enjoy adventure, spending long periods of time together, and sharing space—as in 501 days in a 1166-cubic-foot (33-cubic-meter) capsule and habitat. Interest in the planet Mars also a prerequisite.

Warning to applicants: You will be exposed to unprecedented risks and your long-term health could be compromised. But if the effort goes ahead and succeeds as planned, you will become the first humans in history to journey into deep space and see Mars up close.

Multimillionaire Dennis Tito, the world’s first space tourist, announced today in Washington, D.C., that his newly formed nonprofit organization has taken up the challenge of sending the first humans to Mars.

“We’ve not sent humans beyond the moon in 40 years,” Tito said at a press conference. “… And I think it’s time to put an end to that lapse.”

What’s that? A trip to Mars? With people? Marc Kaufman explains, for National Geographic News, the latest buzz in the human cosmos:

The Inspiration Mars Foundation aims to launch the mission in January 2018, when Mars and Earth are at an especially close point in their 15-year cycle. The plan is to send a man and a woman in a capsule around Mars for a flyby mission similar to the one that surveyed the moon before the Apollo landings ….Inspiration Mars

…. The Mars project is extremely ambitious, but it is at least plausible because it is simple—at least in terms of rocket science.

According to a paper Tito will present this weekend at an aerospace conference in Montana, if the launch is on target, then the spaceship will need only one rocket burn to change course. With the right trajectory, it will fly to Mars, will pass within a few hundred miles of the surface, and then will be pulled around the planet and given a gravity-assisted fling back toward Earth.

Under the current flight trajectory, the capsule would spend about ten hours within 65,000 miles of Mars.

My only question is who will direct the movie. And, I suppose, the subsidiary question will be who directs which studio’s knockoff genre followups; you know, the Martian parasite, the psychopath on board, the Swiss Family Robinson Goes to Utopia Planitia, space kids … that sort of thing.

While we strongly advocate public scientific endeavors, there is no reason to discourage private venture in such cases. Inspiration Mars wants to go, so they will try to figure out how to make the trip. And Dennis Tito might be the perfect marvel of egotism to undertake the venture; his résumé includes a fortune made in the financial world—enough to buy the honor of being the first tourist in space—but started as a Rensselaer Poly engineer who spent eight years at JPL calculating flight trajectory for interplanetary missions.

Meanwhile, it’s hard to know how to react. To the one, it’s still just an idea. To the other, it’s a pretty cool idea. So one shrugs, and waits to see how this will go. If this mission ever gets off the ground, there are only a few possible outcomes.

NGN also cobbled together some Twitter responses to the Inspiration Mars announcement. All in good fun, you know. NGN’s Jane J. Lee offers a more serious look at the psychological challenges our potential pioneers would face on a 501-day mission:

While humans have a long history of setting off into the unknown on our own planet and in the immediate vicinity, space travel beyond low-Earth orbit and the moon—and what it means for the mental well-being of human crews—is a new frontier.

“I think these will be bigger challenges than technology challenges,” said Jason Kring, a researcher at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida who studies how humans perform in extreme environments.

Feelings of isolation and boredom, the knowledge that Earth is so very far away, and long periods of confinement are some of the mental issues researchers worry about for crew members.

In Earth-orbiting missions, such as to the International Space Station (ISS), astronauts have real time communication with friends, family, and ground teams.

ISS inhabitants can receive visitors and crews can be resupplied with their favorite foods, said Nick Kanas, a psychiatrist and professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

“Now fast forward to Mars—you can’t talk to anybody in real time,” said Kanas, who has studied psychological issues in astronauts for NASA.

“Now fast forward to Mars—you can’t talk to anybody in real time,” said Kanas, who has studied psychological issues in astronauts for NASA.

“If you have a fire you have to deal with it yourselves,” he said. “You can’t evacuate anyone if they develop issues … You’re really isolated.”

Somewhere between Damocles and Sisyphus; the looming threat of everything that can go wrong in open space, and the crushing echo of doubt given so many days to rise to roar. Jayne Poynter, part of the Biosphere 2 team, suggested isolation was the biggest challenge to the earthbound experiment. “We weren’t as prepared as we should have been,” she explained, discussing depression and mood disorders that rocked the crew throughout their two-year deployment.

The most captivating chapters of the story are, of course, yet to be writ. But if the mission turns out successful, it will prove one of the greatest chapters in humanity’s brief tale.

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