WASHINGTON — In less than five years, a married couple could be on their way toward Mars in an audacious but bare-bones private mission that would slingshot them around the red planet, under a plan announced Wednesday by a financial tycoon and his team.
The voyage to Mars and back would be a cosmic no-frills flight that would take the husband-and-wife astronauts as close as 100 miles to the planet, but it would also mean being cooped up for 16 months in a cramped space capsule half the size of an RV.
The private, nonprofit project, called Inspiration Mars, will get initial money from multimillionaire investment consultant Dennis Tito, the first space tourist. The team would not say how much the overall flight would cost, but outsiders put it at more than $1 billion.
NASA will not be involved. Instead, the project's backers intend to use a private rocket and space capsule and some kind of habitat that might be inflatable, employing an austere design that could take people to Mars for a fraction of what it would cost NASA to do with robots, officials said.
The project aims to capitalize on the once-in-a-generation close approach of Earth's and Mars' orbits. The timeline for the 501-day mission is set out in a technical paper to be presented next month at a scientific meeting. It calls for a launch on Jan. 5, 2018, a Mars flyby on Aug. 20, 2018, and a return to Earth on May 21, 2019.
NASA spokesman David Steitz said the venture validates President Barack Obama's decision to rely more on private sector ingenuity to explore space, and is "a testament to the audacity of America's commercial aerospace industry and the adventurous spirit of America's citizen-explorers."