My advice: Get inspired by Inspiration Mars

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Published on: March 16, 2013

March 16, 2013

A half century ago, a charismatic young president stood before the nation and threw down the challenge of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth, and to do it before the decade of the 1960s was out.

At that time, in May of 1961, there was no spaceport on Merritt Island. No Vehicle Assembly Building. No Launch Complex 39. Designs for the rockets and engines that would soon become part of the mighty Apollo Saturn 5 launch vehicle were in their early stages of development but hadn’t flown yet.

In fact, when President Kennedy made his speech to Congress we didn’t yet have all the answers to all the questions about spaceflight. We didn’t know exactly what the best way was to get to the Moon and back. We didn’t know how to do rendezvous and docking. We hadn’t done a spacewalk yet.

Heck, by May 25, 1961 the only American to have flown in space was Alan Shepard, and all he did – impressive as it was at the time – was to fly a great suborbital ballistic arc to the edge of space that only took 15 minutes from launch to splashdown.

Nevertheless, the United States was in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. Getting to the Moon first would be a symbol for the rest of the world of all that’s right and good about our way of life. We had to win. We had to do whatever it took to beat the Soviets, and to make the deadline that the president had set for us.

With NASA and our space program solidly on a cold wartime footing, the money, manpower and material resources were made available to find the answers, solve the problems, gain the experience and accomplish the goal just eight years later.

And it’s important to note that even before we landed on the Moon with Apollo 11, during the previous six months we went to the Moon twice without landing, first during Apollo 8 and then again on Apollo 10.

In case you weren’t around back then, or have forgotten, there were plenty of smart people who said the whole notion of flying to the Moon was impossible and a waste of time and money. There were too many unknowns and the risks would be too great. There was no way we could get it done during the short time available.

And when we did send Apollo 8 to the Moon without a lunar module, and again during Apollo 10 when the lunar module Snoopy flew the dress rehearsal for the landing, there were cries throughout the nation and the space community complaining what a waste it was to fly that long distance and not land.

Now here we are more than 40 years later, with many of the most fundamental problems of spaceflight clearly understood and with enough experience gained to have built an engineering miracle in orbit in the form of the International Space Station.

We now have an increasingly reliable and credible commercial space industry that is taking on some of the tasks of spaceflight that were previously the purview of only NASA and the federal government. Commercial launchings of commercial satellites are common. Private companies are lofting cargo to the space station, getting ready for space tourism and investigating mining the asteroids for precious metals.

It’s time, at last, for new ideas and new approaches for pioneering the space frontier.

All of which brings me to the Inspiration Mars Foundation.

As you may have heard, Inspiration Mars is an effort spearheaded by Dennis Tito, the world’s first official space tourist and a very wealthy man. Their plan is to send two humans, a man and a woman, on a 500-day journey to Mars and back, and to launch the bare bones mission in just five years in 2018.

There will be no landing. No space walks. Not a single luxury.

The crew will likely be a married couple who are past their child bearing years. They will have little room to float around. Everything they need for the long trip — food, water and supplies — will be packed inside their spacecraft.

The hazards will include the long term effects of exposure to weightlessness and radiation, as well as the psychological and social challenges of always being locked up in the same room as your spouse for weeks on end, with nowhere to escape.

Many smart people within the space community are saying the whole Inspiration Mars notion is impossible and a waste of time and money. There are too many unknowns and the risks are too great. There is no way it can get done during the short time available. And besides, why go all the way to Mars and not land?

Sound familiar?

I’m just old enough to remember Apollo and the things I heard from the naysayers back then. Apollo seemed an impossible dream, and yet we did it. Today, the Inspiration Mars Foundation is daring humanity to take another leap of faith and imagination.

Sure, there are plenty of questions that need to be answered, and funds to be raised. Not everyone is going to like all of the answers. Inspiration Mars may require taking on more risk than we have become willing to accept since Apollo. It may not happen at all.

But if this effort can jump start human space exploration beyond Earth orbit or get kids of all ages excited about spaceflight and exploring strange new worlds, then I think this is something we should support and not dismiss it outright, as I know way too many people have already done.

As a nation we didn’t give up on Apollo. Now as a space community let’s not give up so fast on Inspiration Mars.

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