Tito's Inspiration Mars Foundation released a feasibility study Wednesday that concluded that NASA's new Orion capsule wouldn't meet the mission requirements as the primary habitat for the astronauts. Instead, Tito's organization would use the new Cygnus capsule developed by Virginia-based Orbital Corp. (formerly Orbital Sciences), which just recently made a successful, uncrewed cargo-hauling trip to the international space station.
This journey to Mars wouldn't come cheap. Tito described Inspiration Mars as a "philanthropic partnership with government." He said private donors would likely give about $300 million for the mission, and the government would need to provide about $700 million — in addition to the money NASA is already spending, under current programs, on rocket and spacecraft development.
The timing of the mission also presents a challenge. The Tito plan would require that NASA and the private partners adopt the project wholeheartedly and immediately, with little wiggle room. The planetary alignment, which happens only once every 15 years, presents a narrow launch window. The mission would have to begin sometime between Christmas Day 2017 and Jan. 5, 2018 to take advantage of the orbital dynamics of the planets.
Two launches would be required for the Mars fly-by mission, according to the Inspiration Mars feasibility study. First, the big SLS rocket would launch into Low Earth Orbit the empty Cygnus capsule, plus other hardware needed for the mission. Then, the two astronauts would blast into orbit on a commercial rocket and spacecraft that have yet to be identified (there is a competition under way among private companies to develop rockets and capsules to ferry NASA astronauts to the international space station).
The astronauts in their commercial capsule would rendezvous with the Inspiration Mars vehicle and climb inside the Cygnus capsule. The upper stage of the SLS would then ignite and rocket the Inspiration Mars vehicle to Mars. At the end of the mission, more than a year later, the crew would re-enter the Earth's atmosphere in a "pod" designed to survive the extreme speed and associated heat of re-entry.