WASHINGTON (AP) - In less than five years, a married couple could be on their way toward Mars in an audacious private mission that would slingshot them around the Red Planet, according to a plan outlined on Wednesday by a financial tycoon and his team.
The voyage would be a cosmic no-frills flight that would take the husband-and-wife astronauts as close as 160 km from Mars, but it would also mean being cooped up for 16 months in a cramped space capsule.
The private non-profit plan called Inspiration Mars aims to capitalise on the once-in-a-generation close approach of the two planets' orbits. The US space agency, 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 crew members will have no lander to go down to the planet, and no spacesuits to go out for any spacewalk. They will have minimal food, water and clothing, and their urine will be recycled into drinking water.
"This is not going to be an easy mission," chief technical officer and potential crew member Taber MacCallum said in an interview.
It also involves a huge risk, more than a government agency would normally permit, officials concede.
"It's a risk well worth taking," Mr MacCallum said. He said it harkens back to the days when people took risks when it was meaningful, and he said it could be an inspiration, especially to students.
The mission will get initial money from multimillionaire Dennis Tito, the first space tourist. Mr MacCallum said the team won't say how much the overall flight would cost, but outsiders put the price tag at more than US$1 billion (S$1.2 billion).
As for why a couple will make the flight, "this is very symbolic, and we really need it to represent humanity with a man and a woman," Mr MacCallum said.
He said if it is a man and a woman on such a long, cramped voyage, it makes sense for them to be married so that they can give each other the emotional support that will probably need when they look out the window and see Earth get smaller and more distant: "If that's not scary, I don't know what is."
The mission timeline 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.
Stanford University professor Scott Hubbard, NASA's former Mars mission chief, said the paper is "long on inspiration, short on technical details. What is there is correct."
"It's sort of an audacious thing to say, 'I'm going to fly by Mars in five years,"' said Mr MacCallum, who was part of a team that lived for two years in Biospshere 2, a sort of giant terrarium on Earth that was supposed to replicate a mission on another planet.