Crowdsourcing Mars

Space exploration and the limits of charity

“We need to do something to get started.”

There was a subtext of desperation in Dennis Tito‘s plea at this week’s Humans to Mars conference in Washington, considering  he’d just spent the last few minutes dashing all hope that the U.S. government will send people to Mars any time soon.

But Tito doesn’t seem desperate. In fact, it’s amazing how cool and collected he and his fellow space pioneers sounded as they described two wildly ambitious, privately funded Mars missions: a 500-day round-trip for two (Tito’s Inspiration Mars), and an even more daring one-way trip to the surface for four pioneers (Mars One).

The backers admit that yes, they have their work cut out for them. They talk like sober space engineers, with data, viewgraphs, and a list of technical advisors.  It’ll be tough, they say, but doable.  And we’re meant to find that inspiring.

Well, you may say I’m not a dreamer — and I’m not the only one.

Consider Tito’s plan.  They’ll need to launch in 2018 to hit the launch window for their particular mission design (a swingby with no landing). Elon Musk of SpaceX, maybe the most audacious engineer of our time, took 10 years to design, build and launch unmanned cargo ships to low Earth orbit. Judging from his experience alone, I’d say there’s almost no chance Inspiration Mars will be ready in just five years.

Mars One aims to launch in 2022, but will need to start sending technology demo missions in 2016, just three years from now. Again, I have to think  it’s very, very unlikely.

Still, there’s something poignant about this business of passing the hat for space settlement. In the first two weeks of accepting applications (the registration fee varies according to country; Afghans pay just $5, while Qataris pay $73) the organization got 78,000 applicants.  Some of the applicants’ videos can be seen here.

Mars One isn’t the first company to believe they can finance a multibillion dollar space mission by selling media rights. Others thought they could do the same with trips to the International Space Station and robots on the moon.  None of it has come to pass.

The current enthusiasm for crowdsourcing space, from Astronaut Abby to Uwingu, seems driven partly by the early success of commercial ventures like SpaceX, and partly by the explosive growth of social media. It has more to do with Twitter than Apollo, but in 2013, that’s where we’re at.

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