Tycoon Wants To Send Married Couple To Space

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(AP)–A tycoon announced
plans Wednesday to send a middle-aged couple on a privately built
spaceship to slingshot around the red planet and come back home,
hopefully with their bodies and marriage in one piece after 501 days of
no-escape togetherness in a cramped capsule half the size of an RV.

Under
the audacious but bare-bones plan, the spacecraft would blast off less
than five years from now and pass within 100 miles of the Martian
surface. The cost was not disclosed, but outsiders put it at more than
$1 billion.

The team of space veterans behind
the project hasn't quite figured out the technical details of the rocket
they will use or the capsule the husband-and-wife astronauts will live
in during the 16-month voyage. But they know it will be an adventure not
for the weak of body or heart.

“This is not
going to be an easy mission,” chief technical officer and potential crew
member Taber MacCallum said. “We called it the Lewis and Clark trip to
Mars.”

The trying circumstances include: no
showers, limits on toilet paper and clothing, drinking water made from
the crew members' recycled urine and sweat, and almost no privacy. But
the flight also comes with never-before-seen views of Mars. And there's
ample time for zero-gravity sex in space, something NASA doesn't like to
talk about.

As for why a man and a woman will
be selected, “this is very symbolic and we really need it to represent
humanity,” MacCallum said.

He said if it is a
man and a woman on such a long, close-quarters voyage, it makes sense
for them to be married so that they can give each other the emotional
support they 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 private, nonprofit project,
called Inspiration Mars, will get initial money from NASA
engineer-turned-multimillionaire investment consultant Dennis Tito, the
first space tourist. The organizers hope to raise the rest through
donations, advertising and media partnerships.

NASA,
which has talked about sending astronauts to orbit Mars by the
mid-2030s, will not be involved in this project. Instead, its backers
intend to use a ship built by other aerospace companies, employing an
austere design that could take people to Mars for a fraction of what it
would cost the space agency to do with robots, officials said.

Even
though some of the hardware hasn't even been built, Tito said he is
confident everything will come together by 2018 with no test flights.

It
will be a stripped-down mission when it comes to automation and
complexity, meaning the couple will have to fix things on the fly like
TV's MacGyver and do more piloting than on NASA vehicles, said chief
medical officer Jonathan Clark.

The flight is
timed to take advantage of the once-in-a-generation close approach of
the two planets' orbits. The timeline calls for launch on Jan. 5, 2018,
the Mars flyby on Aug. 20, 2018, and a return to Earth on May 21, 2019.

It
involves huge risk, more than a government agency like NASA would
normally permit, officials concede. For example, the spaceship will fly
during a period when galactic cosmic rays will be high because of the
sunspot cycle. That will increase the crew's cancer risk by about 3
percent, which is more than on any NASA mission, Clark said.

The
ship would also re-enter Earth's atmosphere at twice the speed of
ordinary space capsules, something Tito said still needs to be worked
out.

“Life is risky,” said Clark, a former
NASA flight surgeon whose astronaut wife died in the 2003 space shuttle
Columbia accident. “Anything that's worth it is worth putting it all at
stake for.”

What may be most at stake is the crew members' marriage. The couple will be selected within a year.

MacCallum
and his wife, Jane Poynter, hope to be picked. They were a couple when
they participated in Biosphere 2, a sort of giant terrarium that was
supposed to replicate a mission on another planet. Poynter said it was
such a fraught experience psychologically that some participants
wouldn't talk to each other for most of the two years.

But
MacCallum said it brought him and Poynter closer together. He said the
right couple going to Mars, if screened and counseled ahead of time,
would come back with a stronger marriage.

Poynter
said the husband and wife need to be even-tempered. Clark said they
should be post-childbearing age because of exposure to radiation.
Poynter is 50, MacCallum 48.

For the 30 years
NASA has been flying men and women, it has avoided the question of sex
in space. MacCallum said it will happen: “It's a man and wife. Private
time. Let your imagination run wild.”

In a
statement, 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.”

He said “NASA
will continue discussions with Inspiration Mars to see how the agency
might collaborate on mutually beneficial activities.”

Stanford
University professor Scott Hubbard, NASA's former Mars mission chief,
said the team's technical paper outlining the flight is “long on
inspiration, short on technical details. What is there is correct.”

Other outside experts praised the expertise of the team but worried about the lack of testing.

Former
astronaut and current MIT aerospace engineering professor Jeff Hoffman
said: “Since they don't plan to land on Mars, it's really a question of
keeping people alive for 501 days in space, which is not an impossible
task.”

Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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