I was both intrigued and disturbed by the recent report of a plan called Inspiration Mars to send a human couple on a flyby of Mars in the year 2018, approaching the planet within 100 miles. The venture will be an entirely private one backed by a group known as the Inspiration Mars Foundation whose chair is Dennis Tito, who in 2001 became the first private person to go into space. They will of course draw on the vast expertise of NASA. Interestingly the only permission one needs to get is from the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates all spacecraft launches and returns.
The exploring couple would be confined to a small capsule of size 33 cubic meters for 501 days and there would be no back up plan if things go wrong. My first reaction to this news was that it was too premature and hurried and unduly risking the lives of two people. But on reflection I wondered why I was so uneasy. If adventure-seeking people want to take the risk of being pioneer explorers in space, should we stop them? Isn’t this what explorers have done for millennia, venturing into the unknown with no guarantee of return? Even now, we allow people to take all manner of risks all the time, just for the sake of a momentary thrill. Why should we prevent people from risking their lives in space?
The option of slowing down the process by a few years until they can make the risks smaller does not work because the catch is that there has to be a proper alignment of planets to make the trip feasible at all, and if they miss the January 2018 launch date, then the next window will be in 2031.
I think that my unease comes from the idea that if something were to go wrong, the couple would simply drift off into space, never to return. Unlike with most explorers, we would be in constant contact with them and yet be unable to do anything. It would be incredibly sad. Those who have seen the film 2001: A Space Odyssey will recall the poignant moment when due to HAL’s actions, one astronaut is cut loose from the spacecraft and drifts off into space.
Stephen Colbert gave his take on the project and in the process provides some details of how the mission will work.
(This clip was aired on March 5, 2013. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)