Friday, March 01, 2013

Far-Out Honeymoon

Earlier today, the second regularly-scheduled Dragon cargo delivery mission blasted off from Florida. Everything went normally, right up to just after the Dragon spacecraft separated from the second stage.

I cocked an eyebrow when I heard "abort passive" on the flight controller loop, because that couldn't have meant anything good. And it didn't: it meant that they were having trouble bringing the maneuvering thrusters on-line. Not permanent trouble, fortunately; they got things ironed out after a few hours. They got the solar panels deployed, and are on course for rendezvous on Sunday, only a day later than originally planned.

Which once again goes to show that this is a damned complicated business. You've got about a bazillion moving parts, just about every one of which has to work, or you're out of luck.

I say this just to introduce the weirdest idea I've heard of in quite some time: a proposal by Dennis Tito to send a married couple on a trip to Mars and back, leaving in 2018. I'm trying to decide if it's utterly insane or not.

It's possible, even if only just barely so. The proposed Falcon Heavy booster could put a Dragon spacecraft, a crew of two, and an inflatable habitat on an Earth-escape trajectory. And the math works out for the trajectory. As long as you get your trans-Mars burn done just right, you'll hit that sweet spot behind Mars that will swing you right back towards Earth. So yeah, the tools are there...

...except that we're still not entirely sure that we can keep two people alive, healthy, and sane for the 501 days it would take to get them back to Earth. It probably bears mentioning that once you've cast your Earth-escape stage away, you're committed for the whole trip. There's no way to abort if something goes wrong. It also bears mentioning that the longest single mission to date has only been 437 days and change. We can be fairly sure that the crew will survive microgravity for that long. We're far less sure about solar flares, or cosmic rays.

But how else are we going to know if people can survive deep space, unless we try? Ultimately, that's what makes this worth trying. Yes, there's a risk that we won't get them back. They're perfectly aware of that. This project will have plenty of volunteers, even so. The chance to be one of the two fastest humans alive, the chance to be the first to Mars, there are many who will consider that a prize worth the risk.

I won't be one of them. First, being cooped up for that long in a Kevlar balloon would drive me nuts. And second, your close-up view of Mars? It's going to be pitch-black. You'll see the sunlit side on your way in, and on your way out, but your flyby will be in total darkness.

Still, it may be worth a try, if they can raise the cash to make it happen.

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