If Dennis Tito has his way, when NASA launches a stripped-down version of the robotic Mars Curiosity rover toward the red planet in 2020, a middle-aged married couple with good mechanical skills and “resilient” personalities will be offering first-hand commentary to reporters at Cape Canaveral on what the planet looks like from 100 mi. up.

Even if the Inspiration Mars Foundation that Tito is bankrolling for two years from his own deep pockets never gets its human Mars-flyby mission off the ground, the world's first space tourist believes it will have given the U.S. space endeavor a much-needed boost. Benefits will accrue via technical data for future attempts, possible medical breakthroughs needed for deep-space travel and, yes, inspiration.

“You reach an age where you say 'OK, it's put up or shut up,'” says Tito, 72. “You've been successful. Now, what are you going to leave behind? What are you going to leave behind to your kids [and] to society? I have five grandsons. Should I leave them all my money, or should I do something like this.”

Building on Mars and Venus fly-by trajectories he drafted for the Mariner program as a young engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory—before he made his fortune as a financier—and a 1998 professional paper on free-return Mars trajectories, Tito and experts he hired for the purpose have concluded that it is possible to send a two-person crew around Mars and back to Earth in 501 days, provided they leave in January 2018. The projected route will take them in toward the Sun as close as Venus before swinging around the dark side of Mars for a direct return.

No new technology would be needed, but existing technology would have to be “customized” for the task, and fast. Topping the list are environmental control and life support systems (ECLSS), and the thermal protection systems (TPS) needed to handle the space environment between the orbits of Venus and Mars, and the fastest reentry into the atmosphere ever attempted.

Tito has hired Paragon Space Development Corp., a Tucson, Ariz.-based life-support house, to work the ECLSS problem. Paragon is also the signatory on a new Space Act agreement with NASA's Ames Research Center for help with the TPS that will be necessary to protect the crew as they hurtle back into the atmosphere at 14.2 kps, and to evaluate the best strategy—including aerocapture and skip-entry—to bleed off that speed for a safe landing.

According to a peer-reviewed paper prepared by Tito's group for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the mission would require no maneuvers except small course corrections after a trans-Martian injection burn, and would allow no aborts. Briefing reporters at the National Press Club on Feb. 27, Tito said the mission would use low-Earth-orbit launch and human-spacecraft technology, outfitted for the long duration of a flight to Mars. The 10-ton crew vehicle—a capsule to best handle the reentry heat and an inflatable or rigid habitat—would contain all of the ECLSS and other gear the crew would need to stay alive. That would include 3,000 lb. of dehydrated food, exercise equipment to mitigate the effects of long-term weightlessness, and compact equipment derived from International Space Station gear to recycle water and maintain the atmosphere. There would be no spacesuits or airlock, and the crew would have to endure the travel in about 600 cu. ft. of volume.

“It's not going to be a very easy trip,” says Jane Poynter, chairwoman and president of Paragon. “One way to think about it is this: It's a really long road trip. You're jammed into an RV [driving] the equivalent of 32,000 times around the Earth, and you can't get out for about a year and a half.”

Poynter and her husband and Paragon co-founder Taber MacCallum have experience living in an artificial closed-loop environment as veterans of the Biosphere-2 experiment, where they spent two years with six other “crewmembers” simulating some of the conditions the Inspiration Mars crew will face. Among those were mood swings and loss of energy, as well as interpersonal tensions that led some members of the crew to avoid speaking to each other unless absolutely necessary.

Tito says the rigors of the anticipated mission—and the desire to represent all of humankind—suggest a couple with a long marriage behind them would be ideal, provided they have the mechanical skills to maintain the ECLSS and other hardware. They would also need “factors of personal accommodation and behavioral self-knowledge, sometimes referred to as resilient personalities,” according to the group's IEEE paper.

MacCallum, who is Paragon's chief technical officer as well as its CEO, says automation will be kept to a minimum, particularly in the ECLSS hardware, for simplicity and all-important reliability. The crew will maintain and repair the hardware, which will be inside the pressurized volume to avoid the complexity and weight of spacewalking gear. He and Poynter plan to try out for the job, he says.

Dr. Jonathan Clark, the mission's chief medical officer, says he hopes to have a crew and backup screened and selected within a year to allow plenty of time for training and conditioning, and to develop a “tailored” medical program for each crewmember. A former NASA flight surgeon, Clark says the mission will draw on NASA's experience selecting astronauts and the latest in genetic and proteomic screening to develop medical regimens to keep them healthy.

One critical problem will be space radiation, long identified as a major deep-space hurdle. The crew vehicle will carry its upper stage along to interpose between the Sun and the crew, which will also probably have some sort of water-shielded shelter against high-energy solar coronal mass ejections. For cosmic background radiation, Clark says, data derived from the Mars Science Laboratory transit to Mars suggest the mission would be “in that ballpark” of the NASA lifetime limit on astronaut radiation exposure for middle-aged crewmembers, which would boost by about 3% their chance of developing cancer at some point.

“The real issue is in understanding the risk,” says Clark, whose wife Dr. Laurel Clark was killed in the Columbia accident. “The crew would know about it. They would have to decide. But you can have an excess cancer risk from smoking, from living in certain locations. So ultimately it's going to have to be those personal decisions.”

While post-flight cancer can be treated, the risk of returning to Earth will be acute. TPS experts at NASA Ames will be working for the mission under a reimbursable Space Act agreement. Tito says he does not know how much it will cost him personally to fund the early stages of the effort through 2014, and he concedes the biggest expense will come when it is time to begin buying a launch vehicle and other hardware.

The Tito group based its initial calculations on a Falcon 9 heavy rocket for launch. SpaceX, which plans to fly the 27-engine heavy-lift variant of its commercial cargo rocket for the first time this year, says although it does not have an “official relationship” with the Inspiration Mars Foundation,” it “will always consider providing a full spectrum of launch services to interested customers.”

Tito's non-profit foundation is examining a range of options for the launch vehicle, crew capsule and habitat, working under a tight deadline. To cover the overall mission, which Tito says he believes will cost less than the $2.5 billion NASA is spending on the Mars Science Laboratory operation, the foundation will raise funds from industry, individuals and others willing to make “philanthropic” donations to spark interest in the U.S. space program. “I don't think it's going to be a real difficult problem,” he says.

By comparison, NASA officials say a planned 2020 robotic Mars landing mission, using a solar-powered version of the Curiosity rover, is capped at $1.5 billion, with room for $80 million worth of U.S. instruments and perhaps another $20 million in foreign contributions.

At that rate, Tito says, the next free-return Mars-flyby opportunity in 2031 could be seized by China or another spacefaring nation. But even if the obstacles to meeting the 2018 deadline prove too great, he says, “the benefits go to the public,” and NASA can use them in its own deep-space human-spaceflight program later on.