Space tourist and former NASA engineer Dennis Tito is bankrolling a proposed 501-day human flyby of Mars that would have to launch in January 2018.

Even if the Inspiration Mars Foundation that Tito is personally funding for two years never gets its planned 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 in terms of technical data for future attempts and possible medical breakthroughs that will be needed for deep-space travel.

Tito wants two professional crewmembers — one man, one woman, flying as private citizens — to fly the “fast, free-return” mission, passing within 100 mi. of the Martian surface.

Building on Mars and Venus fly-by trajectories he drafted for the Mariner program as a young engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and a 1998 professional paper on free-return Mars trajectories, Tito and a group of 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 foundation says it is in talks with several U.S. commercial aerospace companies about prospective hardware. No new technology would be needed, but existing technology would have to be quickly adapted for the task. Chief among that technology are environmental control and life support systems (ECLSS), the thermal protection systems (TPS) needed to handle the space environment between the orbits of Venus and Mars, and the fastest re-entry 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 on the TPS that will be necessary to protect the crew as they hurtle back into the atmosphere at 14.2 km/sec., and to evaluate the best strategy — including aerocapture and skip-entry — to bleed off that speed for a safe landing.

In a peer-reviewed paper prepared by Tito and his 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 and others 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 crew vehicle — a capsule to best handle the re-entry — would be augmented with an inflatable or rigid habitat to contain all of the ECLSS and other gear the crew would need to stay alive.

“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 the equivalent of 32,000 times around the Earth, and you can’t get out for about a year and a half.”