Inspiration Mars, the bold plan to send a man and woman on a 501-day trip around the Red Planet beginning in January 2018, reports individuals and industry are offering their services for the task, including “hundreds” of couples who have qualifications that would put them in the running.

Dennis Tito, the California financier who was the first space tourist to visit the International Space Station, told a National Space Symposium audience here that finding a suitable launch architecture to start the mission, and a thermal protection system to protect the crew when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere at 14.2 km/sec. after looping around Mars 100 mi. above the surface, are the biggest near-term hurdles to accomplishing the mission.

Tito is funding the first two years of the five-year development plans, and expects to fund the rest with contributions, media rights and other sources of income. Media response to the February kickoff press conference for the mission would have generated $80 million in advertising revenue, according to a team spokesman.

Part of Tito’s initial support is going to experts in space medicine, life support and thermal protection systems as the team defines the mission. The process includes devising medical, crew-selection and crew-training protocols, and even though there will not be a call for crew applicants until “at least next year,” there already has been an influx of volunteers.

“We have received emails from people saying we’d like to be considered when it’s time, and from amazing people, with phenomenal backgrounds that are very applicable,” said Taber MacCallum, Inspiration Mars chief technology officer and an experienced life-support engineer. “I think we’re going to be selecting from an incredible set of teams.”

Jane Poynter, MacCallum’s wife and co-founder with him of Paragon Space Development Corp., which is developing closed-loop life support for the mission, said among unofficial applicants have been couples who have sailed around the world together on multiyear voyages, and others who have wintered over in Antarctica.

“Taber and I have joked about putting our hat in the ring when that comes up,” said Poynter, who spent “two years and 20 minutes” with MacCallum and a team of volunteers in the Biosphere 2 closed-loop environment experiment.

The group has also attracted a “can-do spirit” among engineers at NASA’s Ames Research Center, which is working the thermal protection system problem for Inspiration Mars under a Space Act Agreement. Doug Cooke, a recently retired top NASA manager who spearheaded exploration-systems development for the agency, has joined the private group’s board advisors, MacCallum said.

“Since we announced this mission, people representing a wide range of industries and organizations are asking how they can contribute,” he said. “It’s interesting, the level of input we get, because we live in a time when more human spacecraft are being developed in America than in all of American history combined.”

MacCallum said work has already started on ground facilities to test the life support hardware, which will be largely crew tended for simplicity, but will be designed effectively to give two-fault-tolerant redundancy comparable to NASA safety standards. Eventually some components and subsystems probably will be tested on the International Space Station.

“That’s what it’s for,” MacCallum said.