Inspiration Mars is more exciting when Venus is added

Monday, February 24, 2014

As a vehement opponent of Mars-first manned exploration, Inspiration Mars has never been high on my list of things to write about. Neither are Dennis Tito's justifications for the mission very convincing -- namely, that the US needs to send people on a flyby to Mars RIGHT NOW or risk being outdone by other nations that will step forward and grab the prize the US is reluctant to take. Whether he truly believes this or whether it's simply a selling point to Congress when he asks NASA to share the funding, I'm not sure.

On the other hand, Tito does have billions of dollars and has used them to go to space before. Also, the mission he proposes is certainly possible, as it doesn't involve a landing on the planet. The complete inability to land people on Mars at the moment is one of the main reasons why I oppose wasting our efforts on exploring there before anywhere else. Take a landing out of the picture, and suddenly the mission is a lot easier, involving a launch, cruise past a planet, and a landing on Earth.

In spite of that, a 2017 launch is simply too soon, and this unrealistic target is another reason why I have never mentioned the mission here. That is why the idea of a Plan B which began to be floated last year is so enticing. Such a mission would take an extra 80 days, and uses a unique trajectory available in 2021 that would let the two crewmembers first fly past Venus on the way to Mars. Venus, as (annoyingly) not many people know, is actually much closer to us than Mars is. Indeed, this is why Venus is used by nearly all missions requiring a gravitational slingshot. It's simply too convenient to overlook

Adding Venus plus an extra 4 years of preparation time changes the mission from something unrealistic and bland into one that is much more appealing. Instead of a simple trip to Mars and back, we have an encounter with our much larger sister planet on the way:

and the crewmembers will experience the Solar System first from in front and then behind us, first inward to see the sun at almost twice its strength, the thick cloud layer surrounding our sister planet and the hellish conditions below (though up in the clouds it is relatively nice as far as Solar System environments are concerned), followed by a trip to the neighborhood of Mars where the sun is about a third the strength of the one we see, then a flyby over the planet and then a trip back.

The two destinations on both sides of our planet would add an extra dimension to the mission that a single mission would lack, and we could hear first-hand the experience viewing one compared to the other. Which planet is more viscerally appealing? Is Venus actually as scary as the numbers would lead one to believe, or is there a certain dystopian appeal to it? Does Mars actually feel like the planet where we should have boots on the ground, or is it a disappointment when seen up close? Being able to compare one with another makes this an exponentially more interesting mission, along with the more realistic timeline.

All this puts me firmly in the Plan B camp. At the moment the foundation is still strongly advocating for Plan A (the website still only has one reference to the Plan B), and the only reference to it is coupled with the unrealistic assertion that China is interested in doing the same thing.
A Plan B, if we need one, is a mission longer by 88 days that flies by Venus before going by Mars, a unique trajectory that could be flown in 2021. The downside is that by then, another country – almost surely China – will have seen our missed opportunity, and taken the lead for themselves.
Advocating Plan B on its own will be necessary, IMO, for this mission to be a success.


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