WASHINGTON — It’s a road trip that could test the best of marriages: Mars.
A tycoon announced plans Wednesday to send a middle-aged couple on a privately built spaceship to slingshot around the red planet and come back home, hopefully with their bodies and marriage in one piece after 501 days of no-escape togetherness in a cramped capsule half the size of an RV.
Under the audacious but bare-bones plan, the spacecraft would blast off less than five years from now and pass within 100 miles of the Martian surface. The cost was not disclosed, but outsiders put it at more than $1 billion.
The team of space veterans behind the project hasn’t quite figured out the technical details of the rocket they will use or the capsule the husband-and-wife astronauts will live in during the 16-month voyage. But they know it will be an adventure not for the weak of body or heart.
“This is not going to be an easy mission,” chief technical officer and potential crew member Taber MacCallum said. “We called it the Lewis and Clark trip to Mars.”
The trying circumstances include: no showers, limits on toilet paper and clothing, drinking water made from the crew members’ recycled urine and sweat, and almost no privacy. But the flight also comes with never-before-seen views of Mars. And there’s ample time for zero-gravity sex in space, something NASA doesn’t like to talk about.
As for why a man and a woman will be selected, “this is very symbolic and we really need it to represent humanity,” MacCallum said.
He said if it is a man and a woman on such a long, close-quarters voyage, it makes sense for them to be married so that they can give each other the emotional support they will probably need when they look out the window and see Earth get smaller and more distant: “If that’s not scary, I don’t know what is.”
The private, nonprofit project, called Inspiration Mars, will get initial money from NASA engineer-turned-multimillionaire investment consultant Dennis Tito, the first space tourist. The organizers hope to raise the rest through donations, advertising and media partnerships.
NASA, which has talked about sending astronauts to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s, will not be involved in this project. Instead, its backers intend to use a ship built by other aerospace companies, employing an austere design that could take people to Mars for a fraction of what it would cost the space agency to do with robots, officials said.
Even though some of the hardware hasn’t even been built, Tito said he is confident everything will come together by 2018 with no test flights.