WASHINGTON -- A married couple could be on their way toward Mars in less than five years under a plan for a bold but bare-bones private mission announced Wednesday by a multimillionaire and his team.
The voyage to Mars and back would be a no-frills flight that would take the astronauts as close as 100 miles to the planet, but it would also mean being cooped up for 16 months in a cramped space capsule half the size of an RV.
The private, nonprofit project, called Inspiration Mars Mission for America, will get initial money from investment consultant Dennis Tito, who grew up in Forest Hills and was the first space tourist.
NASA, which has talked about sending astronauts to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s, will not be involved in this project.
Tito's team would not say how much the Mars flight would cost, but outsiders put it at more than $1 billion. The project's backers intend to use a rocket, space capsule and some kind of habitat that might be inflatable. In 2001, Tito paid Russia a reported $20 million to vacation at the International Space Station.
The planned Jan. 5, 2018, launch aims to capitalize on the once-in-a-generation close approach orbits of Earth and Mars.
The crew members will have no lander to go down to Mars, and no spacesuits to go out for any spacewalk. They will have minimal food and clothing, and their urine will be recycled into drinking water.
"This is not going to be an easy mission," said Taber MacCallum, chief executive of Tucson, Ariz.-based Paragon Space Development, which is engineering the life support systems for the flight. "We called it the Lewis and Clark trip to Mars."
It also involves a huge risk, more than a government agency like NASA would normally permit, officials concede.
MacCallum, 48, hopes to be picked for the trip with his wife, Jane Poynter, 50.
MacCallum 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 needed.
In a statement, NASA spokesman David Steitz said the venture validates President Barack Obama's decision to rely more on private sector ingenuity to explore space. He said, "NASA will continue discussions with Inspiration Mars to see how the agency might collaborate on mutually beneficial activities."