Private exploration of space is becoming all the rage now a days, after cutbacks to agencies like NASA have stifled government based programs. On Thursday, Dennis Tito (a former astronaut himself when he paid is way to space back in 2001) announced an ambitious plan to send a couple to rocket to Mars and back to Earth during an optimal orbital alignment in 2018. The plan does not include landing on Mars (which I find unfortunate), but it perhaps is the only way to bring the people back with the gravity assist of slingshotting past the planet. Most plans to land people on Mars do not involve a return trip, due to the inability to carry enough fuel to get back. As it stands, Tito’s plan is to send a married couple, with the assumption that they will have a better chance of getting along during the five year trip. For more information, here is a link to the mission’s website.
Tito compared the trip to the Lewis and Clark Expedition (which lasted over two years). I think a more apt comparison might be the Franklin expedition. That mission was truly in an isolated environment through the Canadian Arctic, and was expected to take several years (they had five years worth of food supplies). The last known note from the Franklin Expedition was dated nearly 3 years after it started, after the crew became stranded after their boats became stuck in ice. A slingshot mission to Mars will be a test of the resilience of the human spirit in isolated conditions, with the very real possibility of disaster (over half of the missions to Mars have ended in failure). It would take a very sound mind to tackle this long journey, and I have to say it would be very difficult for just two people to do this. I will be excited to see this happen, though. If successful, I think it will lead to future missions, and possibly a landing on the planet. I think you would need an armada of unmanned ships to build a base with adequate supplies for years if the were to do this.