Inspiration Mars is a proposal to send two middle aged astronauts, a male and a female, on a just over 500 day voyage that would fly by Mars before returning to Earth. Albeit a private, nonprofit proposal, it is not the first of its kind.
According to the Beyond Apollo blog in Wire Magazine, NASA studied the idea of planetary flyby missions in the 1960s. Because of the post Apollo budget cuts, such missions never got out of the concept stage. But one idea would have proved to be far more spectacular than the Inspiration Mars mission. It would have flown by Venus then Mars and then Venus again in a voyage of over 700 days in space. It would have launched in 1977 and would have returned in January, 1979. Considering the state of technology and the understanding of the long term effects of microgravity and radiation at the time, the 1970s era planetary flyby mission would have been far more dangerous than the Inspiration Mars scheme.
The 1970s flyby mission, comprised of four astronaut, would have departed Earth on January 23, 1977 and would have headed for Venus. The spacecraft would pass by Venus at the closest distance of 680 kilometers and would release a flotilla of probes, including four landers that would expected to survive on the surface of Venus for an hour, four probes that would photograph the surface of Venus before crashing, and two metrological probes that would drift through the atmosphere of Venus on balloons for a month.
The spacecraft would execute a burn and then head for Mars, releasing three sample return probe which would land on Mars, quickly take geological samples, and then send the samples on board a rocket to rendezvous and dock with the flyby spacecraft.
Next, the spacecraft would flyby Venus again and release another flotilla of probes based on the data sent back from the first flotilla. Then it would head back to Earth and the crew would land in an enhanced Apollo capsule.
Along the way the spacecraft would have close encounters with a number of asteroids which it would image with an onboard telescope. There was also plans to examine Jupiter’s radio signals while the spacecraft was close to Mars.
By contrast the Inspiration Mars mission is a little more modest. While there will doubtless be opportunities for real time remote observations of the Martian surface, exploration is not the main goal. The goals of Inspiration Mars include the study of the long term effects of microgravity and radiation on the human body, the encouragement of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education, and general inspiration.
On the other hand Inspiration Mars is expected to cost under a billion dollars and is being financed by private money. NASA would probably have spent many times that amount on the 1970s flyby plan if it had ever seriously undertaken it.
Mark R, Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo, The Last Moonwalker and Other Stories, Dreams of Barry’s Stepfather, and The Man from Mars: The Asteroid Mining Caper