Shotwell: No Agreement with Tito’s Mars Plan

Dennis Tito's plans to send two people around the planet Mars has attracted a lot of attention - as well as a correction from SpaceX's Gwynne Shotwell. Photo Credit: Julian Leek / Blue Sawtooth Studio
Dennis Tito’s plans to send two people around the planet Mars has attracted a lot of attention – as well as a correction from SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell. Photo Credit: Julian Leek / Blue Sawtooth Studio

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – Dennis Tito recently announced plans to launch a 501-day manned mission to Mars which would conduct a flyby of the planet – but would not land. Reports stated that Space Exploration Technologies would participate in the mission utilizing SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. The only problem with these reports is that SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell has publicly stated they are false.

“As far as the Dennis Tito flight, I think his plan is very ambitious, we have been rumored to be in partnership with him, which we are not. But we are a launch service provider and if he can come up with the funding to execute this mission we’d be happy to have him as a customer,” Shotwell said during the Commercial Resupply Services 2 mission briefing held at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Inspiration Mars is a nonprofit organization and its announcement that it hopes to send a two person crew, preferably a married couple, around the Red Planet as early as 2018 created a lot of interest within the space community when announced on Feb. 27.

Under the plan, launch would occur in January of 2018, the flyby of Mars would take place that August and the duo of space adventurers would return safely home the following May.

Much like The Golden Spike Company’s announcement to begin sending crews to the surface of the Moon, this one involves a number of different studies, one of which involves a modified Dragon spacecraft atop the yet-to-be flown Falcon Heavy booster. To date, SpaceX’s Dragon has not launched any crew whatsoever.

Also like Golden Spike, Inspiration Mars is working to generate the required funds to accomplish such a lofty objective. According to Space Today, these include donations, media rights and sponsorships.

Tito gained international notoriety for becoming the first space tourist when he flew to the International Space Station in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. He paid $20 million for the privilege and spent a week on board the orbiting laboratory.


  1. The early reports of a connection between Inspiration Mars and SpaceX were based on the fact that the academic paper outlining the Mars round-trip used Falcon Heavy and Dragon as a baseline. This got reported by a handful of people who were able to get a hold of the paper that’s being given on Sunday. That got distorted a bit in the subsequently reporting (I may have been guilty of that a bit myself) prior to the press conference to indicate a relationship.

    In any event, anyone familiar with reporting knows that early accounts of anything (a new space mission, a disaster) are often inaccurate because you’re working with incomplete information. That tends to get amplified in an Internet coverage where publication can be done almost instantaneously. I’ve gotten burned by this in the past, both bad reporting by others and my own misunderstanding of reports.

    The Inspiration Mars folks said there was no connection other than using SpaceX’s technology as a baseline at that press event. There are other options out there in terms of spacecraft, habitats and launch vehicles. They made that very clear during the press conference.

    There’s a report in the Wall Street Journal that indicates that a relationship between the two parties went south a few weeks ago. But, WSJ reporting on space has been notoriously inaccurate over the years.

    • I’ve been told that Ames’ Pete Worden helped author the paper that formed the basis for Inspiration Mars and then approved the Space Act agreement that is helping to fund it. That is raising some eyebrows in Congress.

      • Jim,

        This is without a doubt an incredibly slimy comment… even for you.

        Pete Worden is a co-author of the IEEE paper that presents the feasibility study which failed to find any showstoppers in the project. Don’t we want NASA Center Directors to be smart enough and knowledgeable enough to contribute to scientific and engineering research?

        And the Space Act Agreement is a reimbursable one. Inspiration Mars is paying NASA Ames to do work for it. That means a private project (not a commercial project) is subsidizing NASA. So Worden basically agreed to accept money in exchange for sharpening NASA Ames’ technical skills in reentry and thermal protection. Which is what they need to do to get ready for NASA’s future missions to Mars.

        I don’t see what the issue here is.

        – Jim

        • Jim,

          Thank you for visiting our site. And thanks for the clarification on the SAA terms between Inspiration Mars and Ames Research Center. Like you, I’m always glad to read that someone is paying NASA for its expertise.

          I am glad that Ames Center Director Worden is “smart enough and knowledgable enough to contribute to scientific and engineering research.” Certainly, we want NASA center directors who are involved in pushing the bounds of science and engineering. But it was Ames Center Director Worden who got his boss, Charlie Bolden, investigated for Bolden’s possibly unethical contact with Marathon Oil over OMEGA. True, Charlie Bolden was completely exonerated. But why does Worden imagine that it is unethical for the Administrator to reach out to energy experts he knew at Marathon to better asses OMEGA while all is well and good ethically for Worden to sign a Space Act agreement with someone with whom he just co-authored a paper?

          And as you know from the letters by Rep. Smith, Rep. Wolf, and Sen. Grassley that have gone out to the FBI, DOJ IG, USA Monaco, and USA Haag, never mind the 55-page document circulating around Congress, there are a great many questions, legal, professional, and civil, being raised about just what in the heck has been going on at Ames over the last many years. And now there appears to be something of a tsunami of whistleblowers who are revealing even more. One would imagine, with the microscope that is descending upon Ames in general, and General Worden in particular, from the House Science Committee that Worden’s ethics antennae would be particularly attuned to even the appearance of behavior less clean than a preacher’s sheets.

          Worden’s supposed crusade for better ethics at NASA, by going after Bolden, means that the Ames Center Director needs to pay very close attention to his own ethical behavior. Pot, meet kettle.

          Thank you again for being an AmericaSpace visitor and for taking the time to comment.


        • I agree with Jim on this one. The Space Act Agreement benefits NASA as a space agency and NASA Ames as a field center, not Worden personally. I don’t know what the conflict is in co-authoring a scientific paper associated with the work they’ve agreed to do together. Did Worden have some personal financial interest in this? That was the whole question about Charlie Bolden with the Marathon Oil consultation.

          The IG’s report concluded that Bolden did nothing to impede the bio-fuels project despite his own misgivings about it. And those misgivings may well have been entirely legitimate based on concerns about the viability of the process and whether NASA funding should go toward it. Consulting a company in which he had a financial interest was not the brightest idea in the world, but the IG found that Bolden didn’t squash the project to benefit Marathon and make his stake in it more valuable.

          In retrospect, I’m not entirely sure why Worden complained about it the way he did. It seems to have caused serious problems. I have heard that this has caused some bad blood between Bolden and Worden and may have been behind an effort last year to remove Worden as NASA Ames director.

  2. Jason, what are your thoughts about Inspiration Mars? I find it really noble and uplifting that Tito wants to mount this philanthropic endeavor and inspire everyone. I think that we need more of that thinking and acting!

    When I first heard the news, I was like ‘Wow!’ then I realised that the launch vehicles and spacecrafts weren’t there yet.

    Given the sequestration, it’s a possibility that SpaceX might not be ready to have a Dragon capsule man-rated by 2018. But it will have flown probably dozens of unmanned flights by then-if sequestration dosn’t stall SpaceX until then.

    On the other hand, If development of Orion goes as planned, it will be ready (but not man-rated) by 2017. So that leaves us with the possibility of having at least two space-capable capsules (Dragon and Orion) by 2017-8.

    Do you think its feasible and technically possible for Inspiration Mars to use one of the two for a 2018 flight? Will there be ebough time to prepare?

    • Leonidas,
      I once predicted SpaceX would not launch a single F9. I don’t make predictions anymore.
      Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, AmericaSpace

  3. It is quite remarkable that within a space of 5 years there could be a manned flight to Mars.
    To have two persons confined in a tiny spacecraft for 501 days with all of the associated hazards is a risky, daunting undertaking. I wonder if the planners have calculated the odds of success? I also wonder how much valuable science will be accomplished!?

    • Tom,

      The goal of all this isn’t science or financial profit-it’s inspiration. A proof-of-concept project that if succesful aims to say, ‘look, we’ve done it, so it can be done, let’s commit to human Mars exploration’.

      As an idea and inspiration, I think it’s excellent!

  4. Leonidas: You are correct. I do agree that it is an idea and inspiration to prove that it can be done. No doubt, it will further inspire a new generation of young people to pursue science and engineering as well as to extend mankind’s reach into the cosmos.

  5. Is any one else shocked by the fact that a Astroid almost made a pretty big dent in Russia and NOBODY is saying the obvious …We didn’t even see it coming????? The message I got was We Should put into high gear a plan to get off this rock!

  6. Has the problem of exposure to high levels of radiation that would be experienced during a 500 day mission to Mars been solved? I enthusiastically support a human mission to Mars, but not one that will expose the astronauts/cosmonauts to unsafe levels of radiation. I would hate to have the thrill of a successful Mars mission crushed by the agonizing death of an astronaut from cancer caused by radiation exposure. A year-long mission is planned for Scott Kelly (whose brother Mark is a cancer survivor)on the ISS to study how well he withstands prolonged spaceflight (and the ISS is not exposed to the radiation that a Mars mission would encounter). There is no need for another “race”. Mars isn’t going to go away, and the lives of our astronauts are priceless. This is NASA, not NASCAR.

  7. Since I was born in 1925 there have been some astounding discoveries and developments in science and technology. I have always hoped to hear of the discovery of life elsewhere than on Earth before I die ,but I fear it will not occur until after I am gone . That SETI will eventually be successful I have no doubt,but pretty clearly not on Mars ! Nevertheless the exloration of Mars is an important step on the road to future Space Operations.But there is no point in sending human beings until we have the means to ensure that they are more likely to survive such an exercise . To attempt to do so in the near future would be an act of Folly . Developing technology will ensure that less risky and much less expensive unmanned missions can uncover all Mars secrets without direct human involvment. Any future attempt to ‘Boldly Go……’should only be when we are confident that it can be made with confidence and real purpose

  8. I believe NASA & Inspiration Mars are going to come to an agreement where the Inspiration Mars mission will use the SLS that is currently being developed with the aim of it being launch capable by 2017, one year before Dennis Tito’s mission happens.

    Of-course the law in the US will have to change that would allow NASA to work with commercial private enterprises, but the thing I am uncertain about is whether NASA will take the fact that this is a risky mission and they have to consider the PR consequences by using the SLS which they are planning to use to get them to Mars in the 2030’s.

    It’s all very blurry so we all have to wait and see how the next couple of years go in regards to progress made by Dennis Tito so we can decide if the mission will go ahead or not once we have more knowledge on the practicalities of it.

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