WASHINGTON — A new nonprofit led by the first private citizen to visit the international space station announced an ambitious plan to launch the first manned mission to Mars in 2018, a voyage that could include an adventurous married crew.

The project, led by U.S. space tourist Dennis Tito — who paid his own way to space in 2001 — would not land people on the surface of the red planet, but would take advantage of a rare planetary alignment that would allow a relatively easy, quick flyby of Mars.

Tito announced the private Mars voyage plan Feb. 27 here at the National Press Club, where he held a press conference to launch his new organization, the Inspiration Mars Foundation, to back the mission.

Tito hopes to choose a space capsule and rocket from among those already on the market, and modify them to carry two people to Mars and back in 501 days.

And to combat the loneliness and isolation that would doubtless set in during such a mission, Tito is proposing something that has never been tried before: sending one male and one female, preferably a married couple.

“When you’re out that far and the Earth is a tiny, blue pinpoint, you’re going to need someone you can hug,” Tito said. “What better solution to the psychological problems you’re going to encounter with that isolation?”

Rare Mars opportunity

The mission is designed to capitalize on a launch opportunity that opens in January 2018.

“There are rare opportunities to actually go out to Mars and —come back in a relatively short time, about 1.4 years, or 500 or so days,” Tito said. “If one misses those opportunities, then typical flight times would be two to three years.”

Though he admits the plan faces numerous challenges both budgetary and technical, Tito says it is doable.

“I’ve seen others come out with fantasy missions that in no way will actually occur,” he said. “I didn’t want to fall into that.”

Before forming the Inspiration Mars Foundation, Tito gathered a group of scientists and engineers to study the potential mission. He hired Tucson, Ariz.-based Paragon Space Development Corp., which has expertise in life support systems, and former NASA flight surgeon Jonathan Clark, now with Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, to look into what would be needed to keep two crew members alive and functional in a small capsule for more than 500 days.

The team used the private Dragon space capsule, built by Hawthorne, Calif.-Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), as a model, and found that the mission is feasible. There are caveats, however: For one, SpaceX has not yet launched people on the Dragon, only cargo.

Life support

For another, the mission will need novel life support systems and radiation protection technology to keep the crew alive and healthy.

Tito likened the challenges in equipping an existing spacecraft for the mission to outfitting an empty house.

“We can buy the house, but the walls are bare, and there’s no furniture,” he said.

Unlike the leaders of some private space endeavors, Tito said he does not expect to make any money off the expedition.

“This is a philanthropic mission,” he said, adding that its primary goal was to inspire the nation with the excitement of space travel, and to test out some of the technologies that will be needed later for a Mars landing voyage. “When this mission is completed, I don’t end up with a company. I’ll end up a lot poorer actually.”

Tito, who started off as an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, and later made his fortune through an investment company he founded, did not put a dollar figure on what he plans to spend, but said he is committed to funding the Inspiration Mars Foundation himself for its first two years. To raise the rest of the necessary funds, including the cost of the rocket and space capsule, Tito hopes to enlist private donations.

Though he acknowledged that the entire project would be challenging, Tito said he was confident that he and his team would be able to pull it off.

“I think this is the real deal,” Tito said. “It doesn’t mean it’s not difficult. We’ve got a long way to go to make it happen. But it’s certainly a doable thing. I’m absolutely committed to make this happen.”

First space tourist

Tito himself made history in 2001 when he became the first space tourist. He paid approximately $20 million to the Russian Federal Space Agency for a seat on a Soyuz space capsule bound for the international space station. Tito’s eight days in space set the stage for six other space tourists to follow him, all through deals with Russia brokered by U.S. firm Space Adventures.

NASA, which has said it hopes to land people on Mars by the mid 2030s, applauded the Inspiration Mars Foundation’s announcement.

“This type of private sector effort is further evidence of the timeliness and wisdom of the [President Barack] Obama Administration’s overall space policy and the enthusiasm to tap the innovative spirit of the private sector and share the interest people have in Mars exploration,” NASA spokesman David Steitz said in a statement. “It’s a testament to the audacity of America’s commercial aerospace industry and the adventurous spirit of America’s citizen-explorers. NASA will continue discussions with Inspiration Mars to see how the agency might collaborate on mutually-beneficial activities that could complement NASA’s human spaceflight, space technology and Mars exploration plans.”