The past year has been one of hard work and due diligence for the Inspiration Mars Foundation (IMF), working toward the goal of providing America with a viable, challenging and inspirational mission to Mars that would accelerate our nation’s plans and progress for deep-space exploration. 

In that time, the foundation funded and led a significant team effort involving industry, NASA centers, advocacy groups and academia to study and validate the goal of a fast, free-return human mission to Mars and define the best mission architecture to accomplish it.

In the process, many of the original mission architecture assumptions have been revised through collaboration and consensus building. And as a result, the mission and vision of IMF are even more viable and still very much alive.

Over the course of the study it became clear that the approach to a Mars flyby mission that would be the most practical and beneficial to America’s human space exploration program would be to use the NASA Space Launch System as the launch vehicle along with other elements of the existing or planned U.S. human space exploration infrastructure, while the foundation funded the development of an engineering model of the life support system.

It was widely believed and ultimately concluded that the use of the NASA infrastructure along with the IMF-developed life support technology would best leverage both the taxpayers’ and private investments and provide a much-needed inspirational focus and momentum for America’s future space exploration plans.

It also became clear that a similar but even more exciting fast free-return mission opportunity — slightly longer and including a flyby of Venus in addition to Mars — could be launched in 2021 and would be a more practical window of opportunity for a number of reasons.

By moving the Inspiration Mars mission from 2018 to 2021, NASA’s deep-space exploration infrastructure featuring SLS and Orion will have more time for full development and critical testing to support such a mission. The 2021 window is the last short-duration free-return opportunity for a Mars flyby until 2033.

Today, the IMF remains fully committed to its vision to help provide America with a viable, challenging and inspirational mission to Mars as a way to help accelerate our nation’s plans for space exploration. However, given the extensive use of NASA assets that are already funded and under development, the strategy to pursue the mission opportunity in 2021 would clearly be the purview of the Congress, the Obama administration and NASA.

As a result of the past year’s exhaustive work to move the vision forward, I have become a firm supporter and advocate of NASA’s evolving deep-space exploration infrastructure. SLS and Orion represent the capabilities we need to take us wherever we want to go in the solar system. 

I believe, as do many Americans, that Mars is the logical destination to put our space program back on track and demonstrate the “can do” spirit that seems to have faded over time. The window of opportunity in 2021 is challenging but achievable and waiting to be claimed. 

I will continue to champion the Inspiration Mars vision and look forward to working with NASA and its industrial partners in any way that I can, should Congress, the administration and NASA make the decision to initiate what we believe is a cost-effective opportunity to ensure America’s leadership in human space exploration and inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and explorers. 

Dennis Tito is executive director of the Inspiration Mars Foundation. He is a former NASA engineer and was the world’s first space tourist.