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The world's first space tourist is setting his sights on Mars. Back in 2001, Dennis Tito, a businessman, shelled out about $20 million to ride a Russian spaceship to the International Space Station. Now, he's leading a group that wants to send a man and woman to fly around the red planet. Is that even impossible? NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Dennis Tito made a fortune as an investment manager, but he's also an aerospace engineer. In the 1960s, he worked with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, helping to plot trajectories for robotic missions, including one that flew by Mars. He says while robotic exploration keeps improving, human spaceflight is a different story. It's been four decades since the last manned moon mission, and people haven't ventured out farther.

DENNIS TITO: I've been waiting myself and a lot of other people my age have been waiting and waiting, and I think it's time to put an end to that lapse.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So today at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Tito unveiled a new nonprofit, the Inspiration Mars Foundation. Its mission is to take advantage of a launch opportunity coming up in January of 2018. That's when the planets will be aligned in a way that would let people fly to Mars, loop around the planet and return home in just 501 days, a pretty short trip. Tito says this is doable with technology that either already exists or is nearly ready, and he's promised two years of funding from his own pocket.

TITO: I will come out a lot poorer as a result of this mission, but my grandchildren will come out a lot wealthier through the inspiration that this will give them.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The 72-year-old businessman says he's not going. The plan is to send a man and a woman, what Jane Poynter calls a trusted, tested couple. Poynter is on the planning team for this mission. In the early 1990s, she lived for two years inside Biosphere 2, a self-contained environment. She says it was enormously helpful that one of the other inhabitants was the man who is now her husband.

JANE POYNTER: And so I believe that these two crew members that go on this, having that same backbone of their relationship will be of tremendous support to them during hard times. After all, they are going to be millions of miles away from home.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The mission would be risky. There'd be no abort. The crew would be exposed to radiation, plus the psychological risks of being crammed together, eating dehydrated food and watching Earth grow smaller and smaller, until it looked like a pale blue dot. But at their closest approach to Mars, they'd fly within 100 miles of the red planet, making history. John Logsdon is with the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University. He says he's a little skeptical. 2018 isn't that far away, and this team is still exploring options for spacecraft and launch vehicles.

JOHN LOGSDON: It's a big jump between an idea and reality, and I think Mr. Tito and his associates are at the idea stage and have a lot of challenges of turning it into a reality.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But he says the team Tito has assembled shouldn't be underestimated. They're experienced people who are excited about adventures, and this would be a great one. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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