If we really want to go to Mars (or anywhere else off-planet for that matter) we need to provide a stable platform from which to do it. We are not at the point yet where we can create a spaceship that can “single-stage” to another planet (or moon) – even Apollo was effectively a multi-stage vehicle carrying nothing to and from the moon except its the small crew capsule.
To travel to another planet we need a system that can deal with a number of challenges:
- Escape earth’s gravity well.
- Travel to destination.
- Land at destination.
- Provide shelter for time at destination.
- Escape destination’s gravity.
- Travel back to earth.
- Land back on earth.
That’s a lot of requirements for any single vehicle and many of them are contradictory. For example, any vehicle launched from earth has to be physically strong enough to withstand not only our gravity but also the launch itself. If we’re using rocketry for this phase, that’s a lot of Gs that need to be withstood. These requirements do not apply to a transit vehicle though.
Rockets may be what we have now, but I’d like to see sustained investment going into a Space Elevator. This technology has the potential to lower the cost to orbit dramatically and to me has to be part of any sustainable space future. I can imagine a whole facility being built at the end of the elevator, perhaps using Bigelow units to create living and workshop facilities. An Elevator is such a fantastic idea that I featured one in my WIP novel codenamed JOE.
Another initiative that deserves to see more investment is the Reaction Engines Skylon project. Derived from the HOTOL program, this innovative team led by John Scott-Scott has been seriously underfunded and overlooked for far too long.
Raw materials for the facilities and transit vehicles could come from the moon or possibly asteroid capture. The important thing is to minimize the materials needed to be brought from Earth. Anything that needs to be lifted from the surface automatically becomes very expensive – regardless of the means used to lift it.
The importance of an orbital facility can’t be overstated. Any sustainable effort to reach out into space starts needs to start with this. Not only is it imperative from the point of view of lowering costs for future space exploration but it also provides us with a test-bed close at hand to develop the technologies and systems that will later be transferred to exploration vehicles and even habitats for planetary explorers.
Perhaps it could be an extension of the current International Space station, I’d certainly like to see it as a cooperative effort between different nations. It would be a sign of progress and highly symbolic if we could leave artificial boundaries like nationality here on Earth.
If we can’t build something like this in Earth orbit, how can we possibly hope to build one on Mars or anywhere else?