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Nerds in Space: The Stepping Stones that Will Take Us to Mars

Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

It will take 75 launches of the NASA Space Launch System or 184 launches of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy to get the necessary payloads into space to support a permanent self-sustaining settlement on Mars – this according to the research of Human Spaceflight: Mission Analysis and Design. The transportation-only cost is $67 billion dollars.

Plus, the clock is ticking. It’s only a matter of time before an asteroid hits the earth, causing an Extinction-Level Event. Of course, strip-mining fossil fuels will probably drive us to extinction much sooner, so we need to take to the stars ASAP.

But one does not just simply walk onto Mars. A multi-planet species will require a series of stepping stones.

The Stepping Stones that Will Take Us to Mars

An oasis is a rare fertile area in a desert that travelers use as a critical waypoint to restock, resupply, rest, and repair broken parts on their equipment. Like oases in the desert, a series of stepping-stone spaceports present a multi-purpose logistics network of safe havens, enabling human and robotic expansion into the hostile void.

A spaceport is a critical infrastructure waypoint that provides services for space vehicles. Plus, look, us nerds love Star Wars, read Marvel comics, and play Starfinder. Spaceports are cool. We’re going to imagine them rife with space pirates and defended by the Guardians of the Galaxy Space Force.

Destination Orbit

The International Space Station (ISS) is where we start. While the focus of ISS currently is support, education, and technology development, the future of ISS could be as a strategic spaceport.

Our first stepping stone from Cape Canaveral into low earth orbit (LEO) allows affordable equipment lifts by commercial partners like SpaceX. The next stepping stone beyond would then be a matter of in-space propulsion, which wouldn’t require the wasteful burn required to escape Earth’s gravity.

Then, advanced in-space propulsion, such as solar electric and nuclear propulsion, will open new possibilities. [This is just a primer. If you want to launch deep into any of these elements, please click through to the source research listed below.]

Destination Moon

The Inhumans already inhabit the moon in the city of Attilan and Cyclops of the X-Men now lives there, but they will just have to share space, because the Moon will serve as a critical stepping stone if humans are to achieve a Martian settlement.

Establishing a permanent human spaceport on the Moon will require the maximum possible use of local materials. The Moon’s lunar soil contains useful resources such as oxygen, water, silicon, and light metals, like aluminum and titanium.

  • Oxygen can be separated from the lunar soil for life support and to create rocket propellant.
  • Lunar soil can be used as radiation protection.
  • Lunar soil can be processed into solar cells, or bricks and glass for construction.
  • Research sites in Hawaii have simulated lunar soil with volcanic soil to create a water equivalent that would support a crew of 4 on the Moon.

Earthlings love to mine places into oblivion, so there will certainly be an appetite for setting up such a Moon spaceport for commercial opportunities.

Besides, the lower lunar gravity makes an ideal sending point if timed with the nearest point of the Martian orbit. The alignment of celestial bodies provides a wonderful opportunity for evil wizards to summon vile servants from the abyss, but it also provides a practical opportunity to lesson the fuel costs of space travel.

Destination Near-Earth Asteroids

Although most asteroids are made of boring ‘ole rock, some are composed of metal (mostly nickel and iron), and others contain large quantities of water. These valuable materials provide interesting opportunities for using Near-Earth Asteroids (NEA) as a stepping stone. If we could mine and process the materials on a NEA, we may be able to build space structures or use the materials to manufacture rocket fuel.

How do we do this? First, we use robotics. Potential asteroids we could target for NEA missions are more than 20 times farther than the Moon, so we’d need to learn to crawl before we walk.

Manned deep-space flights would require highly efficient in-space propulsion. And long-duration habitation capabilities would be necessary to protect the crew and provide all necessary life support.

Once manned crews arrive at a NEA, the crew will rely on mobile exploration modules and a comfortable research platform, both established via robotics. Then human-robotic interfaces will allow the crew to use robotic systems to perform a range of tasks and experiments to ultimately establish a spaceport.

Diagram from OASIS. Click to embiggen.

Destination Mars

Since the 1960s, the United States and Europe have launched more than 16 successful missions to Mars and are working on several new missions. But those are unmanned.

With current propulsion systems, it will take humans over six months to reach Mars, and due to available flight trajectories, astronauts will either have to leave within 30 days or stay on the surface for more than 500 days.

Either of those mission durations significantly exceed our demonstrated capability to sustain life in space without direct support from Earth. We’ve all seen Matt Damon in The Martian.

Even with incredible advancements in in-space propulsion and asteroid mining courtesy the the cast of The Expanse, it’s a heavy lift. But that’s why a series of stepping stones is critical. Each one builds competency and each one takes us a bit further to our ultimate destination.

Destination Phobos

A spaceport on Phobos (one of the moons of Mars) will be similar to a base on the Moon with operational support, propellant manufacture and storage, and a port for transporting people to Earth and other spaceports. Interestingly, a surface transportation system cannot be used on Phobos; the gravity is extremely low. Instead, a “clamp-on” railway or “tethered” system would need to be implemented, giving us our first space trains.

Read More of our “Nerds in Space” Series

  1. Intro
  2. Establishing a Budget and Timeline
  3. The Stepping Stones that Will Take Us to Mars
  4. Traveling far.
  5. Establishing an outpost.
  6. Terraforming a home.