Both President Obama and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden have expressed optimism about seeing a manned Mars landing happen within their lifetime.
The way to finally get to Mars may be to fly the friendly skies aboard a commercial spaceliner (luggage and food costs extra) and, for the first time, a private aerospace contractor is setting their sights on the Red Planet. Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) recently unveiled a long-range plan that would evolve their rocket booster fleet up to Saturn V class heavy lifters.
SpaceX’s biggest rocket so far is the Falcon 9 that can put a 12-ton payload into low Earth orbit. But SpaceX is envisioning a booster development program culminating in the Falcon XX, a 300 foot-high behemoth that could hoist a whopping 155 tons into low Earth orbit.
With that kind of brawny lifting power, SpaceX is proposing developing nuclear fission engines to provide the oomph for getting to Mars in a reasonable amount of time. It would take 15 wimpy chemical powered rockets to equal the turbo-boost from a pair of nuclear-powered Mars departure rockets.
What I find the most exciting about SpaceX’s plans is that they are going back to the future. Back in the 1960s the U.S. tested nuclear rockets under the highly successful NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) program between NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission. If the Nixon administration hadn’t killed the R&D effort in 1970, we could be walking on Mars today.
SpaceX is proposing that the U.S. Government jump-start this program 40 years later, and SpaceX will build the vehicles. Russia has also expressed interest is restarting its own nuclear rocket engine program.
The engine designs use a “hot core” where liquid hydrogen is pumped though the 5,500 degree Fahrenheit vessel of a radioactive uranium fission reactor. (And if you’re squeamish about nukes in space – stay home. There’s no other practical way to get humans to Mars any time soon, alive that is.)
A nuclear vehicle could transport a crew to the Red Planet after a little more than five months in deadly interplanetary space.
Equally as visionary is SpaceX’s concept of building a fleet of autonomous “space tugs” that would use solar-electric ion thrusters to shuttle 4.5 tons of payload per flight between Mars and Earth in yearlong transfer orbits (OK, it’s not quite FedEx delivery efficiency). The tugs would be serviced at the International Space Station. Upon arrival at Mars they might dock with the Martian moon Phobos, which would make an ideal natural space station and storage depot.
From the Phobos orbiting outpost SpaceX envisions liquid oxygen/methane powered landers for transferring people and supplies down to the Martian surface.
What SpaceX has proposed is a bold leap forward from covered-wagon era manned space flight to a steam locomotive era. And, they optimistically predict this could happen by 2025.
Image credits: SpaceX