The Universe Beyond Earth
“Mars is the next step of our space program. It's the challenge that's been staring us in the face for the past 30 years. At one time in the ancient past, Mars was very similar to the conditions of early Earth. We now have 'eyes' and 'ears' on the surface of this new world. The Mars rovers have captured our imaginations. They genuinely are explorers in the old-fashioned sense.”
Thirty years ago, Carl Sagan wrote these words, urging the continued funding of NASA’s programs in the U.S. budget. However, there are obstacles that we still face when it comes to exploring, understanding, and conquering the Red Planet.
The U.S. is the world’s leading aerospace manufacturer. We lead the globe in the exploration of the solar system and the development of commercial, military, and communication satellites. We can reach the Moon and Mars, but it seems we can’t (or don’t) stay long. Instead, we spend billions of dollars leaving and returning again.
In order to build on Mars, to stay on Mars, and ultimately expand to other worlds, there are two seemingly insurmountable obstacles. First, the establishment of a permanent presence in space requires the development of space-based infrastructures. We can see Mars with our "eyes" and "ears"—our probes—but we can neither physically reach it nor stay there until we’ve first established significant human enterprise, industry, and presence operating off Earth.
The second obstacle in relation to establishing a permanent human presence in space is the why? In short, to explore, understand, and build on the Red Planet, we need an economic impetus to do so.
So what is the next step? How do we maintain a human presence off Earth? How can we access the resources of the Solar System if we can’t stay in space any longer than it takes for the trip there and back again?
In the past half-century, we’ve had three real answers to this question: the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, the Skylab, and the Freedom. All projects towards permanent habitable space stations. Yet, all three projects were canceled due to financial obstacles.
With one exception.
A Long Voyage into the Cosmos
The Freedom Space Station project launched in 1994, and it was eventually converted into a larger Space Station, one that is still in operation today under a different name. The Freedom and Russian Federal Space Agency space station project (MIR-2) modules were integrated, ultimately becoming the Russian Orbital Segments and American Orbital Segments of the International Space Station (ISS).
These canceled Russian and American projects formed the first joint international undertaking off Earth.
Can the U.S. maintain its place as a leader of the development of space-based industry? Could the U.S. create its own space station as a stepping stone into the cosmos? Let’s imagine it.
The space station could legally operate the way Tiangong 1 and 2 have. The Tiangong stations, translating to Heavenly Palace, have been the only other manned stations in space besides the ISS. Though small, the Tiangongs are nonetheless an entity of the Chinese government. An easy, if not entirely semantically correct, way to think about it is that the Tiangongs are a city of China in space.
Any developments by the U.S would be the American counterpart, the city in space—a design which was investigated by NASA more than a quarter of a century ago. The U.S space station should not only be intended as a scientific laboratory, but as a central location for U.S. economic activities, such as asteroid mining and space solar power (1). Ultimately, this new space station's primary purpose would be to generate space-based industry, providing burgeoning enterprises with the resources to initiate economic activity off Earth. The new U.S. Space Station would be the realization of the three failed NASA projects to colonize the solar system
Making Space Affordable
With the development of space-based economic activities, such as space solar power and asteroid mining, this can lead to the creation of technology that will facilitate the accessibility of space by allowing companies to generate revenue from their efforts.
Currently, it costs millions of dollars to send a pound of anything into space, whether it's computers, water, or personnel. Space solar power is an economic impetus that could lead to sustainable and renewable energy that does not emit greenhouse gasses, hazardous waste, and is available 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Additionally, asteroid mining can bring rare-earth metals and resources within our grasp, materials that are in limited supply on Earth and are used in everything from electric vehicles to computer chips. Resources that could be mined or extracted include iron, nickel, titanium, water, rare-earth metals, oxygen, and hydrogen. These could be used to sustain the lives of astronauts on-site, to create rocket propellants, and to send back to Earth. Notably, in space exploration, using resources gathered while on a journey is referred to as in-situ resource utilization, eliminating the need for billion-dollar-chemically-based rockets to bring such necessities from Earth.
These space-based industries are our frontier, the new frontier. Building a home amongst the stars can not only lead to the construction of the technology for easier ways of getting off the Earth, but also to new ways of thinking about space travel—like non-rocket space launches, a geosynchronous orbital tether to the stars, or even the laser propelled lightcraft (2).
Understanding The Need
Of course, having a U.S. space station would not be simple. The project will require us to create new space-based industries and catalyze a new frontier of economic activity with a dedicated human presence in space. But imagine drastically reducing the financial burden of maintaining satellites in space. Imagine being able to build ships while in space as opposed to launching them from the Earth and battling the clutches of gravity. Imagine the military advantage of a space station that can send aid to any position on the globe. Imagine 1000 Americans in space on an American Space Station in a new branch of the military.
The early American enterprise of NASA's three space station projects created unprecedented economic opportunities off Earth that we had never before considered and eventually led up to an even larger space station. The current I.S.S. is a testament to a confluence of nations, a foothold amongst the stars, and a shared dream of exploration. Ultimately, a permanent U.S space station is not only a step for American aerospace industry gaining the foothold to tap resources of the solar system, but another big step for humanity becoming a multi-planetary civilization and one day reaching (and staying) on the Red Planet
(1) Unlike terrestrial solar and wind power, oil, gas, ethanol, nuclear plants, and coal plants, space solar power does not emit greenhouse gasses or hazardous waste. It is also available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in huge quantities. It works regardless of cloud cover, daylight, or wind speed. Further, space solar power can be exported to virtually any place in the world, and its energy can be converted for local needs — such as the manufacturing of methanol for use in places like rural India, where there are no electric power grids. Space solar power can also be used for the desalination of sea water and the agricultural development of previously barren, open lands. Lastly, space solar power can provide a market large enough to develop the low-cost space transportation system that is required for its deployment. This, in turn, will also bring the resources of the solar system within economic reach.
(2) Laser propulsion is in its early stages of development. Lightcraft use an external laser source or maser energy to provide power for producing thrust. The laser/maser energy is focused to a high intensity in order to create a plasma. The plasma expands, producing thrust.