Mars and the transport revolution
by Frank Stratford
|Just as bigger, faster ships and trains opened up a world of new opportunities for explorers of the past, we must also recognize that it is simply a lack of appropriate transportation technologies that makes space too hard today.|
The universe is big. Our own solar system contains many thousands of objects from small asteroids to gas giant planets and their dozens of moons. Out there in space lies more water, hydrocarbon compounds, minerals, metals, and other undiscovered resources that countless human civilizations with our current population could ever begin to use. All the resources we have been killing each other for over the millennia are out there in quantities that stagger the imagination.
But we are often told that it’s all too hard to access. We’d rather have ongoing wars killing millions than develop the means to access the universe of resources out there beyond Earth.
Conventional wisdom is that new settlements were mainly established to access resources, as well as the belief that grass is greener on the other side. All of this is true. But was it just due to tales of El Dorado or other mythical places filled with valuable resources that inspired explorers and governments to travel to these unknown lands, or was something else involved?
What opened new frontiers, what made it viable to risk travelling across oceans as opposed to across the lake or sea close by, for new or valuable resources? Technology. Specifically, transportation technologies. Better, faster, safer boats. Better sails. Trains. Trucks. Planes. Launch vehicles and everything else that made all these technologies work better. With these technologies we could explore, extract, and benefit from resources that previously had only been whispered about in travelers’ tales.
In the last 100 years, our knowledge of the universe around us has expanded at an exponential pace, showing us how small our world really is. We know that resources abound out there. We know that a lot of the resources we fight for on Earth are in abundance beyond our planet.
But the naysayers tell us that due to deep gravity wells, deadly cosmic radiation, lack of oxygen, and vast distances that it’s all too hard. Let’s keep fighting our resource wars here, they seem to be saying. Yes, we can go to places on our planet to access resources, but with 200 nations in close proximity to the resources on this Earth, resource conflicts are highly likely and to be expected.
I’m not saying that we ditch our methods of resource utilization on Earth in place of a space-focused method, no, but that we rather open up a new avenue of potential by getting serious about space travel.
Just as bigger, faster ships and trains opened up a world of new opportunities for explorers of the past, we must also recognize that it is simply a lack of appropriate transportation technologies that makes space too hard today, in the minds of those naysayers.
There are at least four transportation technologies for space that, when perfected, will really change the way we look at space as being too hard to being a place we can access cheaply and easily and at speed.
|Without these new transportation technologies Mars, too, will remain a pipe dream. However, at the same time, a drive to get there soon will only help to push forward the kinds of technologies needed to open up space for all destinations and projects.|
The first is completely reusable rockets and spaceplanes. This will bring about massive cost drops in space access. All the smart thinkers in the new space economy are already working on that goal. The second is very fast transit propulsion technologies. Whether they use solar, nuclear, or other power sources, once we can accelerate our space vehicles constantly to locations in our solar system, we will reduce flight times to days and weeks, transit times comparable to oceangoing ships on Earth. The third key technology is life support systems. The better they get, the better we can use our best resource in space to kick start the economy out there—us. The last technology is the space elevator. Once a sci-fi idea, it’s edging closer to reality as some groups push its development. This will eliminate the gravity well problem.
These and related technologies, once developed, will enable us to get out into space, cheaply and quickly, thus unlocking a universe of potential resource development previously seen as all too hard. They will allow us to also settle on other planets and build cities in space that become new transport hubs for a fast moving and vast new space economy.
So as a fan of all things Mars, yes, I believe it is a place we will settle, in the context of a fast moving and viable space economy, but not as the only game in town. I advocate Mars simply because it is the planet beyond Earth we know the most about, but I don’t advocate exclusively for Mars. Without these new transportation technologies Mars, too, will remain a pipe dream. However, at the same time, a drive to get there soon will only help to push forward the kinds of technologies needed to open up space for all destinations and projects.
We have a universe waiting for us to explore and expand into, and this is why any project like humans to Mars that pushes forward the development of key technologies is important and why we must go. Peaceful resource utilization is worth the effort, on Earth and in space.
Going to the Moon, asteroids, and other planets in our solar system with humans is also important for the development of new transportation technologies, and the universe is big enough for all these ideas to coexist simultaneously. Mars is simply a logical step in our progression into a bigger space economy. It has its positives and negatives like any space idea, but ultimately its biggest positive is what it will do to unlock a much wider universe.