The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

lunar base illustration
Rather than fighting over a lunar base (above) versus a Mars base or asteroid expeditions, space advocates should seek to support technologies than mutually enable all three. (credit: NASA)

The Triway into Space Declaration

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“There is no surer way to give the budgetcutters—and there are plenty of them out there—a reason to go after the planetary program than to project an appearance of disunity, disarray, disagreement as to what we should be doing. We must speak as one voice.”
— Steve Squyres (see “Fighting for Mars”, The Space Review, March 26, 2012)

In the space advocacy community there has been a “tri-polarization”: some advocates interested only in the Moon, others only in Mars, still others only in asteroids. The Moon-focused contingent is convinced that the Moon’s proximity and resources could lead to clean space-based solar power and a platform to develop the rest of the solar system. The Mars-focused contingent is keen on seeing that the planet becomes a “second basket” into which to place humanity’s eggs. The asteroid-focused contingent is concerned with planetary defense and the extraction of asteroidal resources.

What is lacking is comprehensive and integrated space development collaboration and planning by the three groups. Such integrated collaboration and planning would go well towards engaging government officials and the public in a productive way.

The three groups are sometimes dismissive and even antagonistic towards each other, leading to a confused message to our media and elected officials, which in turn leads to an apathetic public and limited, undependable funding. Although all three groups have the long-term survival and prosperity of humanity as their primary motivation, their disunity impedes human expansion into the solar system and imperils long-term human survival.

What is lacking is comprehensive and integrated space development collaboration and planning by the three groups. Such integrated collaboration and planning would go well towards engaging government officials and the public in a productive way. An approach to space development that integrates each of the major destinations—a “Triway” approach—coupled with collaboration based on this approach is more sensible than space groups bashing natural allies and squabbling over limited funding. An integrated, public-private Triway expansion into space will facilitate not only our long-term survival, but a prosperous and advanced human civilization throughout our solar system—and someday beyond.

Integrated pathway to three solar system destinations and their orbital spaces

The potential unity and integration of all three destinations is more easily glimpsed within the context of the orbital spaces that approach or surround them. These include highly eccentric Earth orbits (HEEOs) approaching Earth-Moon L1 (EML1) and potential orbits connected to Lagrangian libration points. If one includes Mars’s orbiting moons, Phobos and Deimos, a more holistic picture emerges for possible infrastructure development of the inner solar system. As a rule, efforts to develop or settle the three main solar system destinations should always be seen within the context of the potential orbital spaces that connect them to each other and other destinations.

Potential synergies through Triway research and development

Pursuing each of these space expansion goals separately can blind the activist to the synergies and savings that can come from pursuing one goal with the other two in mind. Only if all three space activist groups appreciate and promote a unified, integrated vision of human expansion into space, with technologies and missions congruent with that vision, can it be a “win-win-win.” The fact that this synergy is vital for the survival of Earth and mankind should itself be a powerful incentive.

Similar transportation, habitat module, and life-support technologies will be needed for all three destinations. These technologies might include modular bio-regenerative life-support structures and technologies; multi-use spacesuit and vehicle development; mining, processing, and construction technologies; modular and robotic factory systems; and small “pocket” hospitals. More specifically, we suggest that the space advocacy community promote the following infrastructure projects and political efforts with an eye toward reaching all three destinations as quickly as possible:

  1. Government policies that mandate and promote continued private-sector efforts to develop fully and rapidly reusable launch and spacecraft systems to drastically drive down the cost of space transportation.
  2. Evolution of the International Space Station (ISS) into a platform for building human-safe staging, fueling, and processing stations to be put in various Earth, lunar, and Earth-Moon libration orbits.
  3. Evolution of the ISS into a platform for testing rotational artificial gravity systems to determine the minimum amount of g-force needed to maintain health in various terrestrial plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals.
  4. Evolution of the ISS into a platform for testing bio-regenerative life-support systems within small habitats (sometimes termed enclosed mini-ecosystems or biospheres)1 for animals and humans.
  5. A crash program to test various materials and electromagnetic systems to shield against cosmic radiation.2
  6. Public-private partnerships to build space-based solar satellites in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GSO) and possibly on the Moon to provide energy on Earth.
  7. The stepwise construction of industrial parks on the Moon and within human-safe stations populating Earth, lunar, and cislunar/translunar orbits.

The benefits of Triway trade

The Moon, Mars, and asteroids all have significant natural resources, and the economies of each will grow immeasurably if they are trading partners. Adding services, intellectual property, and other human resources into the mix is sure to enhance such trade. Phobos and Deimos pioneers could bring useful skills to Mars, lunar, and asteroid crews, and vice versa. Because of the delta-V characteristics of the inner solar system, materials and products produced on the Moon or at cis/trans-lunar locations could be shipped to markets in HEEO, GSO, and low Earth orbit (LEO) or to Mars plus its moons (Mars PhD) at a cost lower than similar products shipped out of Earth’s much deeper gravity well. On the other hand, products made from minerals or volatile compounds uncommon on the Moon could also be shipped from Deimos or near-Earth asteroids to the Moon or Earth orbits at significant cost savings compared to shipping them from Earth. Moon/cis-Moon/Earth-orbit trade could enhance both Moon and Mars frontier efforts and vice versa.

Let us now look closely at the three traditional space-expansion goals with a more detailed and integrative eye:

Lunar resources for a solar system economy

“Isn’t the Moon resource-poor?” ask the Mars and asteroid activists skeptically. Triway advocates will remind them that solar system location is itself a natural resource: it’s only three days travel to reach the Moon from Earth. The Moon’s regolith also offers oxygen, iron, titanium, magnesium, thorium, silicate, KREEP (potassium, rare-Earth elements, and phosphorous), and polar-crater water-ice: just what we need to make metal alloys, glass, glass composites, concrete, and ceramics, all potentially exportable to construction sites in LEO and GSO at significant savings over equivalent products from Earth’s surface. Combined with complementary asteroidal and Mars PhD resources, lunar resources will help support a space-faring civilization throughout the solar system.

“Isn’t the Moon resource-poor?” ask the Mars and asteroid activists skeptically. Triway advocates will remind them that solar system location is itself a natural resource.

Lunar resources could facilitate the fabrication of solar power satellites for Earth and other bodies. Solar power satellites receive sunlight undiminished by Earth’s atmosphere 24/7 and can beam the converted energy to rectennas on Earth by microwaves or lasers. A lot of material will be needed to build them, but it will cost one-twentieth of the propellant to obtain the needed materials from the Moon than from Earth because of the Moon’s weaker gravity. As an alternative, encased lunar materials could also be catapulted via maglev launchers off the Moon’s surface to catcher vehicles in a halo orbit at Earth-Moon L2 (EML2), 60,000 kilometers above the lunar surface. From there it would take only a velocity change of 9 m/sec to reach a processing site in a 2:1 Earth-Moon resonant orbit with an apogee of 320,00 kilometers and a perigee of 160,000 kilometers. A bit more delta-V could achieve a site in HEEO.

Helium-3 is already being used in so many medical and security technologies that shortages are appearing. Moreover, nuclear physicists foresee a day when we will have sufficient technological expertise to use helium-3 in fusion reactors without significant radioactive waste products. One shuttle external tank full of liquid helium-3 would be enough to power the United States for several months. When the first such fusion plant comes on line, helium-3 will become a very high-demand and high-priced commodity. The good news is that there is enough helium-3 in the upper two meters of lunar regolith to bring the whole world up to our standard of living and keep it there for hundreds of years. A Triway infrastructure, utilizing the Moon’s libration points and resonating vehicles in HEEO, will help deliver helium-3 to the Earth and other solar system destinations.

Human settlement of Mars

The fact that the Moon is deficient in some critical resources could well become the foundation of a successful effort to settle Mars. It is difficult to conceive of anything that could be produced on Mars (or on its two moonlets) that could not also be produced on Earth at considerably less expense. And Mars is too far, and journeys there and back too long to support a significant tourist trade. But without trade of some kind, the cost of creating a Martian frontier would not long be supported by terrestrial governments or corporations, leaving only legendary ruins. As it happens, however, there are many raw materials and products that a Mars PhD economy could likely export to the Moon, such as volatiles, salts, and metals like copper, chromium, cobalt, mercury, zinc, and silver. Such complementary resources from Mars PhD would facilitate a wider and more sophisticated provision of building materials and products from lunar and cislunar settlements to Earth orbits, expanding the already economically significant “gross economic product” of LEO and GEO.

Mars is in many ways the most “Earth-like” planet in our solar system. Its total land surface of Mars is equal to total land surface of Earth, and its day is only a bit longer than ours. Because Earth plants and animals evolved in a 24-hour day/night cycle, the similar day/night cycle of Mars will contribute to the health of plants, animals, and humans. Mars apparently also has an abundance of water locked up in permafrost and underground aquifers. The planet also has four seasons like Earth, although those seasons and the Mars year are nearly twice as long as Earth’s. Although recent experiments on the International Space Station indicate that at least some plants can be raised in zero G, animals are another matter. At 38% Earth gravity, Mars possibly has sufficient gravity to keep Earth plants and animals healthy over the long term—even upon their return to Earth.3

Mars has only a thin atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide, providing insufficient protection from cosmic radiation and solar flares. As on the Moon, the first long-term settlers will therefore have to live in strong-shelled bio-regenerative habitats below five meters of soil and with light reflected down from the surface and complemented artificially. Technology for such encapsulated living developed for Moon settlement will therefore be helpful on Mars and in rotating space habitats.

The settlement of our solar system will likely be facilitated by private sector space entrepreneurs involved in the endeavor, ideally in partnership with government.

We in the space community should give the exploration and study of Phobos and Deimos the highest priority. Phobos and Deimos may be carbonaceous. If this is the case, they will likely contain subsurface water as well as a myriad of other resources commonly found in carbonaceous asteroids. Both moons could be used as platforms to study Mars telerobotically in near real time. Exploring and studying Phobos and Deimos, both robotically and with humans, will help generate methodologies and technologies for dealing with both Mars and the asteroids. Phobos and Deimos could also eventually be used as fueling waystations to-and-from orbiting asteroids and other solar system sites. Mars PhD, along with carbonaceous asteroids, could also conceivably supply water for propellant and life support to water-poor solar system sites. Mars PhD has sufficient natural resources at hand to someday survive cutoff of support from Earth and therefore fulfill a “lifeboat” function.

Deflection and mining of asteroids for safety and profit

Asteroid activists are quick to point out that near Earth asteroids (NEAs) and comets are not only possible threats, they are also reserves of raw materials essential to our growing material needs. Among the resources asteroids can provide, depending on their type, are elemental carbon; mineral-bound water; iron, nickel, and other construction metals; precious metals, such as gold, silver, platinum group metals; and, internally, volatiles like hydrocarbons and ices of water, ammonia, and nitrogen. All these may be vital imports for a solar system economy, including Earth’s, as Earth’s finite resources become more costly to extract and if aerocapture techniques become widely utilized.

As suggested by John S. Lewis in his 1996 book, Mining the Sky, some HEEOs make very attractive staging areas of the transfer of asteroidal and lunar resources because they approach EML1 and then come as close as 1,000 kilometers to Earth at perigee. Other less eccentric orbits in the Earth-Moon system, some resonating conveniently between Earth and Moon, are possible as well.

Asteroid-deflection methods in need of testing include gravity tugs, spot-heating by mirrors or lasers, striking with impactors, and attaching reflective material, mass drivers, rocket motors, or solar sails. The idea of deflection with a nuclear explosion seems fraught with danger as well as unpredictable results. Although 90% of NEAs larger than e kilometers in diameter have been found, perhaps a million much smaller—but still dangerous—NEAs have not been identified. These smaller bodies strike the Earth much more often. For instance, a Tunguska-sized object about 40 meters in diameter will strike the Earth an estimated average of every 100 to 200 years.

At the earliest opportunity, we should choose asteroids on the basis of which pose the greatest threat and resource opportunity; systematically track them; characterize the asteroids as to their internal cohesiveness, resource composition, and structure; and then develop and test methods of deflection and resource extraction. Carbonaceous near-Earth asteroid 1999 RQ36, a body 575 meters in diameter that crosses Earth’s orbit every year, fits the bill neatly by being both threatening and resource-rich. Fortunately, NASA in June 2011 funded the robotic OSIRIS-REx mission to it. After launching in 2016, OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to encounter RQ36 in 2019, study it, and bring a sample back to Earth in 2023.

The role of private sector space companies in a comprehensive Triway approach

The settlement of our solar system will likely be facilitated by private sector space entrepreneurs involved in the endeavor, ideally in partnership with government. Fortunately, over the past few years, well-funded private companies such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Bigelow Aerospace, Blue Origin, XCOR Aerospace, Stratolaunch, and others have entered the space market and the price of getting into orbit is already dropping. Beyond more prizes, sponsorship by non-space private companies would also boost space development. While advertisements on space vehicles and other promotional activity may offend some traditionalists, sponsors like Google could promote their own businesses while they help defray development and launch costs.

If we can produce a comprehensive, integrated, and yet flexible plan to all three destinations and their orbital spaces, then the public, media, Congress, and the Administration will get the message: “They do have our act together, and they have a compelling agenda that makes sense for humanity’s future.”

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has expressed interest in producing multi-purpose (i.e. “Triway,” without using the word) vehicles and missions for Earth orbit and deep space. Both Musk and Stratolaunch founder Paul Allen have announced that their companies intend to produce, within a few years, fully and rapidly reusable launch vehicles that might drive the cost per kilogram to LEO and beyond down by one order of magnitude or more. If that happens, space tourism, science, technology, and commerce will likely surge, changing the direction and goals of humanity forever. A multi-planet spacefaring civilization will be in our grasp. And a comprehensive, integrated Triway space activism will support that effort.

A Triway call to action

In this time of scarce governmental funding, it is more important than ever to consider comprehensive, integrated missions and technologies that facilitate reaching all three major destinations. As soon as possible, the major private and public space development players, including advocacy groups, should meet with one another to jointly plan integrated Triway strategies and missions. As a first step, we propose a conference specifically for such a purpose. Meanwhile, there is no reason why each group should not keep its own principle focus, while recognizing the validity of the others and playing mutually supporting roles.

If we can produce a comprehensive, integrated, and yet flexible plan to all three destinations and their orbital spaces, then the public, media, Congress, and the Administration will get the message: “They do have our act together, and they have a compelling agenda that makes sense for humanity’s future.” That would provide a “common ground” basis for budget priorities, providing strong incentive to developing technologies and equipment that supports all three branches of the Triway into Space.

In conclusion:

Whereas, in the space advocacy community there has been a “tri-polarization”: some interested primarily in the Moon, others primarily in Mars, still others primarily in asteroids;
Whereas, this tri-polarization, and lack of an exciting, integrated space development vision from the space advocacy community, has led to a confused message to the media and our elected officials, fostering a space-apathetic public and lack of support from elected officials, thus impeding human expansion into the solar system and imperiling humanity’s long-term survival;
Whereas, all three groups have essentially the same motivation, the long-term survival and prosperity of humanity;
Whereas, efforts towards all three goals can be complementary and mutually supporting with shared technologies and methodologies, and therefore all deserve humankind’s priority attention;
Whereas, funding only by governments is not sufficient or dependable enough to create a solar system economy, and private sector space companies have emerged recently, showing the promise of much lower space mission costs;
Therefore, we declare that the time has come for the three camps to put away their differences and put forth a unified, integrated, public/private space-development plan for the benefit of the US Congress, the general public, and all of humanity. We coin such an integrated effort towards for such a plan the Triway into Space (“Triway”).


1 Because closed-loop bio-regenerative systems to recycle nutrients, vital gases, and water will allow humans to live long-term, not only on Mars, but also on the Moon, in large asteroids, and in orbiting work sites or habitats, testing of these systems in space, even on a small scale, should begin as soon as possible.

2 Unless alternative materials or systems are found to protect space pioneers living and working in Space from cosmic radiation, they will have to remain mostly within small enclosed bio-regenerative systems located either underground, as in lava tubes, or in structures protected by up to five meters of regolith.

3 If we don’t test humans under various levels of artificial gravity in space before settling the Moon and Mars, the real experience of humans will settle the issue of how much gravity humans need to stay healthy. It may turn out that solar system pioneers from the asteroids, Moon, and Mars will have to spend at least some time within rotating, artificial gravity structures to regain or maintain healthy bones, muscles, and immune systems.