A Cheap Solution for Getting to Mars?

Article Updated: 26 Apr , 2016

The space shuttles are slated to be retired in September of 2010. NASA put out a call recently to ask what should be done with the shuttles post-retirement, and many think they should be put in museums or on display in rocket parks. But futurist and entrepreneur Eric Knight, (founder of UP Aerospace and Remarkable Technologies) has a somewhat novel idea of what to do with the shuttles after they are done with their current duties: Send them to Mars. He says his formula is simple and will allow humans to travel to Mars in years, not decades.

Knight’s proposal, which he calls “Mars on a Shoestring,” outlines two shuttles going into Earth orbit, hooking them together with a truss and strapping on a powerful enough propulsion system. And that’s pretty much it. A pressurized inflatable conduit would connect the two orbiters so the astronauts could go back and forth between the two shuttles.

Then comes the really cool part; a way to provide artificial gravity during the trip to Mars. From Knight’s webpage:

• Once the propulsion stage has accelerated this entire system on its trek to Mars, the truss is detached from the two orbiters and the truss-propulsion assembly is jettisoned.

• The two orbiters then separate to a distance of a few hundred feet, but remain connected — top to top — by a tether cable that is spooled out.

• During the separation, the accordion-style inflatable crew-transfer conduit equally elongates.

• Once the orbiters are at their maximum fixed distance apart, they would simultaneously fire their reaction control systems to set the pair into an elegant pirouette — creating a comfortable level of artificial gravity for the crew’s voyage to the red planet.

It gets a little dicey once the shuttles arrive at Mars, however. How would these huge spacecrafts get to Mars surface? Knight’s only proposal is separating the orbiters and each having a REALLY huge parachute. Right now, the largest parachute that’s been successfully tested is 150 ft (45 m) in diameter.

However, in an interview we did with JPL’s Rob Manning for a previous article on Universe Today (see “The Mars Landing Approach: Getting Large Payloads to the Surface of the Red Planet), Manning says there’s currently no way and there’s not a parachute big enough to allow a big spacecraft, even a high lift vehicle like a shuttle to land successfully on Mars. The atmosphere is too thin to provide any drag.

From our earlier article:

“Well, on Mars, when you use a very high lift to weight to drag ratio like the shuttle,” said Manning, “in order to get good deceleration and use the lift properly, you’d need to cut low into the atmosphere. You’d still be going at Mach 2 or 3 fairly close to the ground. If you had a good control system you could spread out your deceleration to lengthen the time you are in the air. You’d eventually slow down to under Mach 2 to open a parachute, but you’d be too close to the ground and even an ultra large supersonic parachute would not save you.”

Supersonic parachute experts have concluded that to sufficiently slow a large shuttle-type vehicle on Mars and reach the ground at reasonable speeds would require a parachute one hundred meters in diameter.

“That’s a good fraction of the Rose Bowl. That’s huge,” said Manning. “We believe there’s no way to make a 100-meter parachute that can be opened safely supersonically, not to mention the time it takes to inflate something that large. You’d be on the ground before it was fully inflated. It would not be a good outcome.”

So, while Knight’s proposal is interesting and perhaps forward-thinking, it would need quite a bit of work to actually be feasible. He admits as much, saying “This thought paper is certainly not meant to be the technical be all, end all on the topic — but merely a springboard to new thought. The science and topics touched on herein are superficial; the concepts are simply provided to fuel the imagination and promote discussion.”

Knight said he was inspired by Robert Zubrin’s Mars Direct concept, and he also wanted to “repurpose” the space shuttle fleet.

“In all, I hope that my thought paper provides a catalyst for additional thinking as we ponder our place in the universe — and the methods to transport us to new frontiers.”

Who knows? Many successful endeavors start out as crazy ideas. But first, someone has to have the idea.

Source: Remarkable Technologies

82 Responses

  1. David S. F. Portree says:

    People have proposed sending shuttle orbiters beyond LEO for a long time; since the late 1960s, in fact, when the shuttle wasn’t even an approved program. The concept has also appeared several times in fiction (Stephen Baxter’s novel TITAN sees a shuttle orbiter travel to Titan). So, this isn’t a new idea at all. Some of those past proposals were carefully thought out. All revealed that it’s a lot harder to effectively “repurpose” a specialized vehicle like the shuttle than a casual glance might suggest. I don’t think that this kind of “thought paper” achieves much, apart from showing that its author hasn’t done his homework.

  2. Kevin says:

    Maybe we simply leave the shuttles in orbit and create some kind of lander that can fit in the cargo bay and shuttle people to the surface. Who knows though, i certainly haven’t given it much thought and that thought probably wouldn’t amount to much anyway.

    All in all it is quite a novel idea and it would be interesting if they ever come up with a way to make these even close to feasible. Maybe working on this kind of idea will bring up other options that no one has thought of yet.

  3. Ayti says:

    Seems like there’s a lot of hardware that could be designed for future reuse saving the cost of future launches.

    Take the Jules Verne ATV’s as an example. If they could carry enough fuel to park themselves in a safe orbit – perhaps coupled to a node that allows several to be stored together. They may be useful, inexpensive building blocks for perhaps a station in lunar orbit to support missions on the surface.

    Or they could be sold to Virgin Galactic to be used as part of a modular orbital hotel complex that can grow around common nodes or some other armature.

    Currently, they’re just expensive space dumpsters after their resupply mission is complete.

    A space shuttle on the ground is attractive and people would pay to see it but IMO it’s at it’s most elegant when it’s being filmed in the Orbital Pitch Maneuver just before it docks with the space station. I guess the point of that is that the Shuttle is a space machine and I’d like to see it’s purposeful life in space extended for as long as possible.

  4. Rob says:

    Okay, forgive my ignorance but if the Martian atmosphere is so thin, presumably you can maintain a spacecraft’s orbit much closer to the surface.

    Assuming that is correct, could you lower something, or someone, on a tether, like a space elevator – accepting that the orbiting spacecraft wouldn’t be in geosynchronous orbit – and then release the ”cargo” on a parachute at a much lower altitude?

    I’m thinking the orbital velocity relative to the surface probably prevents this idea from working – but what do I know????

  5. Maxwell says:

    The shuttles are wonderful in orbit. The lack of a better booster system is whats actually brought us to their hastened retirement.
    …beyond orbit, you’re asking for trouble. They were not designed to operate in space this long or that far from home. Plus they wont have much of a use in orbit around mars.

    The cost of getting them there will probably trump the savings from using existing hardware. Your better off designing something specific to the job.

    I think its better to focus on Ares V. If you want to go to Mars in the near future, a powerful launch system will be needed.

  6. zeke says:

    Make them the next X-prize. Send them out to Mars and put them in a parking orbit. Who ever gets to them first can have them… Once they’re back to Earth, Jay Leno will have the high bid on Ebay.

  7. Sid says:

    Seems a lot of trouble to go to just to provide artificial gravity. A journey time of about 6 months doesn’t require gravity environment – plus you could do it with a single shuttle.

    Have to say though, the whole concept seems wacky to me… a non starter!

  8. Maxwell says:

    Six months of microgravity is enough to weaken an astronaut. Especially if your asking him to carry out a hectic work schedule in a bulky space suit the moment he arrives.

    I think artificial gravity is a good thing to ask for… but I also think you can do it with any two habitats and a tube.
    You could use two inflatable Bigelow type modules with a connecting tube to the same effect and more internal volume.

    Why do you need an earth space plane to go to mars if its not saving money?

  9. Lord Metadox says:

    Wasn’t there a scientist that had already proposed this using modules instead of shuttles?

  10. Mang says:

    Not fully baked but interesting.

    A 100m supersonic chute would be small miracle.

    I like the lander on board idea. Maybe use Phobos as a base.

    Runways would be a problem. I can just see the Shuttle on skiis! Like the old DH2 Beaver bush plane (cue photoshoppers).

    I wonder what the force on that cable would be?

  11. Ayti says:


    Consider that a carbon nanotube filiment has been tested with a tensile strength of 63 GPa which, extrapolated to a cable with 1mm^2 sectional area, is strong enough to support 6300kg.

    Strong tethers are at least a reasonable possiblity in the next few decades. A lot of research, development and engineering would have to be done of course.

  12. Kevin F. says:

    All the obvious problems like the shuttles not being designed to shield astronauts that far out from the Earth aside, I think we would be able to scrap the whole worrying about landing idea.

    I think that the first trip to Mars for humans doesn’t HAVE to land. True it would be frustrating being SO CLOSE and not land, but the Apollo 8 astronauts had the same deal.

    If we could get a manned craft there into orbit, they’d be able to scope it out with high powered cameras in real time and we could even give them a bundle of cheap (in comparison to the cost of the entire mission) remote probes to drop that could be operated in near realtime on the surface.

  13. Joe says:

    How about using the shuttles in LEO close to the space station as a Hotel for anyone willing to pay for a small vacation. When ever a trip is made to the ISS tag along with them, and transport from ISS to the shuttle along with supplies etc…
    At least cover some of the expenses.
    Lots of space in the Cargo Bay.
    True lots of modification are required to keep them up there for long time. They might generate some income 🙂

  14. Fosnez says:

    Ok, perhaps I’m just being dumb here, but the shuttle is basically a rocket… Why not use it’s engines to slow down in the atmosphere of mars? Sure, an extra fuel tank would need to be attached in earth orbit, or be waiting at mars for the shuttle to dock with…

  15. Ron says:

    Send me on a one way trip.. I don’t care it is MARS! They are being way too slow with this IMO, this is why the public is never going to be interested.

    How can humans be excited about Mars if all we have there are robots? I know they want to do the research and get it right but there are other people/scientists willing to do things to get this done FASTER and without being as ridiculously precise. This has never been done before, so you could sit around all day and plot what could go wrong and still have something unexpected happen. I’m 20 and I seriously hope someone goes to Mars by the time I die.

  16. Sci-Fi Si says:

    Take 2 space shuttles to Phobos. 1 for crew,1 for supplies and cargo.

    A 1g resistance suit, difficult to move in and simulating 1g on Earth.

    Using a new style magnetic field generator in the cargo bay to protect against solar radiation. In the crew shuttle.

    ‘Dock’ with Phobos (could the docking thrusters resist the gravity of Phobos?)

    ‘Dump’ a cargo bay’s worth of supplies on Phobos and return to Earth.

    How easy is that? …. err don’t answer that 🙂

  17. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    Good idea, but why not send just them to the Moon instead of Mars? They also could be parked in orbit around the Earth, carry an lunar lander in the cargo hold, and shuttle equipment back and forward to the Moon.
    Another idea would be to refit the cargo bay as unmanned environmental secure space station, which could be used as an emergency for disasters in low earth orbit.
    . .

  18. Lou P. Ideas says:

    Lets see –

    1) Knock off the wings and tail (no air in space kiddies)
    2 ) Remove tiles (they ain’t going to land and saves weight)
    3 ) Rip out the flight deck (what’s the point?)
    4) Cobble up a lander and ascent system
    5) See if you can make fuel (big unknown currently)

    Should be doable

  19. Ken says:

    Leaving a shuttle in orbit (any orbit, Earth or Mars) will soak up cash and resources that could be used for other projects. After all, if the shuttle is not serviced in some way, it will come down some place… most likely in a very uncontrolled way.

    Take a couple of them to Mars… that is a huge Delta-V energy budget for a 6th month journey. Are you going to haul all that dead weight (wings, engines, etc.) all that way for nothing? How are you going to reduce that Delta-V at Earth-Mars insertion?

    Remember, there is a capture Delta-V that must be applied when you get there. Where are you going to store that fuel for 6 months? There is a lot of mass there that has to be mid-course corrected. Where are you going to store that fuel?
    Are we still rotating that shuttle combo when our broken-plane maneuver is made?

    Maybe you might do this IF a reason for ‘landing’ on either Phobos or Demos could be justified. Seems to me you have a couple of ‘space stations’ already there. Might as well colonize them and use them.

    If you can figure out a way to replace those tiles with a solar power system, toss away all that other dead weight, I might take a second look at doing something with the shuttles. I don’t think attempting to land on Mars with a shuttle is a good idea at all.

    Keep dreamin’ people, it is the only way we will get there.

  20. Max Fagin says:

    I’ll never understand why Zubrin’s Mars Direct plan doesn’t get more attention. It’s such a well designed plan.

  21. fsm says:

    I dont think this can really fly. The Shuttles have around 100T dead weight, and can deliver 20T to LEO. That 100T you are flying to Mars has a lot of dead weight – wings, etc. The Shuttle is only designed for LEO, no protection from a Solar Flare – which will probably happen on a long voyage like that. Landing bigs things on Mars is still not a solved problem – see previous piece on UT -certainly just chucking the Shuttle at it wont solve the difficult engineering problems. Its stubby little wings will probably not be aerodynamically optimal for a Mars atmosphere 1% of Earths. If you are going to be flying extra bits up (booster stage etc) – presumably on something like a Falcon-9 – why not just build something made for the job – its already hard enough! Zubrins plan, using 2 Saturn-5 launchers, would be a starting point..

  22. andrew Pugh says:

    Does the parachute have to open when the shuttle/lander is well into the atmosphere?

    Why can it not be deployed much higher, where the atmosphere is even far thinner. That way there isn’t the sudden stress of openning in a thicker atmosphere, the parachute can more slowly inflate while offering slowly increasing drag to the descent.

  23. bunker9603 says:

    What is the current space flight record for a shuttle? Have any of the shuttles been in space for months at a time or only weeks?

  24. Ian says:

    He doesn’t seem to make it easy to contact him with ideas to build his proposal, so I will leave it here! Bear in mind I only a layman with no professed expertise in aeronautics, other than a lifetime of enthusiasm, but I believe I have developed a workable solution to address some of the problems listed.

    My amendment would make the shuttle voyage described to Mars terminal (for the shuttles, not the crew). As I envision it, should the setup described above be implemented there could be two scenarios:

    1) Prior to the launch of the manned mission, one or possibly two (for redundancy and/or different payloads) Arianne or Delta launches are sent to Mars. These would have the purpose of sending a lander and return vehicle into parking orbit around Mars. Thus you could have two return vehicles in Orbit (one acting as a fail safe) arrived, tested and verified, even before you launched the crew vehicles. The shuttle mission described would get underway, and also aim for a parking orbit around Mars creating a de facto space station of sorts. The station would then rendezvous with one or both of the existing modules increasing their living space, gathering supplies (potentially) and then having a lander, and return vehicle at their disposal without the cost of transporting these capabilities itself. I imagine the lander would be similar to the moon landing vehicles (a descent and ascent stage) with 2/3rd of the crew going to the surface and 1/3rd staying aboard the shuttle complex. Once the team is ready to return, they leave the shuttle complex parked in orbit (possibly for a future platform/emergency shelter) and use the return vehicle launched prior to get back to earth as quickly as possible.

    2) The second scenario is largely similar, but assumes that the lander is stored in one of the shuttle bays for the flight out. So you have the one or two return vehicles in parking orbit (potentially with additional supplies) guaranteed operational and accessible, then rendezvous in orbit, then the traditional lander is unbirthed from a cargo bay and the mission proceeds as above.

    I see the first scenario as more desirable (potentially more expensive than the initial sketch outlined by the author) but it leaves more room for cargo on each shuttle, creates an orbiting habitable platform, solves the near-impossible descent/ascent form Mars problem, and is likely done still with overall savings from current plans.

    (It appears others have already proposed similar ideas, forgive me for being redundant but I wrote it in haste without reading the comments.)

  25. Maxwell says:

    I love Zubrin’s direct plan, but I think the problem is the “direct” part.

    We’ve never launched or landed ships that large on another world, we’ve never carried out a mission with a crew this far away… come to think of it we’ve never even worked on the ground of another planet that long.
    Even with Apollo we’ve got less than a months surface time (And its not even contiguous).

    I think the direct plan is an easy go once we’ve got a bit more experience in these areas. There’s too much we don’t know at the moment.

  26. RobbiNewman says:

    This is the lateral sort of thinking we need to get out there.

    Im agree, the cargo bays could hold a smaller unit to reach the Mars surface…..etc.

    Always think outside the circle

  27. Jan Versteeg says:

    Why first Mars? Why not a long moon mission. The shuttle can stay in orbit of the moon, and the cargo bay has enough space for a LEM-module. Even without a LEM-module an orbiting shuttle around the moon can make a lot of direct obervations (for instance looking for water on the moon) and it could be a good testing ground for long stay far away from earth.

  28. Chris Coles says:


    Yes, that is a much better idea, and very well presented.

    But I too feel that they would be much better employed as a new, intermediate orbiting station for the Moon. Much lower cost to implement. We need a long term facility for the eventual development of a Moon base, particularly on the far side as an astronomy observatory.

  29. Simon Douglass says:

    Personally I think they would be best used to send supplies to Mars for a future Mars landing one day. You could use just a small amount of their fuel to get them on the way, then a small amount to slow them down at Mars and put them in orbit. Doesn’t matter if they only go slowly and take years to get there because we won’t be going there for years anyway, so might as well conserve fuel and get there slowly. Then once there, they can use their remaining fuel for several years to maintain orbit. Then one day when we do go there, voila – heaps of supplies already there for us to take advantage of!

    Alternatively, if a Mars mission is out of the question, why not send them on a one-way interplanetary research mission? Put some cameras and sensors and whatever else in the cargo bays, then send them off to make a few close fly-bys of some of the planets. Just open the cargo bay doors when you get close to whatever planet you’re heading for, to allow the cameras etc to take a look. Surely that would be of more scientific value than having perfectly operation spacecraft sitting in museums!

  30. maudyfish says:

    Simon Douglass, I think you have hit on a good idea….. But, why stop at our Solar System? Send them off toward the nearest and most likely system that has an exoplanet most likely to have developed some form of life.

  31. justcorbly says:

    I can’t take this notion seriously. It amkes about as much sense as strapping two SUV’s together and sending them down into the Marianas Trench.

    Besides the blithe assumption that astronauts woud be willing to go on a one-way trip, there’s a reason the Shuttle’s only stay in space for a couple of weeks: They deplete the supplies needed to keep the mission alive. Batteries run down, control thrusters lose fuel, water supplies diminishes, etc. What about oxygen supplies? The toilets? How do you heat the thing for months in cold deep space? Is there any assurance that the shuttle’s engine would fire as they approached Mars after being shut down for months?

    Stapping boosters onto the ISS and sending it to Mars makes a bit more sense At least it is esigned for long-term habitation.

    Finally, every scheme I’ve seen for sending people to Mars fails to provide enough crew pace for the multiple-year journey.

  32. fsm says:

    It will be cheaper long term to build something suited to the job – which the Shuttle isnt. Again, it worth reiterating – the Shuttle is HEAVY – it has an air-frame designed to stand the forces of re-entry, wings, and so on. You have to push that 100T mass out of LEO, and then have enough fuel perform orbital insertion at Mars – thats probably going to be more than 20T in fuel alone – never mind carrying a habitat, parachutes, food, air, and so on.
    The estimated av cost of a single Shuttle mission is set as high as $1.9 Billion (adjusted to todays $) – if you average all costs over its lifetime divided by no of missions. Even if you can get that figure down, there are some basic costs that dont go away – ie the SRBs have now stopped being ordered, and no more are planned to be made past 2010. A pair of those alone cost more than a Falcon-9 launch.
    And if you are going to use extra payloads from other rockets, why not just design something to actually do the job?

  33. Drlove says:

    I think you could do this unmanned, cut the shuttles in to more manageable pieces and put them back together, (using existing parachute technology)set up each shuttle with explosive bolts so the will come apart in Mars orbit. Then put each piece as close as possible to a selected landing site. Then when we are more capable to send manned missions to Mars we would have some material for a habitat.

  34. dollhopf says:

    The athmosphere on Mars is very thin. Nevertheless, is there still enough gas for aerodynamic flight?

    If so then it is possible to design sorts of aeroplanes for use in the Marsian athmosphere then there is also a possibility to design a winged shuttle for the trip from Martian orbit to Martian surface.

    In advance, therefore, a robotic mission would have to prepare an appropriate terrain on Mars and a sort of robotic caterpillar would flatten a rough-and-ready airstrip.

    It depends on what the Martian athmosphere is able to carry. Is it thick enough to dive into it with a winged transporter from orbit? And could a piece of Martian environment be formed beforehand by automatic construction machines?

  35. Conic says:

    The shuttles are deeply flawed as spacecraft: they look great with huge wings and a stocky body, but as someone said above, they have massive dead weight. They are not good for use in space, as we have seen, and simply should be retired to a museum.

    They have choked manned space flight since the 1970s, and we are slowly getting back on track now. Retire them as costly mistakes.

    It is sad that the one thing that really prevented a mission to mars, more than anything else, was this shuttle program.

  36. Conic says:

    “Alternatively, if a Mars mission is out of the question, why not send them on a one-way interplanetary research mission? Put some cameras and sensors and whatever else in the cargo bays, then send them off to make a few close fly-bys of some of the planets. Just open the cargo bay doors when you get close to whatever planet you’re heading for, to allow the cameras etc to take a look. Surely that would be of more scientific value than having perfectly operation spacecraft sitting in museums!”

    Why would you not just send the cameras and such ALONE on these missions?

    These shuttles are not operating perfectly. Two have blown up so far, turning several lives and billions of dollars into dust. They cost a ton of money even when they work well, and they constantly fall victim to delays that hurts other independent programs. Galileo failed to open its high gain antenna because it was stored for many years waiting for the shuttle to get back together after 1986.

    Skylab fell out of the sky waiting for a shuttle boost that never happened! This is the ultimate example of flawed space planning, and it is a shame because a working shuttle system would have been very nice indeed.

    Read these books if you care to learn more on the subject:



  37. Bill Lanier says:

    Just take a small lander up with the shuttles. if shelters are needed then send them in advace in a unmaned project. Lander would be needed to leave also and if the shuttles where still in orbit could return the crews to earth orbit to be recoverd by the shuttles replacments.

  38. dollhopf says:

    “Then comes the really cool part; a way to provide artificial gravity during the trip to Mars.”

    The effects of low gravity on the human body is among the most critical aspects of extended space missions.

    Thus I really wonder, why this approach of artificial gravity generated by a spinning complex was never tested by any space agency till today. A true sin of omission. Because if artificial gravity, generated through the above mentioned concept would have already been further developed, I guess, our current space missions would be completely different from the helpless efforts we actually conduct.

    So when will NASA or ESA ever try this out in reality? Probably we have to wait for private space enterpreneurs like Richard Branson, who have enough money to send ships to space but who have not enough money to do go Mega-$-impasses like federal agencies.

    When will they ever build an artificial gravity space ship at NASA?

  39. joe says:

    Ok, this is the second article which is so stupid I can’t believe its published here.

    What’s going on?

  40. mrs. smith says:

    interesting article

  41. bob says:

    A very good article, Nancy!

  42. george says:

    # kirk Says:
    January 9th, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    “Why bother landing at all?
    just lower your space elevator spooled up inside one of the shuttles.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong.

    There is no space elevator available. But two space shuttles are.

    What’s going on, joe?

  43. USSDRAKE1968 says:

    I like the idea of reusing the shuttles, but dont like detaching and wasting the trust and propulsion system. (too much waste) Leave it in orbit and use it for the return trip.
    Also send a lander along in the shuttle bay and possibly the equipment needed to grade out a landing strip.

  44. Joe says:

    Like I said earlier, use the shuttles to create space hotel.
    Modify them for long term LEO
    And use all three of them.


  45. Maxwell says:

    If we were using something more like the delta clipper (rocket launch, rocket return) you could make a much better argument for taking it to the moon or mars… but its still no living quarters.
    At best it would be a dingy tethered to the back of your actual mars ship.

    If they wanted an actual use for the shuttles, I would suggest taking the last few engines and tanks to build the Shuttle-C plan.
    In that you would have an interim weight lifter and second option until ares V comes online.

  46. Silver Thread says:

    What ever we do to get to mars, I believe we should do as a pair. The only thing I like about the shuttle plan is that it accomplishes this. The redundancy will increase our odds of survival, not to mention success. Granted it will be considerably more expensive, but I believe it will be in our best interest long term.

    I am not a fan of simply parking the shuttle and letting it sit, It smacks of wasteful management. I would almost prefer to see the parts recycled to help pay for the next mission. It has been mentioned before and I still concur, the idea of a destination in space in the form of a space shuttle in orbit seems valid, hell if we could automate one a little better and just send it on it’s way to Mars with some replenishment supplies (Eg 20 Tons of Fuel for a future return trip in another craft) to be used by future missions, I think this would be a far better application for the craft than adding a pig on a stick to another museum.

  47. Kevin F. says:

    Thus I really wonder, why this approach of artificial gravity generated by a spinning complex was never tested by any space agency till today.

    It’s a problem of getting all the stuff up in orbit in the first place. You’d need a hell of a lot of trusses and thrusters sent up individually to test it, and that would be hugely expensive.

    It always comes down to how expensive it is to get the stuff up there. If we could get the stuff up there cheap, they’d be trying all sorts of things out!

  48. jake says:

    look, if you really wanna reuse something, especially something actually made for the job, why not strap 2 or 3 low thrust rockets onto the space station and move it into mars orbit. the thing has been designed for long term stays, has been tested and repaired(debugged) works fine, and only needs a landing module attached to it….
    think about it for a few days..it makes incredible sense, both technically and financially. WHY REINVENT THE WHEEL? another problem it solves is the decent to the surface, just bring along a specialized vehicle, like apollo.you can test it in earth orbit before you green light the mission..etc etc etc… think about it…..

  49. jake says:

    don’t the russians already have a landing module or something?

  50. jake says:

    why do this shuttle thing? its way too heavy, the space station is already up there, and all you need to do is shoot up a bigger ‘apollo module’ OR 2 !! to bring along, as back up…….the space station thing is WAY MORE ELEGANT and cheaper by orders of magnitude…its paid for…..start working on it..

  51. jake says:

    who cares if they never come back? there would be tons of volunteers and within 3 to 4 years thered be an incoming mission in a specialzed delivery vehicle, that did the trip in 6 months , without designing and building TRILLIONS in hardware…etc etc…
    #1.attach the rockets
    #2.attach specialzed landing modules
    #3.off you go…..
    #4.figure the rest out later…most of the design work is done for the quick 6 month delivery vehicle…they’d be home in 4 to 5 years….people spend more time than that in thier bedroom studying for an MBA!!!!!!

  52. dollhopf says:

    My amateurish ideas of landing on Mars were inspired by the following article from May 16th, 2003:

    NASA Orders Prototype Martian Airplane

    Written by Fraser Cain

    After a series of successful tests with a half-sized prototype, NASA has ordered a full-scale prototype of the Ares (Aerial Regional-scale Environmental Survey of Mars), aircraft, designed to help explore the surface of Mars. If all goes well, the aircraft will be launched to Mars in 2007. When it arrives in 2008, it will enter the atmosphere, deploy its wings and fly 850 kilometres along a route that takes it past the terrain that NASA scientists want to observe.


    What has become of it, because 2008 is gone and it didn’t happen.

    Is it realy already within reach to deploy a plane into the Martian atmosphere from orbit with NASA technology? To what extend could the capabilities of such an “orbit diver” be increased? Could it become a carrier from which equipment could be dropped off over designated areas at low altitude? Could a landing place be provided by automatic machines for structural engineering so that such a plane could also make it to the Martian surface without damage?

  53. dollhopf says:

    to: Kevin F.

    Dear Mr. Frushour,

    you say that it would be hugely expensive to test artificial gravitiy (AG) in space because a lot of trusses and thrusters need to be sent up individually to test a rotating space complex.

    But instead of a lot of trusses, Mr. Knight proposes a tether cable which is still tricky but not unaffordable:

    The two orbiters then separate to a distance of a few hundred feet, but remain connected — top to top — by a tether cable that is spooled out.

    And the “two orbiters” need not necessarily be two expensive space shuttles. Of course not.

    The idea of a rotating space complex is older than manned spaceflight itself. It is ridiculous that no space agency ever came up with a mockup or an elaborated concept till today. AG for manned spaceflight is still completely unexplored. It would be a tricky piece of hardware. But it would not be unaffordable or more expensive than any other of the thousands and thousands of ever conducted space activities.

    On the other hand, the gain would be tremendous.

  54. Essel says:

    Building on Eric Knight’s idea, I have two suggestions:

    1. Why not consider two tethered shuttles together for landing? Together they can handle a very large parachute, which need not be round in shape and can be even as large as 100m X 20m or more.

    Think of two shuttles spaced 200m apart, joined by tethers and at the center there is a small parachute module that opens up at the right time.

    We can also think of some coordinated maneuver to cancel/lower each other’s speed so that parachute is deployed only when the speed is low enough.

    There are no runways on mars to land upon but that problem can be solved with modified landing gears and selection of flat and even terrains.

    2. Shuttles need not land on mars but continue to orbit and launch smaller landing modules. Shuttles can continue to guide and drop supplies regularly using similar landing modules to replenish.

  55. Spoodle58 says:

    I am going to be nasty, sorry but the shuttles are useless. They have kept the space program dormant for 30 years.

    Now I know that is being a bit extreme in saying ‘useless’ but lets just move on quickly from the shuttle era and get our ass in space, real space not just LEO.

    Knights plan for using the shuttles to go to Mars has 3 main drawbacks that would need to solved before his plan can become a plan.
    Hazard free runway on Mars
    Life support capabilities 16 days for a shuttle need improving.
    Shuttles wing span needs to increase a lot, thin Mars atmosphere.

    Maxwell Says:
    “come to think of it we’ve never even worked on the ground of another planet that long
    Even with Apollo we’ve got less than a months surface time (And its not even contiguous).”

    The Moon is not a planet and has no resources to support a ground team where as Mars does.

    I do agree with you that the direct part has not been tested but when we went to the Moon none of those feats had been accomplished before, I would say the Mars Direct Plan is the best plan we have and even Nasa refines their Mars Trip Plans to more resemble it every time they think of going to Mars.

    Most people think Zubrin is crazy for his Mars Direct Plans, but at less that can work on paper and some of it has been tested on the ground, but Eric Knights plan is a loose statement at the moment, solve some of the main problems first Eric and then publish your plan, I suppose one good thing is Eric Knight is going to the right place in space, so any Mars idea is ok in my book.

    Great article Nancy. 🙂 Wouldn’t mind seeing sometime a summary of the top ten all time space plans that never saw light, like brauns nuclear space rocket.

  56. jose luis says:

    Currently NASA paceshuttles are scarcely safe enough to orbit the earth just a few days and return.

    Their old and risky original design should have caused them to become obsolete many, many years ago. It was just a financial decision to keep them flying.
    But sending them to Mars should be completely out of question!

  57. Chuck Lam says:

    My mind is still numb thinking about the five years to put the previous article new space toilet in service. And in this clip we’re talking about going to Mars. Not in this century!!!

  58. Jason says:

    Alot of the comments so far have been very ignorant.

    It is NOT possible to either leave the shuttle permanently parked in orbit OR to fly them to mars. The shuttle will run out of supplies within 2-3 weeks max (even with heavy conservation). After that, their batteries will be depleted, and the astronauts will die. It is simple as that.

    The 2nd issue is that the shuttles were only designed to operated within the protection of earth’s radiation shield. They do not have enough shielding on them to withstand the radiation on a trip to mars. Any of you commentators care to actually address these issues instead of talking about ridiculous ideas like leaving the shuttles as a space hotel?

  59. dollhopf says:

    “Jason, you overdo, don’t you? If you read Knight’s original paper you will find out that nobody is ignorant to the obvious fact of necessary supplies. Quote:

    A pair of orbiters would give the astronauts over 5,000 cubic feet of shirt-sleeve living space. And, if each orbiter flies a SPACEHAB, Inc. “Research Double Module” (RDM) in its payload bay, the amount of overall space would be quadrupled [information from page four of SPACEHAB’s public document].

    Each RDM has a cargo capacity of up to 10,000 pounds, and includes heating, ventilation, and lighting systems. The RDMs could be upgraded for long-term astronaut life support, for both during the flight to Mars and once the crew is on the surface of the planet.

  60. Richard Kirk says:

    Whey-hey! Lets go to Mars! We can use a couple of old shuttles to live in. Okay, we haven’t got a rocket to get them out of earth’s orbit, but get a few of these Ares bad boys, and a whole bunch of surplus fireworks and cherry bombs, and enough duct tape and it ought to go. Yes, we haven’t got a way of stopping it when we get there, but we’ll think of something. Getting back? – that’s going towards the sun – we’ll have gravity behind us, no worries. SEE ALL THE FUN LIVE ON ‘DEEP SPACE JACKASS’.

    Actually, as i read it, the original article was posted more as a thought experiment to explore why space missions are the way they are. It costs something like $1000 dollars to get 1 Kg to low earth orbit. The further you go, the more it makes sense to make something light and custom-built for the purpose.

    Back when the space shuttles were originally designed, the working temperatures of aircraft alloys with fancy names like Asterite or Stellite were rising. There were serious hopes back about 1970 that compounds could be made with the stiffness and high temperatures of ceramics, and the toughness of metals. The space shuttle design could have gone for a shallow re-entry with a large wingspan and conventional alloys – something more like an aircraft – but they went in the direction that materials research at the time was pointing. Unfortunately, just as the shuttle was designed, the progress in such materials suddenly stopped dead. It became clear that there was no cross-breed between metals and ceramics, and the shuttle was never going to be as good as people hoped. I often wonder whether we could have gone back and made a large wing vehicle with a much shallower re-entry to keep the surface temperatures lower. When they retired the Concorde fleet, I wondered whether any of them could have been made space-worthy with oxygen injection for the engines as you leave the atmosphere. Okay, that is another silly idea, but maybe someone will get it to work. See for example…


  61. anon says:

    this would never work and even if you somehow managed to send 2 shuttles to mars it would just be a complicated way for the astronauts on board to commit suicide. The shuttle is designed for low earth orbit, the astronauts would fry on their way to mars.

  62. dollhopf says:

    anon said “The shuttle is designed for low earth orbit, the astronauts would fry on their way to mars.

    Likewise Jason said “that the shuttles were only designed to operated within the protection of earth’s radiation shield. They do not have enough shielding on them to withstand the radiation on a trip to mars.

    What is not just a shuttle specific problem but a still unsolved problem which could doom every manned deep space mission. A gleam of hope emerged a view weeks ago when Ian O’Neill reported that British scientists invented a “mini-magnetosphere” to protect astronauts during solar storms. (“Ion Shield for Interplanetary Spaceships Now a Reality“, 4th November 2008, filed under: Physics, Space Flight).

    Maybe in five years this mechanism would even allow you to fly through a solar storm in a Vostok spacecraft.

  63. Planetwatcher says:

    How about including a LEM like vehicle on this double shuttle-truss space ship?

    Just leave the shuttles attached to the truss for the whole mission and it can remain in orbit of Mars, like the command module of the Apollo missions to the Moon.
    The truss could even carry extra fuel tanks, or extra decent modules for the LEM like vehicle.

  64. peter petrov says:

    “It gets a little dicey…”

    Define “little.”

  65. dollhopf says:

    to: peter petrov;

    Have you already read the following article from Mrs. Atkinson?

    The Mars Landing Approach: Getting Large Payloads to the Surface of the Red Planet“, 17th July 2007

    It is claimed that large vehicles cannot be brought to the Martian ground safely with the means of parachutes.

  66. Kevin says:

    More April Fools day material.

    Did I oversleep a couple of months?

  67. Vanamonde says:

    Mars can wait. Better to think about how to live on the Moon and build mass drivers to make L5 colonies.

    It is too late to save us, but it is the only positive solution I have seen to the poplulation explosion. Gigadeath is coming.

  68. KevinM says:

    Too fantastic and contrived for a serious proposal. There is not enough room on the shuttles for comfortable living for that long. An expandable tube? That is right out of 1950’s sci-fi. We won’t get to Mars soon, except on very long, very risky missions, but who wants to live on the lifeless moon? Yuck. What’s the rush? Let’s do Mars right, on budget and safely.

  69. dollhopf says:

    I just want to remind you on the context, Kevin.

    Eric Knight is an entrepreneur. Therefore, economical factors have a meaning for him, in contrary to the managers of some federal agencies.

    He is also founder and CEO of UP Aerospace, Inc. Therfore, he has good expertise.

    Kevin said: “More April Fools day material.”

  70. Relic Flyer says:

    Here’s an idea: Since we appear to have a need for access to orbital space, and the Ares/Constellation will not be ready soon, how about we give our remaining shuttles a good going over and just keep them in service until the new space craft is ready? The original design specifications for the Orbiter called for “up to 100 flights”. We aren’t even close to that yet.
    The “Shuttles to Mars” is a bold and interesting idea, but we might want to save the shuttle for work it was designed for.

  71. dollhopf says:

    Both fatal accidents with space shuttles were not caused by the wonderful design of the ships itself. The first time an external Solid Rocket Booster caused the ignition of the external liquid fuel tank. Also cause of the second event, the Columbia disaster, the external tank was the origin of the catastrophy when tank debris hit Columbia and thus damaged her.

    So if the shuttle program would not have been a significant part of the Cold War conflict then the cooperation of the the space agencies of Russia and The States might have spared us this tragedies. The Russians used the Energia launcher for their own Buran-called shuttle successfully. With the Energia connected to Columbia and Callenger to heave them into the skies no damage from external components would ever have occured to them. The Cold War was the ultimate reason for the real mistakes of the shuttle program! We should finally realize this.

    The shuttles itself are incredibly marvellous.

  72. dollhopf says:

    I ever wondered why they let this ugly external crap steal the show. Here you can see the undiscovered salvation for the contemporary Western spaceflight from all its misery:

    www .youtube .com /watch?v=NWefw976CYM

  73. dollhopf says:

    Of course one has to remove the blanks from the above link so that it works.

    A comment here containing a link is object of anti-spam policy. So blanks are a mean to prevent a comment with including links from being prevented.

    And here is propaganda with a climpse of truth.

  74. beowulf2700 says:

    heres a simple solution to last problem…

    Keep the shuttle in orbit!

    have in one of the cargo bays a landing module and launch from the shuttle to surface… we then redock with shuttle before leaving planet… Lo and behold Humanitys first landing on another planet. the shuttle could be used as a ‘space only’ vehicle… with rockets like the ares ferrying personel to the ship..

  75. dollhopf says:

    Great idea!

    beowulf2700 Says: “the shuttle could be used as a ‘space only’ vehicle

    Let us not forget that not the shuttle itself failed on January 28, 1986. Any other spaceship would rarely have survived the explosion of the strapped-on fuel tank.

    But if one has left the right path once then it is hard to come back. Consequently, the use of the same auxiliary tank caused the next extermination of one of the shuttles.

    And so the component with the smallest complexity caused the most serious damage to the most sophisticated spaceship design mankind ever owned!

  76. maudyfish says:

    Silver thread, what are you going to do with the tiles off the space shuttle? Make a kiln?
    It would be like money going down the drain tying to retrofit it.

    Better to make it a museum and send it off to be a “Good Will Ambassador” to outer space.

  77. penny says:

    The main problem is primary cosmic rays–and the Magnetic
    shield NASA proposes isn’t good enough to stop them.
    The crew will be fried.

    There are two ways to get humans to mars:
    1) Use an atomic engine to make the trip FAST.
    2) Use solid and heavy shielding ( put up slowly in stages
    by the shuttle) and use an atomic engine to drag this heavy ship to mars. Assemble it all in orbit.

    Ion engines don’t have enough force to drag the shielding in a reasonable time—unless the crew is put in suspended animation using the new hydrogen sulfide method discovered at NASA.

    We have a test ban treaty that bans atomic reactors in space and that was the death of the original project Orion, which would have gotten humans to mars in the 1970’s.

    No atomic engine–no mars trip for humans.

  78. penny says:

    The energy of a primary cosmic ray boggles the mind.
    You would need a nuclear reactor to power the magnetic shield and even then, it would not really work. You would get enough primary cosmic exposure over several months to turn your brain into handburger.

    As to the shuttle: The shuttle is 1960’s technology. TIme for something better, such as an airbreathing hypersonic engined ship that gets 90% of the way to space without
    using heavy oxidizer–and then uses a small liquid fuel engine to get the rest of way.

    That’s worth designing. I recall the plan for this project being discussed in a 1970’s issue of Aerospace Week–as a European project.

    What I loathe about NASA is its tendency to go forward with
    glacial speed–forty year old shuttle tech, and the Aries
    project wants to go back the 1950’s tech of Apollo ( launched in the sixties, but 1950’s tech).

  79. penny says:

    On the other hand, the shuttle could be used—in a linked cluster–to get back to the moon. The Apollo module had even less cosmic ray shielding.

    A cluster of Shuttles–with all the space in the cargo bay for extra fuel and landers–could mount an expedition to the moon.

    I always thought this was the secret agenda for the shuttle–built as the Apollo program was destroyed.,

    We could also follow the original idea of the Russians
    and use the international space station as a place to assemble a fleet of non-streamlined spacecraft
    ( hence lighter) to go to the moon.

    I read that idea ( which goes back to the early 20th century in Russia) in “Conquest of the Moon” by Wiley
    Ley and W. Von Braun—back in the 1950’s.

  80. penny says:

    Wiley Ley also had a book for kids–in the early 1960’s–that suggested that we put a supply dump on the asteriod Eros
    and use it to go to mars–with return fuel.

    More sensibly, we could bury the astronauts living quarters on Eros, and that would protect them from the primary cosmic rays. Use Eros as a bus.

    Sometimes, it is a positive advantage to be over fifty.

  81. penny says:

    The orbit of Eros is what makes this possible, but you would need a time when Eros is close to the Earth and comes close to Mars somewhat later.

    Ley’s Launch window for this mission has passed. Anyone got the software to plan the next available launch window?

  82. Howard Toburen says:

    Could modifications, extra fuel and supplies get a shuttle to geosynchronous orbit for satellite repair?

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