‘Stairways to Mars’ Concept Proposes Truck Stops Near The Red Planet

Article written: 6 Nov , 2013
Updated: 23 Dec , 2015
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Any road trip requires rest stops to refuel and rest. That’s especially true of planetary exploration, as it would take months between destinations. In that spirit, here is a new concept for “Mars truck stops” from the Space Development Steering Committee, which they call “Stairways to Mars.”

For those who aren’t aware, the committee is a coalition of space advocates. Included in the group are the heads of the National Space Society, the Space Frontier Foundation, and the Mars Society, SDSC said, as well as a list of past astronauts, high-ranking NASA employees and others. (The founder is Howard Bloom, who was a former visiting scholar at New York University’s graduate psychology department, among other positions.)

They provide commentary on NASA funding (such as this March article on sequestration). Also in March, the group advertised a White House petition to provide space-based solar power.

So how would a Mars truck stop work? In a nutshell, this is what SDSC proposes:

– Beams are constructed in space “just like a giant erector set”, according to a statement from John Strickland, SDSC chief analyst. This would be accomplished using “robots on rails” that could build the first part, then “extend … its own rails along the beam as it goes.”

–  Solar panels are added on to the beam to provide power;

– Components are then added according to need. Pictures from SDSC show items such as fuel tanks on the truck stop. If ambitions soared even higher, the concept could even be built upon to make a larger space colony modelled on “O’Neill colonies”, as shown below.

A space colony under construction using a concept from the Space Development Steering Committee. The image shown above has a deck 1,000 feet wide, as well as robots that carry cargo and beams for parking spots. Credit: Anna Nesterova art

A space colony under construction using a concept from the Space Development Steering Committee. The image shown above has a deck 1,000 feet wide, as well as robots that carry cargo and beams for parking spots. Credit: Anna Nesterova art

It should be emphasized that this is a concept, with no funding or firm plans yet, but for what it’s worth the committee says it could move quickly. “These plans are budgeted to cost LESS than the current NASA program for our next step in space — the $40 billion Space Launch System and Orion Capsule. What’s more, the first steps of the Stairway to Mars are achievable in three years,” the committee writes.

One possible location for this kind of truck stop would be at the Earth-Moon L1 Lagrange point, or a spot in space where gravities from different bodies approximately equal each other out and allow an object to hover in place. Lagrange points are already used for several space missions, including the Planck telescope that was just decommissioned.

What do you think of the concept? Let us know in the comments.

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12 Responses

  1. wendell fraser says

    I think it’s an excellent idea and possibly a technology we’ll see more of in the future.

  2. manofsan says

    Okay, but where would you get all those beams from? Ship them all from Earth?

    So I guess it’d be better to assemble everything in Low Earth Orbit first, and then send the entire assembly over to Mars orbit.

  3. Astroraider says

    … and … it can probably be done on Falcon 9’s or Falcon Heavies TODAY with no need for the increadibly expensive SLS that won’t be ready until 2020 or later …

  4. SpaceSultan says

    This fuel stops thing does not make sense energetically if you want to move the fuel from Earth since the cost to get it there is at least as great as bringing it with you. However, if, for instance, the idea would be to bring the fuel from the Moon to the Earth-Moon L1 it might just work. The catch is that you’d need to set up the production of the supplies at the Moon and that would probably cost a bit more than SLS and Orion combined.

    As to having a place to rest, I don’t know. Wouldn’t you want to get to your destination as soon as possible? I mean, what could such a facility offer that you wouldn’t already have on board (as long as this project wants to stay within some attainable budget)?

    Kind regards.

  5. John_K_Strickland says

    To Space Sultan:
    That assumes we would use a rocket as expensive as the SLS. This whole project depends on a reusable booster rocket to make it practical. Right now we can only get fuel from the Earth. With a lunar ice mine, we might be able to get fuel produced there to L1 much cheaper than bringing it up from Earth. The cost of landing equipment on the moon to produce and move the fuel would be vastly cheaper than current space operations due to the continued use of expendable rockets.

    The whole point of the having a fuel depot in
    Mars orbit is (1) you start landing on Mars by using the fuel brought from
    Earth. This does not take a lot of fuel. What is landed first is the equipment
    to make propellant from Mars ice, of which there are huge quantities.(2) Once this
    plant is set up by tele-operated robots and running, the ferry rockets can fuel
    up and go back into Mars orbit to bring down base equipment and then crew
    members. (3) They land using some of the same fuel they had in their tanks as payload going up! You need 5 times more fuel to take off than to land, since the atmosphere of Mars helps you slow down during a landing.

    To manofsan
    The beams would be densely packaged in large cargo
    carriers that would be pushed to Mars as part of a Mars fleet. You could build
    the Mars Logistics base with depots at L1, but the whole structure would have
    to be much stronger to take the rocket thrust, and would be far too large to use
    aero-capture at Mars to slow down into orbit virtually for free. Since the
    robots can do the same job in any location, it is much easier to erect the structure
    at Mars. Would you want to build a house with several long wings and THEN move
    it to a new location. Same problem!.

    The whole point of infrastructure is that vehicles support the infrastructure and the infrastructure supports the vehicles. You need gas stations to run trucks on an interstate, and you need trucks to build gas stations. Space is no different.

    You can see and download an earlier version of the concept at
    http://www.nss.org/settlement/mars/AccessToMars.pdf
    The current version of the plan does leave from L1

    A recent article of mine explaining space
    infrastructure is at:
    http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2221/1

    Some more recent and spectacular images of space
    infrastructure are at:
    http://www.behance.net/gallery/Space-Stuff/7964775

    John Strickland
    Member Space Development Steering Commitee

    • SpaceSultan says

      Almost the same thing with Mars. If you’re going to land on the planet anyway it makes very little sense to bring the fuel out to orbit. Sure you save some with landing manoeuvres you describe but question is whether it is worth the effort in the initial stages of the colonisation of Mars. If you skip putting the fuel into the orbit the infrastructure becomes much simpler. Again, this is taking into account the current circumstances. I am sure that after a while when the installations on the planet surface become more sophisticated and the output increases sending fuel up into orbit would become feasible. This would be true in particular when you use a large craft to arrive in Mars orbit and only go down to the surface using smaller excursion vehicles.

      Kind regards.

  6. Adam Steed says

    Not a fan of this idea. Engineering wise it’s possible. But soo many things can go wrong. One of the things that makes Space Stations in Science Fiction work so well are people. People can monitor the station, perform repairs, locate what seems to be a minor issue, and get it fixed, etc. By having non sentient robots try to do this is asking for trouble. It could result in delays in travel time, and even perhaps hazards to the astronauts. Manned Stations work, they also are able to be repaired on the fly. I like the concept, but until we are willing to have a permanent foothold in space, and away from Earth’s orbit. It’s near pointless.

  7. John_K_Strickland says

    To SpaceSultan:

    I am a little bit puzzled as to how you
    would land on Mars without any fuel. It takes fuel to move around in space and
    change velocity. It takes a little to drop out of orbit. You get rid of
    about 3000 meters per second from drag in the Mars atmosphere before you near
    the surface, but without fuel, you will HIT that surface at about
    Mach 5. You then still need between 700 and 1000 meters per second of
    speed reduction to land safely on Mars. Your equipment to make fuel on Mars
    will not work if it is in little tiny pieces! The whole point of the
    exercise IS to make fuel on Mars for use at Mars, but first you have to GET to
    Mars. For large vehicles, parachutes will not work as the air is too thin – it
    is a near-vacuum.

    To
    Adam steed: If you look at the images of the logistics base, you should
    see the crew quarters off to one side. Obviously robots will make mistakes and
    encounter problems they cannot solve. The crew should not be spending huge
    amounts of time in space suits manually assembling the large trusses.
    Their arms are not 50 feet long. they are sensitive to radiation. If a crew
    member sees a problem, they can take over and operate the robot via
    tele-operation to fix the problem. I assume that the setup of the fuel
    production plant on the surface would be done this way by the crew in orbit.
    You would not want to land a single crew member until there was enough fuel
    produced to return to orbit.

    • SpaceSultan says

      I believe I’ve been misunderstood. What I was trying to say is that to begin with perhaps you shouldn’t be producing the fuel on Mars *in order* to put it in Mars orbit for refueling. I doubt that you would initially have the ability and capacity to do that. Consequently the first flights to Mars should bring the fuel for landing with them and refuel for the return trip at the surface. If I am not mistaken this is what has been suggested by Mars Direct (Zubrin et al.). Later on, when various techniques have been perfected you can move on to putting refueling stations in space.

      Kind regards.

  8. Kendall Paul Oei says

    On the one hand, it’s a great idea for restocking and fueling, once the logistics of building and stocking the station are figured out. Keep in mind, however, that visiting one of these “truck stops” requires fuel for acceleration and deceleration and would cost the velocity already generated in the trip. I’m not sure this is worth it.
    If the goal was for these to become larger, autonomous stations, it might be worth it. They could be more of a human outpost, for survival purposes. Especially, if they could be outfitted to move with the shift in our habitable zone in the far future.

  9. John_K_Strickland says

    To SpaceSultan:

    The initial fuel (Oxygen and Hydrogen) to operate the Mars Ferries is indeed brought from Earth to Low Mars orbit. This is called “bootstrapping fuel”. With this initial stock of Earth or Lunar fuel, you land the equipment needed to make more fuel from Mars ice. With that propellant, stored in refrigerated tanks, the Ferries can take off to bring down everything else the base needs, since you now have a local source of fuel.

    Bob Zubrin’s brilliant Mars Direct concept also used local materials to make rocket fuel on Mars, but he was going to make Methane and Oxygen, using a tank of Hydrogen brought from Earth, along with CO2 from the Mars atmosphere, on the assumption then that there was very little accessible water, (and thus hydrogen) on Mars. Almost 25 years later, we now know there are millions of cubic miles of ice on Mars, some of it close to the surface, and we can now make the much more powerful fuel combination Hydrogen and Oxygen.

    The ferries have the capability to take fuel back to orbit as payload since they have over-sized fuel tanks, and no other payload needs to go up. Instead of having to bring a lander and an ascent vehicle, the Access to Mars concept uses a single, reusable Ferry vehicle to land and take off again. (Actually, there would be at least 10 ferries on the initial Mars mission.) They can land a 25 ton cargo payload using only 15 tons of fuel. With the initial 7 trips down, they would land 175 tons of equipment, including excavators and storage tanks. This is all explained with pictures in the original presentation: http://www.nss.org/settlement/mars/AccessToMars.pdf

    To Kendal Paul Oei:

    To land on Mars you usually want to get into Mars orbit first, so you can land exactly where you want to land. The logistics base is in that same, safe 400 km high orbit. You have to decelerate anyway to reach it from Earth, and, thanks to the concept of aero-capture, all of the vehicles can reach that orbit with only a tiny of fuel use, as long as they have heat shields.

    Such bases are intended primarily for use as a logistics base to establish and support the surface base, and not primarily as a refuge, but having a refuge in Mars orbit is very handy if a major problem should develop at the surface base. The crew habitats for the return to Earth would serve as such a refuge. This concept is just like an Everest expedition, with a series of camps further and further up the mountain. You can always retreat to the next camp down. It is quite possible that in the future, space settlements could orbit Mars, but they would likely be in much higher orbits.

  10. Michael Cook says

    Mars has a nice truck stop. It is called Phobos. We can use this little moon to decelerate from our approach speed of 18,000mph+ to Mars by having a previous mission “lasso” Phobos with a nylon rope. Nylon has this peculiar property of losing none of its strength or elasticity in the cold of space. The lasso ends in a huge loop which incoming spacecraft can snag with a hook. The lasso will then stretch and slow the spacecraft, even a fairly massive one. This will eliminate having to use any fuel for deceleration purposes. The Russians are thinking that humans on the surface of Mars are just an extravagance. The logical Mars station should be on Phobos. A work station on the moon could reconfigure, fuel, repair, and generally ready experiments for the surface of the red planet and would greatly reduce the current communications black out periods with the surface. Also Phobos would be a great slingshot point for trajectories to the outer planets of our solar system. Mars itself isn’t big enough for a useful gravity slingshot, but the nylon loop could be used to steal some velocity from the orbits of Mars and its little moon.

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