Big problems tend to get solved by people who break the big problem down into a series of smaller problems. Once these smaller subproblems are solved to provide an end-to-end modular solution, the parts can be optimized somewhat for future use. Sometimes, these parts might start getting reintegrated into larger parts because a simple and easy way of solving more than one subproblem at a time becomes evident. This is true of many, if not any, fields of endeavor. Programming is what comes to my mind most quickly as an example: when you’re planning out the creation of an application, you break the overall application concept down into discrete subproblems that need solving, and probably decompose those parts of the problem down even further, until you get to a point where each problem statement consists of a single action that must be achieved to solve the problem.
The same thing applies to big problems like off-world colonization. It’s a Huge Thing to move people from Earth to Mars and settle them in with electric blankets, shag carpeting, and recliners in front of their Mars-O-Vision TVs on a saturday night for the latest B-grade Sci Fi Channel original movie. It’s not as big a thing to get people into orbit. Unfortunately, even getting people into orbit is its own big thing — just not insurmountably big when taken as a single, monolithic problem as Mars colonization appears to be at this time.
We’ve solved getting people into LEO. It’s a done deal. Oh, sure, we’ve blown up two US space shuttles due to maintenance and luck issues (think about how friggin’ old those machines are getting and marvel at the fact it has taken this long to lose two of the things). In general, though, we’ve done it — and we’ve done it with reusable transatmospheric craft, which means it’s reasonable to involve private industry (and we have, by getting them to help pay for the launches as part of the deal of getting their communications satellites into orbit so we can get HBO on Antarctica and teleconference with our competitors in India). The common perception seems to be that continuing a space program is just too expensive and dangerous, though, and that there’s not much commercial drive to go any further than a satellite placement service so we’ll need to rely on government and legislation if we want to get any further — which, combined with the aforementioned expense, means we don’t get any further.
Perhaps you noticed that, via the Ansari X-Prize competition, an SSTO vehicle flew to LEO and back twice within the space of a few days. It was impressively cheap to accomplish, too, at roughly $25 billion for complete vehicle development and testing costs as compared with the absurdity of the $145 billion spent on the space shuttle program to date with a $5 billion per year program cost and a $55 million per launch operational cost. Give private industry a run at something, and it’ll find a way to make it cheap(er) — and safe(r).
What about commercial value, about motivation for the private industry to do anything? The X-Prize won’t be there for everything.
Do you think anyone was imagining a whole lot of commercial value to the original multi-stage rockets used to launch unsuspecting chimps into orbit? And yet, here we are, looking toward orbit as fertile ground for revenue generation. Imagine the ubiquity of worldwide communication network access in the palm of your hand if the cost of placing satellites in orbit dropped precipitously, reliability of launch dates increased dramatically, and easy access for maintenance became a reality. Think about the potential revenues that could be generated with these significantly cost-reducing changes in the process. There are already companies making a mint off their satellites, so reducing the cost of owning and operating the things would increase the number of companies that could get involved and the applicability of the things for advancing the technological state of our lives. Hand over fist, I tell ya.
You might be wondering how this gets us to Mars.
The problem with getting to, and living on, Mars is pretty much solved scientifically. It’s now an engineering and cost problem. Most of the engineering already exists, too, in the form of project concepts and the like. Some fine-tuning and implementation is in order, of course, but the larger issues are already dealt with, with the exception of resources to throw at the problem.
Reusable SSTO vehicle development makes it easier to get to orbit, cheaply and safely. We already solved the first subproblem of getting to Mars, in the form of getting to orbit, and we already solved one of the later subproblems, in the form of figuring out how to land things (both on the Moon and on Earth — Mars will be roughly somewhere betwixt the twain). We’re well on our way toward making the first solution routine to implement. We’ve also done the space station thing, which will become easier with reusable SSTO vehicle advancement, and which can be used to provide a staging area for pushing further afield (to Mars, for instance).
The best thing government can do for our space program is, frankly, get out of the way. If you really doubt that private industry, given freer reign, would get us to Mars a helluva lot faster than government ever could, you haven’t been paying attention.
By the way, I’m in the midst of researching and planning for a novel that will take place on the surface of Mars (working title: The Accidental Patriot). It’s proving to be a fair bit of fun. Wish me luck.