On Oct. 4, 1957, Soviet engineers amazed the world by placing Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into orbit around the Earth. Sputnik was a huge embarrassment for U.S. technological leaders, but in the end, the medicine was good for them. Shocked out of complacency, they got to work, and twelve years later Americans were walking on the Moon.

On Dec. 8, 2010, Sputnik flew again. Again the technological establishment was shown up, this time not by uppity Russkies, but by uppity Yanks. With the orbital flight and landing of its Falcon 9-Dragon combination, the Space Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) team accomplished a feat previously reserved for major governments, and did it on a budget one-tenth the size and a schedule one-quarter the length of that assumed as necessary by conventional bureaucratic planners.

The Falcon 9 medium-lift booster (capable of launching 10 tons to orbit) and Dragon capsule (potentially capable of being upgraded to transport up to seven astronauts) were created on a combined budget on the order of $200 million. In 2009, SpaceX’s Elon Musk told the Augustine commission that he could develop a heavy-lift vehicle for $2.5 billion. The commission chose to ignore him, instead insisting that development of a heavy-lift vehicle would cost $36 billion, and therefore both it, and any human Moon or Mars exploration programs that might require it, are beyond the nation’s means for the coming decade. But the Dec. 8 flight put the lie to such counsels of despair.

They say it can’t be done. But SpaceX shows that it can. If a 10-ton-to-orbit system can be developed for $200 million, then a 100-ton-to-orbit launcher for $2 billion is definitely in the cards. And if a heavy-lift booster can be developed for a couple of billion dollars, so can each of the other principal hardware elements required for a human exploration program.

The best flight plan to enable a human lunar base is a direct-landing, direct-return approach, as it has the fewest hardware elements and the simplest operational requirements and enables the most robust exploration capability with the greatest safety. If such a flight plan is adopted, a total of just five principal transportation system units would be required:

  • A heavy-lift booster.
  • An Earth escape rocket stage (for translunar injection and lunar orbit capture).
  • A lunar landing stage.
  • An Earth return stage (for lunar ascent and Trans Earth Injection).
  • A crew capsule.

Using hydrogen/oxygen propulsion for all in-space flight elements, a transportation system based on a 100-ton-to-orbit booster could land 20 tons on the Moon, which is more than enough to deliver a crew capsule to the lunar surface together with a fully fueled Earth return stage capable of propelling it home. Alternatively, the same 20-ton-to-lunar-surface landing system could be used to deliver large cargoes, such as habitation modules, to the Moon, enabling the quick buildup of a substantial lunar base.

Extending such a modular system for flights into deep space is straightforward. Near-Earth asteroid missions could be accomplished using the heavy-lift booster, the Earth escape stage, a habitation module and the crew capsule. Human Mars missions could be accomplished by employing the heavy-lift booster and Earth escape stage to send major payloads directly to the red planet, and adding three units to the asteroid mission set:

  • A Mars aerocapture, entry and landing stage.
  • A Mars ascent vehicle system.
  • A space-storable Earth return rocket stage.

Given the commonality of hardware units among those employed on Moon, Mars, and asteroid missions, a transportation system enabling exploration of all three objectives could be built out of a total of nine elements. At a development cost on the order of $2 billion each, that’s a price tag of about $20 billion to open up the entire inner solar system to human exploration, with key destinations being reached well before the current decade is out.

Such are the implications of SpaceX’s Sputnik, if properly taken to heart. Those embarrassed should take up its challenge and resolve to raise their mettle to meet its test. A new standard has been set. Hear its call. Beep. Beep. We have nothing to lose but our chains, and worlds to win. Beep. Beep. Sputnik flies again.


Robert Zubrin is president of the Mars Society |(www.marssociety.org) and author of “The Case for Mars: the Plan to Settle the Red Planet, and Why We Must.”