With manned missions to Mars in our thinking, both in government space agencies and the commercial sector, the challenge of providing adequate life support emerges as a key factor. We’re talking about a mission lasting about two years, as opposed to the relatively swift Apollo missions to the Moon (about two weeks). Discussing the matter in a new essay, Brian McConnell extends that to 800 days — after all, we need a margin in reserve.
Figure 5 kilograms per day per person for water, oxygen and food, assuming a crew of six. What you wind up with is 24,000 kilograms just for consumables. In terms of mass, we’re in the range of the International Space Station because of our need to keep these astronauts alive. McConnell, a software/electrical engineer based in San Francisco, has been working with Alex Tolley on the question of how we could turn most of these consumables into propellant. The idea is to deploy electric engines that use reclaimed water and waste gases to do the job.
With a nod to the transportation technologies that opened the American West, McConnell and Tolley have dubbed the idea a ‘Spacecoach.’ Centauri Dreams readers will remember Tolley’s Spaceward Ho! and McConnell’s A Stagecoach to the Stars, and the duo have also produced a book on the matter for Springer called A Design for a Reusable Water-Based Spacecraft Known as the Spacecoach. The new essay is a welcome addition to the literature on what appears to be a practical concept.
What fascinates me about the Spacecoach is that it enables us to begin building a space infrastructure that can extend past Mars to include the main asteroid belt. Using electric propulsion driven by a solar photovoltaic array, it achieves higher exhaust velocity than chemical rockets by a factor or ten, pulling much greater delta v from the same amount of propellant. Use water as propellant and you reduce the mass of the system by what McConnell estimates to be a factor of between 10 and 20. Huge reductions in cost follow.
Water as propellant? McConnell comments:
Electric propulsion is not a new technology, and has been used on many unmanned spacecraft. The idea is to use an external power source, typically a solar photovoltaic array, to drive an engine that uses an electrical or magnetic field to heat and accelerate a gas stream to great speed (tens of kilometers per second). Because these engines can achieve much higher exhaust velocity than chemical rockets, 10x or better, they can achieve greater change of velocity (delta v) using the same amount of propellant. This means they can venture to more ambitious destinations, carry more payload, or a combination of both. It also turns out these engines can also use a wide range of materials for propellant, including water.
Image: Rendering of the “kite” design pattern for a Spacecoach, with a person shown to the right for scale. This is but one possible configuration, but McConnell notes that the pattern minimizes the materials required even as it provides a sizeable habitable area. Credit: Rudiger Klaen.
We can imagine such ships as interplanetary vessels that never enter an atmosphere. They’re also completely reusable, allowing costs to be amortized, and their habitable areas are large inflatable structures that can be assembled in space. Thus we travel within a modular spacecraft using external landers and whatever other modules are required by the mission at hand. They’re also, compared to today’s chemical rocket payloads, a good deal safer:
The use of water and waste gases as propellant, besides reducing the mass of the system by a factor of ten or more, has enormous safety implications. 90% oxygen by mass, water can be used to generate oxygen via electrolysis, a simple process. By weight, it is comparable to lead as a radiation shielding material, so simply by placing water reservoirs around crew rest areas, the ship can reduce the crew’s radiation exposure several fold over the course of a mission. It is an excellent heat sink and can be used to regulate the temperature of the ship environment. The abundance of water also allows the life support system to be based on a one-pass or open loop design. Open loop systems will be much more reliable and basically maintenance free compared to a closed loop system such as what is used on the ISS. The abundance of water will also make the ships much more comfortable on a long journey.
Having just watched “To the Ends of the Earth,” a superb BBC story about a ship making a passage from Britain to Australia in the age of sail, the word ‘comfortable’ catches my eye. A Spacecoach is a large craft with huge solar arrays and the capability of being spun to generate artificial gravity, thus alleviating another major health hazard. Conditions are more Earth-like, and the abundance of water makes for what would otherwise seem absurd scenarios. Imagine taking a shower on a flight to Mars! The Spacecoach’s water management makes it possible.
McConnell believes that much of the mission architecture can be validated on Earth without the need to build a full-scale spacecraft, with the major emphasis on tuning up the electric propulsion technology that drives the concept. Using water, carbon dioxide and waste gases to test the engines can be the subject of an engineering competition, after which the engines could be tested in small satellites. Ultimately, manned Spacecoaches could be tested in cislunar space before their eventual deployment deeper into the Solar System.
Image: An artist’s concept of two Bigelow BA 330 inflatable modules configured into a space station. Modules like these could provide habitable areas for a Spacecoach. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace (http://www.bigelowaerospace.com).
McConnell calls the Spacecoach the basis of a ‘real world Starfleet,’ and adds this:
These ships will not be destination specific. They will be able to travel to destinations throughout the inner solar system, including cislunar space, Venus, Mars and with a large enough solar photovoltaic sail, to the Asteroid Belt and the dwarf planets Ceres and Vesta. They’ll be more like the Clipper ships of the past than the throwaway rocket + capsule design pattern we’ve all grown up with, and their component technologies can be upgraded with each outbound flight.
So if you haven’t acquainted yourself with McConnell and Tolley’s earlier work on the Spacecoach in these pages, have a look at Traveling to Mars? Just Add Water!, which recaps the basics of the design and outlines surface exploration strategies from orbiting Spacecoaches by telepresence. The key, though, is to mitigate the propellant issue by making consumables into propellant. Get that right and much else will follow, including the prospect of reliable, safe interplanetary transport of the kind needed to build a truly space-going civilization.
And after that? I’ve always believed that after sending instrumented interstellar probes, we’ll expand into regions outside our Solar System slowly, building space habitats as we go, mining local objects for needed materials. A functioning, space-going civilization builds out that infrastructure from within. It’s the ‘slow boat to Centauri’ scenario — our machines, enabled by artificial intelligence, get there first — but it’s a deep future that includes a human presence around other stars. When I see something as evidently practical as the Spacecoach, I get a renewed jolt of confidence that we at least know how to begin such a journey.