When it comes to infrastructure for supporting space exploration and sending humans into earth’s orbit and beyond, the Enterprise is the main element of this space infrastructure. After all it’s a space station and a space port as well as being a spaceship. When the Enterprise is in earth’s orbit, much of the activity in space around the earth will revolve around the Enterprise. Spaceships from the US and other nations will dock there, and they will come and go. The Enterprise can serve as a maintenance shop for repairing or upgrading satellites. It’s also a spectacular destination for space tourists and space researchers. And too, there will be a constant stream of technical specialists and deliveries of cargo as the Enterprise is readied for its next mission far from earth.
But the Enterprise is not an island unto itself that needs no support. It will need infrastructure hardware to support the building of it and to sustain it in space. The first item needed is an inventory on earth of heavy lifter rockets and launch pads. These are needed for launching the Enterprise components into space so that it can be assembled in earth’s low orbit.
These heavy lifters may perhaps be a combination of privately owned and NASA owned rockets. Thus many heavy lifter launches might be contracted out to private firms by NASA. However, seeing to it that adequate capacity is in place will be NASA’s responsibly. This includes making sure enough capacity is ready to support the 200-300 launches needed to launch all Enterprise components for its construction in space. Heavy lifters will still be needed after full deployment of the Enterprise for sending up hardware in support of Enterprise missions. This will include large quantities of equipment such as for building bases on the moon and Mars and for robotic probes of all types which will be released en masse when the Enterprise is on a mission, for example to Mars or Venus. The heavy lifters are also needed to efficiently send supplies to the Enterprise itself at initial deployment and for re-supply later.
Other than receiving occasional supplies, or taking on cargo for its missions, the Enterprise will strive for self-sufficiency. A core goal when developing the Gen1 Enterprise – and it will be a more important goal with each new generation of Enterprise – is that it will be designed for self-sufficiency as much as possible. The ship is designed for ultra-high reliability and low maintenance. If maintenance or repairs are required, the goal is that the crew can do them. So in general all that the Enterprise should need is occasional new supplies such as propellant, food, water, and nuclear fuel. Experimental space mining and processing of raw materials aboard the Enterprise will also be done to see what supplies the Enterprise can acquire on its own.
The term “heavy lifter” applies to a broad category of rockets. This category of rocket starts with a payload capacity of around 110,000 pounds (50,000 kg). The type needed for supporting the Gen1 Enterprise is heavy lifters than can put at least one million pounds into earth’s low orbit. A heavy lifter this big has never been built. The Saturn 5 could put a payload of 262,000 pounds into earth’s low orbit. The Nova heavy lifter designs done in the 1960s, however, were planned to carry one million pounds of payload into earth’s low orbit. Some Nova concept designs are shown at the top of this page.
NASA’s Ares V heavy lifter rocket that was canceled in 2010 was going to have a payload capacity of 410,000 pounds. This would have been a much closer fit to what is needed to support the Enterprise program compared to NASA’s latest efforts, the Space Launch System, which can only support a payload of 280,000 pounds.
The heavy lifter infrastructure can be upgraded over time by migrating to lower cost and more energy-efficient technologies such as electromagnetic launchers or space elevators. But it’s assumed that these will not be ready on a large scale until after the Gen1 Enterprise is built. The Gen1 Enterprise will be built using heavy lifters that are based on traditional rocket engines with launch costs assumed to be around $1000 per pound. (However, alternative launch systems should be intensely researched in parallel, while developing the rocket infrastructure, to accelerate the technology breakthroughs that are needed to reduce launch costs to far below $1000 per pound.)
Besides heavy lifters, propellant depots are needed at two or three strategic locations around the solar system. A goal for the Enterprise is that it will be able to go to Mars and back to earth without needing to be re-supplied. However, with the Enterprise having only 30% of its wet mass as propellant, compared to around 50% used in recent NASA estimates for other Mars spacecraft, it’s not clear that engine technology can be improved in propellant usage efficiency enough to achieve this. If this round trip by the Enterprise cannot be achieved without needing more propellant, then the Enterprise will have to refill its propellant tanks at the propellant depot that will be in orbit around Mars. The same applies for missions to Venus.
If two or three propellant depots are deployed, it makes sense for them to include other supplies for use in emergencies. Some examples are: food, water, oxygen, rocket fuel for the Universal Landers, and nuclear fuel. To minimize cost and complexity, the depots will not have habitats for humans and instead will be robotically controlled.
Once the Enterprise is deployed, humans can venture farther into space than ever before and also establish permanent bases on the moon and Mars. The bases will be part of the space infrastructure because they serve as destinations for people and cargo traveling onboard the Enterprise. When the Enterprise arrives, many scientists and others will shuffle back and forth between these bases on the moon and Mars. These bases and the Enterprise will enjoy a symbiotic relationship. The large, comfortable bases would not be practical to build without the huge cargo-carrying capacity of the Enterprise, and the Enterprise will make less sense if it does not enable human expansion into space beyond earth and the Enterprise itself. In time, these bases will also be hubs for supporting humans going yet farther into space.
Gradually the bases will evolve in various ways such as perhaps becoming centers for mining or other commercial activities. But it is likely 50 years or more away before mining occurs on a large scale or other economically viable activities are established. (For mining, for example, it will be far cheaper to simply mine the same or substitute materials on earth.)
Mining will be supported on these bases but will be limited to a small scale. It will be done only to support the local base itself and for experimental purposes. One goal is to learn about mining beyond earth to help lay the groundwork for future generations who may find that some large scale mining begins to make economic sense.
A final yet critical piece of space infrastructure is the Universal Lander. A craft is needed that can leave the Enterprise, fly to its destination, and then return to the Enterprise. That is, a reusable spacecraft is needed, and this is a key attribute of the Universal Lander. The Universal Lander allows humans to land on the earth, the moon, or Mars – or fly down to near Venus’s surface – and then return to the Enterprise. And this can be done over and over again while the Enterprise is on its various missions.