While dreaming of a space vacation, most people imagine cramped cockpits and dramatic countdowns, not spacious cabins and dining cars. Yet this didn’t stop scientists from designing the unlikely-sounding space train, called Startram, which basically works by shooting an incredibly fast-moving magnetic-levitation train out a 12-mile-high tube. Aside from exactly how the trains would get back down, the biggest question is why—after all, we can already get into space just fine, right? Well, not exactly. The biggest hurdle to modern space exploration—and why no one’s walked on the moon since the 1970s—isn’t the technology but the price tag: It costs about $450 million to launch a space shuttle. Designs like Startram are not only exponentially cheaper, but the technology to build them already exists. So when do we leave for Mars? Here, books to answer questions about the science of space, how to get there cheaply, and why we should be there now.
When will we be sending people into space again?
“Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier” by Neil DeGrasse Tyson
First things first: Tyson breaks down the current state of affairs for American space travel. Admittedly, things don’t seem so great. With the Space Shuttle program officially shut down, it might be another five or 10 years until astronauts are again launched from U.S. soil. But Tyson works quickly from there, breaking down not only the politics of NASA, but also how a thriving space program will be invaluable to the future American economy. Tyson, as he so often does, entreats us to once again set our sights on the stars
What are some other cheap alternatives for space travel?
“Space Tethers and Space Elevators” by Michel van Pelt
Another alternative to the Space Shuttle is the Space Elevator, which sounds just as far-fetched as the train concept. The technology is actually so simple, however, that a Japanese company plans to construct one by 2050. The premise is pretty straightforward: After tethering a carbon nanotube cable to the bottom of the ocean and stretching it a mere 59,652 miles into space, you’ll be able to take a solar-powered lift straight into orbit.
How can we move more efficiently around the galaxy?
“Solar Sails: A Novel Approach to Interplanetary Travel” by Giovanni Vulpetti, Les Johnson and Gregory L. Matloff
Of course, once you’re actually in space, you still need to get around, and relying on rocket fuel to putz about the solar system is the sort of expense we’re trying to avoid. Fortunately there’s an option that is not only cheap, but also evokes the elegance of exploration’s slightly older frontier: namely, the sail. The mechanics of a solar sail are extremely simple: It works exactly like a regular sail, only the wind comes from the sun.
Can space ever be truly livable for humans?
“Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void” by Mary Roach
Surviving in space brings its own challenges. A lack of air is just one of them—after all, we humans evolved with gravity and a relatively regular day/night cycle. Because of this, Roach set out to discover what effects—both short- and long-term—space has on the human body, from zero gravity’s toll on your bones and cardiovascular system to the pressing question: What happens if you vomit in your space helmet? Not to mention the complications of coming home younger than everyone else.
When can we settle on Mars?
“The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must” by Robert Zubrin and Richard Wagner
So if we have the ability to get to space without millions of dollars of rocket fuel and the resources to glide effortlessly about the solar system, what do we do next? Settle Mars, of course. After all, we have the technology, and this book provides a step-by-step plan to get us there, set up base, and even produce food and fuel—relying heavily on the resources of the Red Planet.