If Lunar spaceplanes become a reality in the future, then what would prevent there from flying farther afield? What about Mars? After all, Mars has an atmosphere, of sorts, that spaceplanes could make some use of.
Indeed. The very same arguments that favor spaceplanes flying to the Moon can be made in support of spaceplanes flying to Mars. These involve chiefly the space tanker potential they bring with them, as well as their winged versatility. Some sort of lifting body or winged structure vastly increases the versatility of all spaceplanes, compared to other designs. Spaceplanes can enter planetary atmospheres and decelerate with far less stress than their blunt-body cousins, the capsules. This means that spaceplanes will be much more comfortable to their passengers than any other kind of spacecraft, especially during atmospheric entry.
Granted, the logistics of manned Mars flight by spaceplane, as with any spacecraft, are very complex. In the final analysis, the successful Mars mission will probably involve sending unmanned cargo craft to the planet well ahead of the crew, who will then follow in a small, light, fast spacecraft. Again, the availability of proven and versatile spaceplanes may well turn out to be just what is needed to send crews to the Red Planet.
Imagine this scenario. The year is 2040. Lunar spaceplanes have been perfected, and two are now being outfitted for the first manned Mars mission. They are parked in Lunar orbit, and the provisioning is almost complete. Several automated cargo vessels have already arrived at Mars and are standing by at the staging area at the northwest rim of Valles Marineris. The Mars-bound spaceplanes have been specially modified with dorsal docking collars, so that a special extendable truss can be deployed between the two spaceplanes during the transfer orbit. This will allow the generation of artificial Mars gravity onboard both spaceplanes by mutual rotation around their center of gravity, and allow crews to pay visits to their sister craft during the journey. Each Marsplane is fully loaded with propellants in anticipation of a relatively quick 2^-month crossing.
When the Marsplanes reach the planet, they will separate, stow their collapsible tunnels, and aerobrake through the Martian atmosphere. Possibly making several skip-passes to gradually bleed off airspeed, the craft will glide to landings at the staging area and set down gently using their specially fitted belly engines. Automatic cameras at the base record the arrival. First one, then a second interplanetary bird comes swooping out of the red sky. They make a high-altitude pass over the base, verify their position, and ignite their ventral thrusters. A last-second pitch up of the nose on final approach, they flare to landing and make a smooth touchdown in the Martian dust. Within minutes, the second bird makes a repeat performance.
This could actually be the way we go to Mars - by spaceplane rather than by supercapsule. Before such a reality can materialize, it has to crystallize in the imagination.
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