A Wildly Detailed 100-Year Plan for Getting Humans to Mars
In the summer of 1986, Ron Jones was sitting on a beach in Oahu drawing lines in the sand. It was a few months after the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff, and Jones was suddenly out of a job. He’d been working as an aerospace engineer at Vandenberg Air Force base, helping build out Space Launch Complex 6—the area the Air Force planned to use for launches before everything came to a screeching halt when NASA put the brakes on the shuttle program.
For as long Jones could remember, he had spent his free time pondering the trajectory of space travel five, 30, 50, even 100 years down the cosmic road. By the time he got to his first job at Vandenberg, Jones had developed his own ideas about how and when humans would move permanently beyond Earth. To him, space travel was a cosmic Rube Goldberg machine. To reach the end goal—which he considered to be large-scale habitation of Mars—a thousand little things had to happen first. Things like creating reliable in-orbit transportation vehicles, mining asteroids for materials, and building a thriving community on the moon.
Jones was a young, space-obsessed engineer with too much time on his hands. “I was sitting back on this deserted beach, drinking beer, thinking about life and the space program,” he recalls. And then it hit him: The boxes and lines he was scrawling on the beach were more than just doodles; they were the beginning of the Integrated Space Plan, a wildly ambitious chart Jones would spend the next three decades developing.
The Integrated Space Plan recently got a modern-day overhaul by design firm 212 Box (and is making its debut right here on WIRED). To really appreciate the new graphic, though, you have to understand the older version first.
Space travel as graphic design
Jones’ original Integrated Space Plan arguably is among the most complex infographics ever, no surprise when you consider it’s the work of an engineer. The 24×26-inch sheet of white paper is filled with a dense flowchart of boxes and circles connected by vector arrows. It looks a circuit diagram and reads like a sci-fi novel.
As a piece of graphic design, it’s nearly incomprehensible. “It’s kind of a hairy mess,” Jones admits. He started working on the single-sheet poster in earnest after returning from Hawaii during his stint as an engineer at Rockwell, which Boeing later bought. In his off hours, Jones would scribble boxes and lines onto a 2×3-foot pad and pin the pages to the wall for a bigger picture of how things fit together. “It took a lot of wine and a lot of staring,” he says. Eventually, he got a Macintosh computer and started laying it all out in MacPaint, which allowed him to organize the 375 boxes into set grids.
The graphic is divided into nine columns that show, in chronological order, the path toward human exploration of deep space. The center row of boxes, the “critical path,” outlines the major milestones Jones decided were attainable within the next century of space travel; the boxes to the left and right of the critical path are support elements that must be realized before anything on the critical path can happen. The Integrated Space Plan can be read top to bottom and left to right. The big circles intersecting the boxes are the the plan’s overarching long-range goals, which include things like Humanity begins the transition from a terrestrial to a solar species and Human expansion into the cosmos. In many ways, it’s a graphical to-do list.
Jones worked on the plan alone for months, until one day in the late ’80s he picked up Rockwell’s in-house newspaper and saw a story about a team called the Advanced Projects Group. It was conducting studies on lunar and Mars travel. They happened on the same floor, so Jones rolled up his poster, walked down the hall, and knocked on the door. The head of the team waved him in and asked what he wanted. “I told him I’d been working on a long-range plan for human expansion into space, and I’d seen the article in the paper and thought he was the guy to show it to,” Jones recalls.
Jones pinned his poster to the wall and began describing his vision. “They all kind looked me with their jaws dropping,” he says. “I was offered a job that day.” Jones and the Advanced Projects team began fleshing out the support systems required to ensure humans achieved large scale habitation of Mars by 2100.
At a certain point on the chart, maybe around 25 years down the line, the Integrated Space Plan’s outline shifts from the conceivable to the imaginary. Jones enlisted the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society to help brainstorm some of the more forward-looking predictions. “I’d go and present the latest of the chart, and let these guys sit around and look at it and come up with wild-ass ideas,” he says.
Like most predictions, the later stages are simply a matter of taking what we already know and extrapolating that to logical, albeit seemingly fanciful, conclusions. “As you move into the more distant future the timing of things becomes more and more fuzzy,” says Jay Wittner, a member of the National Space Society who contributed to the newest version of the plan. “But the sequence of the events is very rational.” For instance, he says, “You’re not going to have a base on Mars before the first person goes to Mars.”
After Jones finished the first iteration of the chart in 1989, Rockwell adopted it as a marketing tool and began sending it around the space community. “During the heyday of the first ISP, you’d go into NASA field centers and see it on the wall,” Wittner says. Jones updated the ISP in 1997, that last time it was revised.
A New Vision
Space travel has advanced at an unbelievable rate in the 20 years since the plan was last updated. Commercial ventures have joined the effort, headed by the likes of Elon Musk, James Bigelow, and Richard Branson. “What I never foresaw was the development of people who were so filthy rich they could have their own space program,” Jones says. “That changed everything.”
Though many of the plan’s early predictions proved to be spot-on, the chart was out of date visually and factually. It needed a redesign that reflected the current era, one where people (albeit wealthy ones) can entertain the possibility of leaving the planet, however briefly.
Jones and Wittner led a Kickstarter campaign last year to finance remaking the plan. They raised $32,000, and New York design firm 212 Box signed on for the redesign. The new Integrated Space Plan has the bones of the original—the critical path is still at its heart, with a web of boxes to the left and right—but the redo is cleaner and more modern. Many of the Excel-type boxes presenting info like launch sites on the first plan have been turned into pictorial illustrations. Boxes are color-coded to denote terrestrial, lunar, and Mars-related missions. Finally, you can “see at a glance what’s going on,” says Box 212’s Eric Clough,
From a purely visual perspective, the updated Integrated Service Plan isn’t nearly so intriguing as Jones’ original, but it is more democratic. Freed from its tangle of lines and arrows, the poster is easier to read and comprehend, which is absolutely essential if it is to become an educational tool. The plan now has a home online, and the team hopes it will spark a more fluid conversation around what can and should be changed. “It’s not a static document,” says Wittner. Both Wittner and Jones figure plenty of people will disagree with their predictions—like all passionate communities, space enthusiasts aren’t strangers to contentiousness.
And so in the spirit of constructive feedback, I pointed out that even though the critical path of both plans reaches to 2100, the revised plan posits that the final frontier is not “large scale habitation of Mars” but “human interstellar expansion.” Seems like a pretty big leap forward, so I ask, “How can you be so sure?” They can’t be, of course. But Wittner offers his best hedge: “The Wright brothers would’ve looked around today and wouldn’t believe what the world is,” he says. “A hundred years is a long time.”
This article is from –