The Space Shuttle system is medium-heavy lift. We have it today! It could launch everything needed to take us to the Moon, Mars and beyond; just as it launched everything for the ISS. It would take more launches than with Constellation, but it could be done.
The ideal way to use this existing resource would be to build the planned Shuttle-C or Shuttle-Derived Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle, which would be an unmanned cargo carrier with rockets on it, attached to the existing Shuttle external tank and booters in place of the Orbiter. This would greatly increase payload size and weight. This would be the fast-and-cheap interim solution to the Constellation. Neil Armstrong supported this concept in his May 2010 statement to Congress:
Constellation is essential to space exploration because it is "real" heavy lift, but there are zero reasons not to build, and have ready to launch in perhaps two or three years, the Shuttle-C cargo-carrier; and to use it to launch cargo ships to Mars starting with the excellent launch window of 2016.
A few unmanned cargo missions to Mars in 2016 to land the habitation modules, power systems, water-to-fuel plant, and to place 3 communications satellites into Martian orbit would allow for a very well-equipped human mission to Mars at the most optimum (shortest transit time) launch window in 2018. Such Shuttle-C launches would eliminate the need to modify the existing Shuttle launch pads, saving more time and money. Shuttle-C could launch 3 times the payload of the Shuttle+Orbiter system; 170,000 pounds. Constellation will lift 309,000 pounds--that's why we need it; but until it is ready we should not sit and do nothing. The Mars landing mission would be launched in 2018 using the then-completed Constellation.
Shuttle-C could also take us to the Moon, as it can launch the Moon lander and habitation modules. In either scenario, crew would be transported to the assembled Moon or Mars spaceships/transfer vehicles by regular Shuttle Orbiter flights. Note that the Shuttle Orbiters were designed to last for 100 launches, and none have exceeded 38 launches.
It is a criminal waste of America's resources to scrap the shuttles and to ignore the dirt-cheap Shuttle-C concept; thus needlessly delaying missions to Mars and the Moon.
Congress is urged to authorize the continuation of the shuttle program, to build Shuttle-C cargo pods and to use it to launch payloads for the initial Moon and Mars missions while Constellation is being built. We can land Americans on Mars in 2018!
on Orbit (NASA)
Wikipedia's page on the Shuttle HLV:
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