Sci-fi writer Stephen Baxter imagines how technology will develop in the 2020s and 2030s, as the human colonisation of other planets begins

The Nasa of the 2020s is not the young and nimble organisation of 1960. However, the challenge is accepted. In fact, Nasa, with its overseas partners, has already begun the development of new lunar technology.

In March 2019, the US Vice President Mike Pence publicly challenges Nasa to mount a crewed return to the Moon before the end of 2024. This would be the last year of a second term for President Trump – it’s an echo of President Kennedy’s call for a Moon landing before the end of the 1960s, which led to the Apollo programme.

This depends on a heavy-lift launcher called the Space Launch System, which is a rival to the Saturn V; an Apollo-like spacecraft being developed with the Europeans; and the Lunar Gateway, a space station in lunar orbit, from which astronauts could descend to the surface.

All that is missing is a lander, a new Lunar Module. But the private company Blue Origin steps up to the plate, with a design it has been developing since 2016. And so the first lunar mission since Apollo launches in late 2024.

The Moon’s first tragedy

By now, however, the decade of the Moon is in full swing. Visits from automated landers and rovers have been launched by a variety of countries, including the Europeans, Japan, India and – most ambitiously – China, which attempts sample-return flights.

Still, it is believed that the majority of humankind watch or listen on 13 November 2024 – just inside Pence’s deadline – as Nasa astronauts Jeff Krauss and Kaui Pukui begin their cautious descent towards the Mare Imbrium, the first lunar crew since Apollo 17.

The Pence mission had always been premature. Krauss and Pukui were not the first to land on the Moon, but, six years after their disastrous descent, they are the first to be buried there.

Mission to Mars

It’s in the 2030s that humans finally land on Mars – using a technology strategy already decades old.

Back in 1990 a team of engineers led by Robert Zubrin presented Nasa with a new plan to get people to Mars, called “Mars Direct”. The core of it was a scheme to manufacture rocket fuel on Mars, by using the Red Planet’s carbon dioxide air to make methane. Removing the need to carry the propellant for a return journey all the way to Mars reduces the mission size and cuts costs.

The mission unfolds across several launch windows. First, an uncrewed Earth Return Vehicle (ERV) is sent to Mars, along with an automated factory for manufacturing the methane propellant. The stratagem is designed for safety. The human crew do not launch until their return ship is safely on Mars and fuelled up.

The arrival of humans

At last, on 4 April 2038, a crew drawn from four nations – the US, Russia, China, and the European Federation – travelling in a ship assembled at Lagrange Station in Earth orbit, lands on Mars. Zubrin lives to see his vision fulfilled.

The landing site is in the Ares Vallis, close to the remains of Nasa’s Pathfinder probe. This echoes the achievement of Apollo 12 on the Moon in 1969, which had tested navigation techniques by landing within walking distance of an inert Surveyor probe. It is necessary for the ERV and lander to touch down close to each other – and Pathfinder is as good a marker to aim for as any.