This whole space travel thing has gotten pretty boring ever since we landed on the moon. We can't make it to another planet and none of our ships have lasers. What the hell is the point?
But there were some incredibly awesome technologies that never made it off the drawing board. All because we didn't have the foresight, there wasn't enough funding, and they sounded like they were made up by a kindergartner.
Gerald Bull was a physics genius, and without a doubt the greatest weapons designer that Canada has ever produced, which may very well be impressive for all we know of Canadian weapon designers. Bull's line of work was a field called "super-artillery", which is a military term meaning "huge fucking cannons."
One of his crowning achievements was the G5 Howitzer, which could launch a shell 30 miles. Being the sort of person who gets a Physics PhD and goes into the field of "giant gun design," Bull decided 30 miles was fucking embarrassing.
So he went to work with the American government in the High Altitude Research Project, where he pointed other gigantic guns directly up into the sky and fired objects up to 60 miles high. You know the Stratosphere? Bull shot through that shit, sending projectiles into something called the Mesosphere. But that wasn't enough. His dream was to build a cannon so big it could shoot a satellite into orbit. After all, isn't that how they'd do it in a cartoon?
Above: Gerald Bull
After trying the Americans, who shockingly turned down the opportunity to build a ludicrously huge cannon, he went about building and selling arms to crazed dictators from all over the world, including South Africa, China, and Iraq. He eventually convinced budding young Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein that the only way to make all the cool countries respect him was to have a space program built around his big-ass cannon.
Saddam put him to work building his dream. They made a small scale prototype to work out the kinks, and there were probably several considering the final gun (nicknamed Big Babylon) was to be 500 feet long and 3 feet wide. It would have to be built into a freaking hill, just to stand up.
So Why Don't We Have One?
Before they could import the materials for Big Babylon, Hussein decided to invade Kuwait, and brought down the wrath of the international community.
It turns out part of Iraq's strategy in the Gulf War consisted of shooting at the Israelis. Israel wound up sending the Mossad (they're sort of like the CIA only they're actually good at what they do) after Iraq's weapon suppliers. Shortly thereafter, Bull was found dead in his apartment with 5 bullets in his head.
And thus, another of the world's dreamers died, taking his dreams with him. Just as John Lennon wanted world peace, Gerald Bull simply wanted a gun big enough to fire shit into space.
Even when space travel was still on the drawing board, mankind was full of visions of missions to Mars and space hotels. We saw with sinking disappointment that people could only go up in tiny little capsules with stale air, cramped quarters, and crappy food, and even then only after decades of training.
But there was a pair of crazy bastards named Ted Taylor and Freeman Dyson who headed a project to build a huge, sci-fi atomic spacecraft. And no, we don't mean that it worked on atomic power (though NASA tried to do that, too, with a project called NERVA). We're talking about something way, way more awesome than that.
Freeman Dyson totally doesn't look crazy or anything.
Their idea was a mammoth spaceship weighing up to 7 million tons that ran on nuclear bombs. Yes, nuclear bombs. As in, you take a huge spaceship, and stick a fucking nuke under it, then set it off. These guys would have taken one look at the giant gun guy and laughed in his face.
So the ship gets flung into the atmosphere by the nuclear explosion that just happened under it. Then what? It's going to start slowing down eventually, right? Well, you drop another nuke out of the concave (and heavily armored) bottom of the ship, and detonate it when it gets about 200 feet away. Rinse and repeat until you're in orbit. What could possibly go wrong?
Oddly enough, the lift-off would actually be smoother than any shuttle liftoff because the sheer mass of the enormous vehicle would almost completely eliminate turbulence. Initial tests were conducted with C4 and determined that the project was not only feasible, but actually exceeded expectations.
So Why Don't We Have One?
First, a bunch of party-pooping anti-nuclear types got a hold of it and started on with their "fallout" this and "environmental catastrophe" that. Then when the 1963 Treaty banning upper atmospheric nuclear detonation was signed it basically gave the project the kiss of death.
That's right, it took a Treaty to convince people that a nuclear-bomb-shitting space city was a bad idea.
After Nixon started the 1970s fad of slashing NASA's budget whenever they asked for money, it became something of a government tradition. To try to deal with having craptastic funding, NASA veteran Buzz Aldrin came up with a clever idea to save money going to Mars: Don't use any fuel.
Instead of actually powering the ship, he suggested you use Earth's gravity like a slingshot, shooting it into mars' gravitation field, which then would sling it back at earth. It would theoretically continue with this gravitational slingshottery until the end of time, using almost no fuel, and allowing them to load it up with equipment and personnel in a detachable cargo ship to drop every time it got close to Mars.
Above: Cracked's childlike grasp on this complex concept.
Also, you would get two going in opposite directions, because the way the gravity system works out, the trip there is nice and speedy, but the trip back takes a while. This way one of the ships would spend the short trip going Mars to earth, and the other would be earth to mars. No problem!
So Why Don't We Have One?
The long end of the trip takes about 21 months. At about this point the guys at NASA stopped listening, because who the hell wants to wait two years to be able to send another shuttle?
This also means the departure times are non-negotiable. Still working out the kinks on your little Mars rover? Too bad, the bus is leaving! Better luck next time, assholes!