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.