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Say you are in a happy future where mother ships travel between Earth and the Moon, or Mars, or Venus on regular runs, and are met by shuttles at each end of their voyages that transfer people, cargo, and fuel to the ships, after which they continue on their way, looping back and forth. (As I understand it, if you can invest in the necessary infrastructure, this is the best way to do it. If not, another question is necessary.)

Would repeated aerobraking maneuvers when entering orbit add up to significant stress on the ship over time? If fuel was no longer a major concern (for instance because it is now produced off-world and is cheap and plentiful), would it be better to avoid such aerobraking in order to extend the life of the ship?

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  • $\begingroup$ If your mothership is an Aldrin cycler, you'll be avoiding aerobraking, or orbiting Earth or Mars for that matter. $\endgroup$ – Jerard Puckett Dec 5 '14 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ But i think i've read that Aldrin cyclers come with the trade-off of passing by the planets at high speed, rather difficult to reach. And they aren't very flexible. $\endgroup$ – kim holder Dec 5 '14 at 16:18
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The simple answer here is given by the Space Shuttle flights - extensive data on stresses from re-entry / aerobraking show that this is going to cause significant stresses.

See This Paper and This Paper for 2 brief examples of identified stresses.

Assessment, repair and rebuild, along with replacement of tiles etc contributed to the high cost of the shuttle programme.

But the shuttle was undergoing full reentry. Aerobraking may be possible at significantly lower stresses, reducing the maintenance requirement significantly. Additionally, if the craft is never intended to land, it can be built to different design specs, so could better accept stresses.

However - your final paragraph is probably appropriate here. There are options other than aerobraking for the actual transport ship, including using fuel or more outlandish solutions (currently scifi) such as tethers, non-stop fly-bys etc.

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  • $\begingroup$ The shuttle stresses were due to re-entry though, which must be a far more severe stress than aerobraking just to enter orbit. I am thinking about a ship that never lands. $\endgroup$ – kim holder Dec 5 '14 at 16:20
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    $\begingroup$ Yep - my 4th paragraph says that. $\endgroup$ – Rory Alsop Dec 5 '14 at 16:27
  • $\begingroup$ How did i miss that? At any rate, i wonder if there is a way to quantify the forces of aerobraking for entering orbit, specifically. I thought that would allow comparing the trade-off such that real estimates could be made. $\endgroup$ – kim holder Dec 5 '14 at 16:39

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