A long time ago I entered the Space habitat design contest. Here’s my design. Well at least the only print I have of it.
Unfortunately the background stuff I used had disappeared in one move or another along with being on media for computers long gone in formats ridiculously obsolete, so it’s hard to remember just how I did the various engineering calculations that I so carefully did. Anyway it was an exercise then with very fuzzy numbers. Back in the late 1980’s most of the work that existed was studies. At that time the only real space living experience was Skylab’s three missions, which, as far as supporting long terms living in space only had real data for 171 days and was based on open loop life support.
The fact is that even with the years of ISS experience we are still at the beginnings of space engineering experience. At this point for instance even though spinning spacecraft for artificial gravity has been around since well before real spacecraft even existed, nobody’s built a real spacecraft or station with spin.
The problem is that these large structures will have to be fabricated in space and we are still at the baby step period of space fabrication. Modules have been attached to other modules for a long time now and the technology has evolved to expanding modules like the recent BEAM module attached to the ISS.
Surprisingly very little has been done to advance space fabrication beyond the tinker toy, put docking port A into docking receptor B stage. Except for a Russian mission in the 1960’s(Soyuz 6, love the mission patch) and some packages flown aboard shuttle missions in the 1980’s there has been every little experimental work with welding flown. Which is interesting because if space fabrication is to move to the next level, being able to weld is going to be essential.
There’s been a fair amount of ground based work done, but the actual experience is limited. This is something that needs to be addressed if space development is going to go forward. The limit for size on launchable modules is too small for intense space development and activities like permanent moon of Mars colonies are going to require the ability to tie small structures permanently into larger structures. Then there is the need to be able to fix things that break. Heretofore a broken part has meant that either the mission died or a replacement had to be brought up at great expense.
Fabrication techniques in space are probably the next engineering frontier that needs to pushed forward. At this point we have reached the end of what we can do just by building tinker toy spacecraft. Larger stations, platforms and vehicles are going to require new fabrication techniques and workspace design. Here’s some links I found.
In order to close the life support loop there will need to be some sort of plant growing to absorb CO2 and convert sewage to plants. Fortunately people have been doing this for a long time and recently there’s been a push to use hydroponics to create farms in buildings in cities and lit by artificial means to grow vegetables.
Life support and the necessary plumbing involved are also critical engineering unknowns that will need to be worked on. Not only fabricating pipe, but developing pumps, filters and connections that work in low gravity and more than likely vacuum. Much of this can be done on the ground but at some point there will need to be flown hardware. Here’s some links about vertical farming and life support.
A lot needs to be done to push manned space engineering to the next level. The numbers that were fuzzy back in 1989 when I designed my space habitat are still fairly fuzzy. The challenges are huge, but right now, I don’t think that they are overwhelming. The big thing that’s needed is the will to do the missions that move forward. If people want to take the Mars challenge on and even bigger challenges in the long term future, the fuzzy numbers are going to have to be made hard designs. The risk is huge, but so are the rewards.
Most of the engineering of the space infrastructure will lead to no one mission or flight, instead building the infrastructure will allow ALL the possible things that can be done in space. That alone makes the baby steps worthwhile. Also, whenever you develop techniques for the space environment, they tend to be very useful here on earth.
One thing that I do know is that when the frontiers open the journey forward will be endless. Step by step the stars will be made ours. That is if this is the way we want to go. The last few decades have been a flip flop between the futures of decline and future of growth. With the future of decline being the favored future. I like to believe that that will change. With that in mind, here are some earlier posts on generation ships, and some pictures of the great things that people proposed in the long ago past.