Space Settlement

Jules Verne wrote ‘From the Earth to the Moon’, a science fiction in 1865. Hundred years later, the Apollo moon landings (1969) took place which was quite similar to Verne’s imaginary descriptions. Robert A. Heinlein’s story ‘The Menace from Earth’, for the first time endorsed the idea of space tourism in 1957. Almost 50 years later, a businessman from California became the first tourist (paying passenger) to go to outer space. And now, the movie ‘Avatar’ by James Cameron (2009) is the latest fictional account showing imagined details of a space colony. After this movie, everyone is intrigued about the technicalities of space settlement, i.e. is life outside earth possible. After fifty or hundred years, would people actually live in such space colonies???

All of us, at some point in our lives have imagined what it would be like to live in space, with zero gravity, and non-terrestrial atmosphere. I was first exposed to this concept in 2007 when Ms Sunita Williams, an Indian astronaut had come to India and held an interactive session with more than 2000 school children to share her experience in space. Before she arrived, Mr. Abhishek Agarwal, Director, Atlantis, who had once been a participant in the International Space Settlement Design Competition, familiarized us with the concept of Space settlement and design. He explicitly explained to us the possible future of mankind – living in space with proper infrastructure and roads, having a communication network, oxygen generation system, fuel production plants, green house and even a possible political government system in space. From what he told us, I believe fifty years from now, living on a planet like ‘Pandora’ (Avatar) might just not be a fiction!!!

But will this kind of space settlement happen in our lifetime?? Will we get to witness it? There are a lot of career opportunities in aerospace engineering today but when will these efforts and the pursuit of such ideas bear fruit?

Today, due to the large expenditure, research on space settlement has slowed down. Due to lack of profit potential by investment in such a far-fetched project, the governments of the world are not giving any financial aid. Even NASA has stopped sponsoring the International Space Settlement Design Competition now, though it continues to support it.

Space architecture basically involves the theory and application of designing and constructing environments suitable for human survival and settlement in space. The architectural approach towards extra-terrestrial settlement is not just limited to simple layout plans. A space architect has to deal with a completely different set of problems due to zero gravity, and has to include considerations of physiology, sociology and psychology apart from the technical aspects. Till now, space architects have mainly conceptualized and worked on Lunar and Martian exploration ships, bases for world’s space agencies and specifically for NASA, and orbital space stations. Larry Bell, who is among such architects and has played a significant role in the design and construction of the International Space Station (ISS), says that space architects have different set of concerns. He says, “Space affects the way you design everything. The notion of up and down is arbitrary. Apart from the structure, we also have to think about the people who will dwell in it.”

One way of initiating innovation in this field is by building analogs between the harshest conditions that man has faced on earth’s environment and space. In fact, the ISS life support system is very similar to submarine life support system. In space, special care needs to be taken of the physical and mental well-being of the astronauts due to zero gravity and isolation. Air, water, food and waste disposal in space is very different than that on earth. The video that Ms Sunita Williams showed us during the interactive session demonstrated her experience in zero gravity conditions. The water takes the form of bubbles due to capillary action; the food is dehydrated, the hair stands stiff, and they sleep is vertical chambers so that they are not suffocated with carbon dioxide. All waste materials, including hair strands and nail bits have to be vacuumed immediately otherwise they can hit people while floating in air. And due to micro-gravity, regular work-out is very necessary to keep the heart and muscles active.

Due to the payload fairing dimensions of launch vehicles, it is problematic to carry anything to space as it limits the size of components to be carried. This has affected the physical shapes in space architecture. All space habitats have used the modular design of architecture till now. But the problem with this design is the lack of working and living area. Certain challenges exclusive to space environment like rapid thermal expansion (due to exposure to sun) and corrosion (due to particle and atomic oxygen bombardment) further deter space settlement development. Solutions include flexible furniture and use of carbon-fiber materials. The major problem is assembling different components and then holding them intact as their weight is dependent on the strength of varying gravitational forces.

“Every single aspect of space is conspiring at every moment to pretty much kill humans.” – Cosmicus

Human’s future today is dependent on the ‘colonization of space.’ But no nation can claim its sovereignty over space. The greed of humans has already destroyed planet earth, and hence scientists are searching for alternative settlements now. After the movie ‘2012’, it is much hyped that earth will soon cease to exist due to human faults.

Stephen Hawking aptly said “I don’t think the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I’m an optimist. We will reach out to the stars.

In such a scenario, developments like Space settlement will definitely be a savior of earth and of mankind.

Mahima Taneja

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