Space Habitats: A Distant Dream or Reality?
Space exploration has brought mankind a multitude of benefits. This article is intended to make readers aware the applications and necessities of space habitats for the future of space exploration. However, complications arise regarding the science and engineering of space habitats as well as the financial issues that follow.
The world may be in very grave danger as of right now. Non-renewable resources are depleting, overpopulation is at an all-time high, and poverty is on the rise . Earth is inhabited by many species, and humans are one of them. Not only do we depend on the Earth for its resources to make computers, paper, houses, and everything else that we enjoy on a daily basis, we depend on it to live. Formed under the rare Earth hypothesis about 4.54 billion years ago, Earth is a one of a kind planet in our solar system . However as human beings, we are also responsible for the destruction of this unique masterpiece due to recent human activities such as deforestation, fossil fuel burning, and the buildup of radioactive waste in the last fifty years . Recent studies by scientists also indicate an exponential growth in amount of total human population in the world since 1800. Since then, the size of the human population has exponentially increased from 1.12 billion to 6.87 billion in the last 200 years ! If we continue to tread further in this direction then the very planet we know it may collapse. Steven Hawking, a world-renowned astrophysicist and advocate of space exploration predicts that “humanity will not likely survive another 1000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet” and suggests mankind look into space for a solution .
As you may know, the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) has been the star player in space exploration since its creation in 1958. Since then, the scope of its achievements have spanned from the International Space Station (ISS), to landing on the moon, and sending a robot to Mars -. However, former NASA administrator Michael Griffin states “the goal isn't just scientific exploration ... it's also about extending the range of human habitat out from Earth into the solar system as we go forward in time ... In the long run a single-planet species will not survive ... If we humans want to survive for hundreds of thousands or millions of years, we must ultimately populate other planets.” . In 1946, the earliest concept of a space habitat for future space colonization was first introduced by Dr. Werner Von Braun in the form of terrestrial expandable habitats and a rotating wheel space station . Dr. Werner Von Braun was a German scientist in America who first suggested the use of space stations to serve as an assembly platform for manned lunar expeditions. His space habit design consisted of the fundamental torus module spinning about the center-point of its axis which would become a precedent for all future space station designs to produce artificial gravity. Subsequently, concept designs for deep-space habitats (DSH) like the Stanford Torus and the ISS were derived from Von Braun’s Space Station as shown in Figure 1 and Figure 2. The Stanford Torus was the first space habit that was designed by NASA in conjunction with Stanford University researchers to build a space infrastructure that was capable of accommodating a community of ten thousand people to live in space . The design of the Stanford Torus was on a much larger scale than Von Braun’s space station which only considered housing a number of people in its 50 meter in diameter space station . Nevertheless, the plan to implement the Stanford Torus was abandoned due to the cost and the sheer manpower that it would take to construct it.
Figure 1. Illustration of the proposed design of the Stanford Torus in 1969 at Stanford University. Derived from the design of the Von Braun Space Station, the deep-space habitat is capable of housing ten thousand people.
Figure 2. The International Space Station as of May 23rd, 2010 taken from Space shuttle Atlantis after undocking.
Since then however, the International Space station -- a smaller version of the Stanford Torus similar to the Von Braun Space Station was built. The ISS has proven to be the most successful up to date space habitat since its installation in the lower Earth orbit in 1998. It was made possible from the collaborative efforts between 16 nations. More than 69 countries have been involved in the ground breaking research for the orbiting laboratory that advances our fundamental scientific knowledge, supports the exploration of space beyond low Earth orbit and provides a multitude of benefits to humans on Earth . Because of these advances in space exploration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) states that “We are able to have water purification technology for third world countries, help farmers monitor crop growth for diseases and fertility differences, and help doctors perform neurosurgery on patients using neuroArm, a highly specialized robotics technology borrowed from the ISS” . Besides giving society state of the art technologies, the space station is a home to people in orbit. The space station's labs are where crew members do research, as there are some types of research that can only be done in space . Although the ISS is continuously managed by the efforts of various nations, namely Russia and the U.S., it is only expected to run until 2028 . Not having a space habitat in space may limit our capabilities of space exploration in the future. It is clear to see how a space habitat like the ISS has helped advance our society. The applications for a space habitat are imperative, vast, and limitless. Now the question stands: Should we build another space habitat like the ISS but on a grander scale capable of supporting human life as proposed in the Stanford Torus?