Re-Imagining Space Stations, Pt. 1

Sorry to be offline a few days, again allow me to recommend not getting hit by lightning. Even with things going well, it doesn’t mean smooth sailing.

The other day, I shared some thoughts and memories about space. Part of that was a far too brief coverage of space stations. To be honest, I think we need to consider re-naming such as the “space stations” of the future are not that likely to look anything like what we are used to from Mir, Skylab, ISS, et al. In fact, I think we are going to see a range of highly diversified facilities rather than the all-in-one packages that we’ve had so far and that have been a staple of speculative fiction.

There are many reasons for this, and we are going to start today by exploring the problems with humans. Yes, we are problematic as a species on many levels and in space human physiology and the efforts to maintain it are extremely problematic for most non-human research.

Why, you ask? Let’s explore.

Right now, gravity is pulling a lot of the fluids in your body down. That why you can have swollen ankles and other edema, sometimes it shows in your abdomen, and it’s responsible for an extra pound or two on your weight. On Earth, the amount of fluid in our bodies is perfectly normal.

When you go to orbit and are in microgravity, gravity is no longer pulling that fluid down, so it shifts. If you go back and look at photos of various Shuttle crews, you will notice that for the first few days, their faces can look puffy to bloated. Then, over time, they return to something close to normal. What happens is that baroreceptors in the aortic arch and carotid sinus detect the “excess” fluid and kicks the kidneys and other systems up to get rid of it. Which is great as long as you are in microgravity.

The problem is, once you start to return to Earth, gravity becomes a thing again and begins to pull fluid down away from your brain. It’s even possible to pass out because not enough blood is getting to your brain. Something contra-indicated for pilots, mission commanders, and such.

Now, add to that the fact that being in microgravity also causes your muscles to atrophy. Most of our musculature developed both to deal with gravity, and to deal with doing labor in full gravity. In microgravity, you don’t have to fight gravity simply to take a step, so the body begins to get rid of “unnecessary” muscle mass. The longer you are in orbit, the worse it can get.

Combating these issues has been interesting. To be polite.

Both the Soviets and NASA experimented with negative pressure on the lower torso (see LBNP/Lower Body Negative Pressure experiments on Spacelab, and Soviet pneumatic trousers) along with fluid intake to try to get fluids back to “normal” before returning to Earth. If you are a geek like me, also look at the specialized systems tested and developed to deliver IVs on orbit, since gravity isn’t going to do the job. Other ideas have been considered, but it is still an issue.

Exercise is needed to combat muscle atrophy, and may also help a bit with the fluid situation (the data I remember was sort of iffy, and don’t recall LBNP to worked well for anyone). Exercycles and/or treadmills have both been used in orbit, and they do help with the muscle atrophy. If you want to have healthy people in orbit, no matter how long they are up there, they need to exercise.

Humans (and other animals) also need to go to the bathroom. Skylab reportedly had a good system. The Shuttle had a system that required its own dedicated training facilities as if you don’t get it right every time there was a mess to clean up. Heard of someone bragging about the high-tech toilet to one of the German researchers who helped design Skylab. The older engineer let the guy brag, then simply said “Ours worked.” Also was told flat out that the fecal matter floating about during an early Spacelab did not come from the primate facility as claimed.

Also, let’s face it, if it hasn’t already happened, humans will have sex in space. Because microgravity can prohibit a certain amount of, er, normal operations (every action creates equal and opposite reaction, tight confines, be it a sleeping pouch or space, are needed. For what happens if a participant is fertile, look to the Frog Embryology Experiment that flew on Spacelab J.

Point is, all of these things, along with just normal activities, create vibrations that mimic gravity. Some of the spikes are considerable. If the data is available online, look at the huge spikes recorded by the accelerometers in Spacelab when crew members were using the bike in the orbiter. I still remember sitting in Spacelab Mission Operations Control and, along with everyone else from the science teams on up, going WTF? at the data. It did impact the research, though I think NASA hates to admit that to this day.

So, while there are a variety of biological and physiological research that would not be impacted by such, a great majority of materials and other research would. So, future facilities in space are likely to be centered around a human-rated facility from which astronauts can go to unmanned facilities dedicated to different types/fields of research if and as needed. I personally think a lot of things can be handled by both onboard automation and robotic “ferries” rather than by humans, but smart money says always plan for a human to be able to get in to make repairs if needed.

Next, let’s look at some of the specialized facilities that are going to be needed to take orbital operations to the next level.


If you would like to help me in my recovery efforts, feel free to hit the tip jar in the upper right or the fundraiser at A New Life on GiveSendGo. Getting hit by lightning is not fun, and it is thanks to your help and prayers that I am still going. Thank you.

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