A few more background thoughts for our thought experiment. To build the future, we must know the past and understand why some of it was done the way it was done.
NASA has hated the idea of building anything in orbit. One of the things I heard mentioned about any of the ideas on using the Shuttle external fuel tanks was that it was too dangerous. To say that NASA was risk averse is an understatement of several orders of magnitude. If something didn’t work/didn’t work right, you most likely never saw it again. I think the only reason the Tethered Satellite System got a second flight was because the first flight didn’t work because of an idiotic (and unnecessary) change by NASA safety to the mechanism, and the blow back to not giving it a flight would have been huge. As it is, losing the satellite on the second mission guaranteed that NASA won’t touch tethers/tethered satellite again for a century or three. That will be up to industry (and I suspect NASA may try to block such).
Doing things like space walks are inherently dangerous. You are in a vacuum, with radiation, changing lighting (plus a freeze/thaw cycle) as you get a sunrise/sunset about every 90 minutes as you orbit, and require stability to get anything done. The first time I did work for NASA, I worked for a company that helped develop the “SX” wrench, which was actually a ratchet that could be used in microgravity. Add to it the fact that the spacesuits NASA uses for “extra-vehicular activities” aka EVAs, aka space walks, have issues. If you’ve been following recent news from the ISS, the last two or three EVAs had problems with water building up in the helmets to the point it was a real issue for the astronauts in question. They are actually not doing any EVAs right now while they try to figure things out.
There’s also the little matter of not wanting anyone to go Dutchman. Without tethers or some form of thruster pack, it would not be hard for someone to take a one way impromptu tour of low-Earth orbit. Dutchman is bad, okay? We don’t want anyone to go Dutchman.
So, no surprise that for the most part NASA has gone for the big module system, with as much automation as possible. Never mind the big contracts for the defense companies that build them, or the companies that spend thousands if not millions designing suits, etc. Leaving that aside, NASA has avoided doing anything that would require large amounts of EVA. EVAs are risk, and NASA wants no risk, zero defects, etc. They’ve worked hard to keep the need for EVAs on ISS to a minimum.
But, developing new structures, systems, and related infrastructure in orbit is going to require EVAs. Lots of them, and probably long ones. That means as the thought experiment progresses, we need to be thinking about new and improved spacesuits, new or novel means of safety to augment or potentially replace current tether systems, and even means of rescuing that person who goes Dutchman because you know someone will. Sooner rather than later most likely. Space is even more unforgiving that the ocean, so keep that in mind as the thought experiment unfolds.
Now, a few thoughts on what types of structures or facilities are going to be needed. We are going to need human habitation, and as we start to build orbital facilities or put together missions to the Moon and Mars, we might find ourselves actually needing something like bunkhouses. Specialized research facilities? You bet, all types including platforms for astronomy, space exposure, and remote sensing. Slips for assembling those missions elsewhere, from LEO to the Moon or Mars? Yep.
The only limits to this thought experiment are your imagination and that at first everything will have to come up from Earth. So, keep in mind current launch capabilities and near-term capabilities. All the more reason for creating industry in orbit ASAP.
So, let’s look at getting this underway. If you want, reply in the comments. If you come up with something larger than a comment, we can look at guest posts. If you want to take just one part of something, go for it. The idea is to get lots of ideas and innovations so that we can refine, expand, tweak, and otherwise help plot the next generation of orbital facilities.
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