Re-Imagining Space Stations, Pt. 3

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.

Previous Articles In This Series:

Space Memories And The Future

Re-Imagining Space Stations, Pt. 1

Re-Imagining Space Stations, Pt. 2

*****

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.

Re-Imagining Space Stations, Pt. 2

Yesterday, I said that today we would look at some of the specialized facilities needed for orbital operations. Well, I was wrong. Before we get into that, I think we need to do a bit more background for the thought experiment.

Right now, pretty much everything we put up is cylindrical, for aerodynamic reasons. While aerodynamics don’t matter in orbit, they do on the way up because all the different stations have had to have their components made on Earth and carried up on rockets. Hence, cylindrical shapes. Even non-cylindrical items have to be carried up in cylindrical containers.

Now, in orbit, particularly the lower orbits, you do get drag. It’s why the ISS has a power module to raise it back up to altitude every so often. It’s why things dropped in orbit, be it a camera (butterfingers!) or something else, do eventually de-orbit and (hopefully) burn up on the way down. Problem is, the smaller/lighter the object, the longer it stays in orbit. Once you get up to GEO, that ceases to be a major issue, which is why all the big plans for space stations/colonies have focused on being built there.

Let’s revisit that debris for a moment. In the original post that sparked this thought experiment, I mentioned that someone could make a fortune devising a way to collect that stuff. It’s not just that a good bit of it could be recycled in orbit for other projects, it’s because it is a menace to ongoing low-Earth operations. That chip of paint is moving at a speed where it will do a fairly good imitation of a bullet if it hits something. That bolt floating around? It could do some serious damage to anything it hits. Many of the micropunctures experience by ISS and other structures don’t come from meteorites but from other space debris.

Keep that in mind because until someone does get the financial incentive to clean things up, the problem of debris is only going to grow. Especially if the Russians keep testing anti-satellite systems by taking out dead satellites in low-Earth orbit. That’s another reason the ISS has a power module: sometimes you need to change orbit to avoid that debris so the crew is not having to make emergency repairs. Or worse.

There have been a number of suggestions over the years to protect orbital facilities, from electrostatic means to actually building modules like submarines with inner and outer hulls. One of the more, er, interesting proposals was to put a big slab of something out a distance from a module/structure in the most likely direction for debris. The problem with that concept were/are: the cost to launch the big slab of something; and, it can only protect in one direction and you have debris coming front, rear, side, top, etc. There are some other minor issues of orbital mechanics and such, but those can wait.

So, let’s start making this a real thought experiment by considering the following information.

Initially, what gets built will have to come up from Earth. However, we are not necessarily constrained to cylindrical. What goes up will have to go up in a cylindrical container, but we could send up carbon-fiber or other advanced material trusses, frameworks, etc. that can take on pretty much any shape. Cubical, open framework, or even say a frisbee-like shape that could have significant safety advantages for in-plane orbital debris strikes. The only limits are our imagination and the constraints imposed by the height of orbit. Once you are at GEO, there’s pretty much no limit.

Now, add in two other factors. One, if one of the first things up is some sort of foundry operation, you can collect some of the larger chunks of debris and melt them down, reform, and start building. Admittedly, there are some legal challenges as various countries and others still claim ownership of dead satellites, major chunks of debris, etc. Though I will not that even though they don’t want anyone else touching their stuff, they also don’t claim liability for any damage caused in orbit or via re-entry by their stuff. For our purpose, let’s just treat it as a law-of-the-sea issue and plan on using/reusing the materials.

Second thing to consider is that lunar soil/dust is reported to make excellent concrete. If it is reductive concrete (or can be made so cheap and easy) all the better. Great for building a lunar base, and if someone developed a robotic system to grab such, get it to orbit, and send it to the appropriate orbit, who says your structures have to be metal? Add in spin-casting and you’ve opened up a new range of possibilities.

And, I’m going to throw in a third thought for the day. There are other resources available in/near Earth orbit. Start with meteorites and asteroids for metal, but keep in mind that depending on composition even non-metallic asteroids could potentially provide other advanced materials as well as base components.

Rant/ The STS/Shuttle system made use of an external tank that contained tons of oxygen and hydrogen, even after hitting orbit. There were several proposals made to use those tanks as the basis of a space station. NASA said it wasn’t possible, they weren’t interested, and they very much didn’t want anyone else (particularly a commercial operation!! Commercial was and is in many quarters a nasty word to NASA) to do anything with them so they actually expended energy to de-orbit the tanks during the launch process. Yes, the Shuttle actually went down, released the tanks, and then climbed back up to a higher orbit. Which is sad as there were proposals to instead raft the tanks together, inter-connect them, attach thrusters to keep them in a good stable orbit, and have those tons of oxygen and hydrogen available for future use. For now, we are going to need such until orbital and extra-orbital operations can secure those resources via other means. /Rant

So, we have options in regards materials, shapes, and more. We are not limited to low-Earth operations in anything except the short-term. So, are there any other pre-conceived notions we can and should stand on their head before we get started? Who knows, find out tomorrow on the next episode of “As The Satellite Tumbles”

Previous Articles In This Series:

Space Memories And The Future

Re-Imagining Space Stations, Pt. 1

*****

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.

Space Memories And The Future

Yesterday, John Ringo read this thread from Trent Telenko about the Ukraine and Spacelink and had a few words to say. Others, myself included, added more. If you haven’t read it, take a moment because it is a bit mind boggling to realize that in many respects, Elon Musk is the most powerful man in space from a military point of view.

I would expand on Trent’s ideas by pointing out that Elon also controls a variant of Project Thor, an idea discussed by the late Jerry Pournelle in his columns and in some small group discussions. Thor, as envisioned by Jerry, would be ‘flying crowbars’ in space. Simple iron rods fitted with a nosecone/seeker and guidance fins on the rear.

When needed, de-orbit so they come in over the needed area (Fulda Gap for instance), the seeker heads look for Russian tanks (which from the top do look very different from Allied tanks) and the crowbars maneuver to hit them at very high velocity. No more tanks. Iron because the things are going to vaporize and it is best if something that could potentially be ingested by our troops can also be handled/metabolized by the body.

I’m not recommending that Starlinks be used to take out individual tanks. I will note though that they could be used on launch facilities, command and control facilities, and even bunkers. In fact, it could be useful for Elon’s safety, and that of his family, to let the word go out that something like that is set up if anything happens. Might be bluff, might be real, not even Vladimir would want to find out for sure.

When you look at all he controls, and that some of that could potentially double as an ASAT or KEV, he truly is the most powerful person in space. And, he’s only going to get more powerful as his ventures expand.

One of the things I noted was that there have been calls for Elon to take over the Russian module and associated items as they pull out. I think building a replacement under contract to NASA would help hone his own operations while improving the ISS. I think going in as a partner would prove limiting.

I have no idea of what is on Elon’s drawing board for getting to Mars, but here are a few thoughts. Some of these may have originated at a dinner hosted by Jerry and Roberta Pournelle at a AAAS convention many years back. He invited myself, Fred Pohl, and two others who’s name I can’t remember (stupid lightning). While we touched on many topics, we also discussed Jerry’s plan for a private/private enterprise moon colony.

If SpaceX had been around back then, I think Jerry could have pulled it off. It doesn’t matter where you are going, you have to have the proper launch capability and you have to have a reasonable cost for the launch. Elon and SpaceX have both and are looking to bring the cost per pound to orbit down further.

Since doing almost anything to scale is going to require staging areas and such, a commercial space complex would seem a reasonable start. All-in-one stations like the ISS really aren’t optimal for quite a bit of research. Set up a manned operation with unmanned modules nearby, and you have a place where you can ramp up orbital operations, including assembly and even manufacturing, while earning at least some return from leasing out portions to researchers.

Second, there are a lot of dead satellites and debris up there. Come up with a way to collect the debris, and not only is your place in space safe, you should be able to make some money off it. Satellites have a lot of interesting materials in them, and some of it can be repurposed into new items/structures without the need to lift materials into space. A few legal issues would have to be explored, but between the dead satellites that are parked and abandoned, along with larger debris (boosters, panels, etc.) you could save a lot of expense in going elsewhere.

Now for the Boring Company. Any habitat on Mars is going to need to be underground. I suspect that is one reason for the Boring Company. Be a pity if some of that boring and sealing tech were leased to someone wanting a lunar base to use before the Mars missions. I will also note that lunar soil makes excellent concrete according to reports, which raises some interesting possibilities. Practice on the Moon, send robotic missions to Mars and there is a habitat ready and waiting for the first mission. Be a pity if there was an orbital component waiting as well.

It would also be a pity if the melting/smelting of the satellites/debris led to some ongoing resource extraction and manufacturing in orbit here or elsewhere. Not to mention the science fiction standbys of pharmaceutical R&D and manufacturing, and other profitable operations that could become viable.

Nor would it all be on Elon and his companies. Other companies will want to be a part of things, just as they did early on with NASA. A good chunk of change could have been saved on the Shuttle galley, as a company offered to design and build one at no charge to NASA, as long as their logo (small even) would be on it. Of course, NASA said no. I think we can be reasonably sure Elon’s not averse to partnerships, joint ventures, and other such smart things.

Years back, when I left working for NASA the second time, both John Ringo and David Weber said I could do a lot better. Things haven’t gone as planned, but who knows, someone might have need for a slightly singed writer and planner.

*****

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.

Congratulations SpaceX

We truly are a space-going nation again. Somewhere, Heinlein is smiling as it took unabashed capitalism to make it happen. NASA spent decades fighting space commercialization, particularly launch commercialization, so this doubly warms the cockles of my black heart. One day I need to do a longer piece on that fight, and on all the problems that Dragon will not have (like years to update computers, or the most powerful computer on the Shuttle Orbiter being the calculator carried by the pilot).

Bravo Zulu SpaceX team and Elon Musk!

One Fun and One Interesting Link

It’s hump day, so decided a little humor is needed.

I’m not saying some hypothetical discussions took place about 35 years ago along this same track. I am simply going to say, ‘It is satire, isn’t it?” Really would be a good way to mess up potential or actual enemies, now wouldn’t it.

Back in high school physics, we had some interesting discussions and debates about FTL. If you read both the theory and the special theory, FTL can’t be done in space normal, hence hyperspace or similar terms. There is no reason such isn’t possible outside space normal. A possible way to get out of space normal may be possible, and it is now getting some attention.

Enjoy your Wednesday, be safe. More soon.