Friday, April 29, 2011

The Habitat Gap

The big news going around the space community recently is that China recently announced plans to construct and orbit a 60-ton, multiple-module space station by 2020 (pictured above.) You can find more details of it HERE on's website. See also the original source HERE from the China Daily website.

I can do nothing but applaud this development. I know according to some people, China is supposed to be the US's big bad rival in the next decade, but any nation or organization that helps to expand on humanity's presence in the daunting frontier of space should be welcomed and encouraged.

The station itself, called 'Tiangong' (translated as 'heavenly palace') for now, will be composed of a main habitat module and two laboratory modules. It will be attended by a dedicated cargo ship and be designed to dock with Chinese space capsules. Though more modest than the ISS, it is definitely a step in the right direction for China's fledgling manned space program.

For the longest time, people pushing for human space exploration beyond Low Earth Orbit have focused almost exclusively on propulsion technologies. I think in some ways that has proven a mistake.

As I've stated a number of times on this blog, the development of long-enduring space habitats is as vital as advanced propulsion if we ever want to create a real human presence off Earth. And the way to do that is to actually live and work for long periods in space to determine which systems and techniques work best. That's what the project that eventually became the ISS was originally all about, but somehow people always end up whining (such as in the article's comment section) that the ISS "isn't going anywhere" or "isn't giving a valuable scientific return." It was never supposed to. It was originally supposed to be a testbed for humans living and working in space.

Some people seem to have the idea that all we have to do is strap a huge rocket onto an Apollo capsule and just like that we can zoom off to Mars. But even if NASA's advanced propulsion projects achieve all their goals flawlessly, future astronauts are still going to have to consign themselves to voyages of months or years once past the Earth-Moon system. Cramped, skimpy metal cans like current space capsules simply will not be able to keep human explorers safe and productive for such immense journeys, especially in an environment as hostile as space.

For those impatient to travel into the greater Solar System, one has to come to terms with the fact that improved propulsion technology like VASIMR alone is not enough. You also need space habitats that can keep a human crew healthy and in working shape for the entire voyage, and that's far, far more complex and tricky than most people surmise. In order to develop such habitats, we need the experience that space stations can provide us. Perhaps if more people had understood this and had not tried so hard to roadblock the ISS program in its various incarnations over the years, we might have already had human explorers on the way to other planets.

I have the feeling that future interplanetary spacecraft will end up looking much more like MIR or the ISS than the souped-up space capsules than many dreamers seem to envision. Or perhaps even like China's newly proposed Tiangong station, at a minimum. When you're out in the deeps of interplanetary space, on the longest journey by several orders of magnitude that any human has ever undertaken, what kind of ship would you rather have? A large one with the redundancy of systems and space to handle emergencies, or a cramped one that will tank if any one of several dozen life support systems fail?

NASA's proposed Nautilus-X, basically a mobile ISS, is definitely where things should be leading to by the 2020s. It would be relatively slow compared to some visions of interplanetary flight, but it definitely would be the best bet for getting a human crew alive and healthy to its destination. And the only way we can ever build such a craft successfully is through the data and experience we can collect through operating space stations. The public has to get past the notion that space stations are just hunks of metal orbiting in the sky, and understand that they are in truth our gateways to the heavens.

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