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Space invaders

technical & practice

On the 40th anniversary of the Kennedy Space Center, has the Columbia disaster finally quashed the idea of colonising space?

When I was a student I did my 'structures' thesis on space architecture, specifically because I wouldn't have to do too much work - after all, slenderness ratios and structural self-loading are fairly immaterial in a weightless environment. But, as it happens, building in space conditions, apart from the awkwardness of manoeuvrability, is the easy bit. It's getting the material's payload into space that is the problem: to reduce weight and ensure the fuel and economic efficiency of the project, structures actually have to be hyper-efficient.

In the late 1970s, far from being a waste of time or a drug-crazed flight of fancy, space colony design was a credible subject of enquiry. Not space stations - the cramped docking modules of Salyut and Skylab - but massive inhabited artificial torroidal worlds of Space Odyssey and beyond.

At the time, the idea of a space colony was clarified by the technical director for the NASA design programme, Princeton University professor Gerard K O'Neill. His book, The High Frontier: Human Colonies In Space (1977, Bantam) presented three designs, which he characterised as evolutionary stages:

Island One was a 500m Bernal sphere (a spherical colony first described in the 1920s by JD Bernal) rotating at 2rpm, with a habitable area of 125ha, supporting 10,000 people in three villages spaced equidistantly around its 1.6km equator.

Island Two was a 1.8km Bernal sphere or, alternatively, a domed cylinder 1.8km in diameter and 9km long for a population of 140,000 (sphere) to 820,000 (cylinder).

lsland Three was the classic 'sunflower' design (now commonly known as the 'O'Neill Cylinder') that would accommodate tens of millions of people in a picturesque nearterrestrial environment.

No goals

At that time the world still basked in the glow of successful space exploration. The launch of Voyager 1 to Jupiter had just been an awe-inspiring event; Roger Dean's Yes posters were on every student's bedroom wall; and Arcosanti's space-colony-on-earth was even drawing some of my fellow students to the depths of Arizona.

Now, some of the adventure has gone out of space exploration. The US's current self-doubt and goalaversion confirms a lack of purposeful direction. Eric Berger, science writer for the Houston Chronicle, makes the astute observation that 'in NASA's heady early days the agency first set a big goal - go to the moon - then developed the means to accomplish it'. Nowadays, he continues, NASA is 'taking a stepby-step approach toward devising the technology necessary to make the next big leap, such as building a lunar colony or sending humans to Mars'.

In other words, even though exciting developments are taking place in the field of space exploration, NASA's expectations have been altered as it looks for certainties - in propulsion, materials refinement and technological absolutes - before venturing out into space.

But as astronomer Henry Joy McCracken has noted, 'travelling into space is a risky and extremely dangerous venture; that is why it is a frontier.

It is also an activity where the rewards are very high. But like many frontiers, no specific, tangible and immediate economic benefits can be offered as an incentive to extend political vision beyond the surface of Earth'.

As far as NASA is concerned, only after working out the means will it objectify the ends. This cautious approach to inventiveness mirrors many of the current terrestrial debates about science - and even construction - and turns research and development on its head. Rather than having a goal, a mission, or an aim, space exploration is seen as an R&D problem. The failure of political will has been replaced by a reliance on technical solutions.

Astro, cosmo and taiko

Meanwhile, China has stolen a march in the space race.While not having the same cohesive impetus as the Cold War, the sense of diplomatic mistrust between the US and China (Chinese delegates were refused a US visa for the World Scientific Congress in Houston last year) has certainly incentivised the Chinese to forge ahead - using refined US and Russian technology.

From its initial plans to launch a manned space flight to land on the moon (35 years after the US Apollo 8 mission), China also plans to construct a space station and colony on Mars. Expressing a rare dynamic vision of space exploration, Zhang Houying, a scientific director of China's Space Programme, explained his motivation, saying: 'We'd like to lead in contributing to mankind.'

Back in the West, whereas until a decade ago space exploration used to be seen as an up-beat topic, in the light of the Columbia disaster newspapers like the Independent now believe it 'mark[s] a further stage in coming to terms with the limits of human endeavour'.

McCracken has noted: 'It is (46) years now since the first man-made object orbited the Earth. A commentator writing in the distant days of 1957 would have found it unbelievable if he had been told that by the end of the millennium the solar system would be largely unexplored (with the exception of the odd robot probe like Pathfinder), and human exploration of space would be limited to repair missions in low-earth orbit, and (extremely boring) tests of endurance on a decade-old space station.'

Given the staggering advances made in those years in other areas such as computing, this state of affairs does indeed seem strange.

TO BOLDLY GO: THE SPACE CADETS

At the end of last year, NASA appointed its first space architect, Gary Martin. His role is to oversee the planning and integration of NASA's technology programmes and monitor their effectiveness to ensure systems are on time, on budget and will be ready when needed 'to support next-generation science objectives'. The management of space structures technology has to concern itself with the entire construction process - even the minutiae of delivery - and it is interesting that the role has been labelled 'architecture'.

Martin spent several years at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center to serve as the integration manager for the Space Science programme, focussed on the 'Structure and Evolution of the Universe'. While he is not an architect, his career at NASA has concentrated on the 'integration of space-related technologies', - a useful clarification of a terrestrial architect's function. He is also engaged in the collation of science and research goals, commercial space development opportunities and educational strategy.

At the nearby University of Houston, the Sasakawa Center for Space Architecture is a research, design and teaching unit within the University's Gerald D Hines College of Architecture. Here, students can learn the complexity of designing closed optimal habitats, dealing with reduced or zero-gravity, radiation protection and dangerous external conditions.

The department says: 'Many lessons can be applied to address important planning and design challenges on Earth. Common priorities include energy conservation, materials science, construction systems, and means to optimise human adaptation and performance.'

No plug-ins

One of the key aspects of space habitation is the imperative of energy self-sufficiency. While the parallels with earth-bound conditions are overplayed, major space research projects are examining developments in recycling (whereby 'water reclaimed from solid waste is processed and purified for drinking purposes'), solar-cell technology, as well as less conventional energy sources. Energy is required, firstly, to propel the vehicle into position and, secondly, to maintain its functions in situ. So for stable orbit, the energy is traditionally provided by solar-powered arrays - in the International Space Station, eight 33m-long solar cells will be required.

Initially proposed to be situated at Lagrange points (the location between planets at which the relative gravitational forces cancel out each other to prevent the satellites moving), stabilising power requirements should be kept to a minimum and thus, propulsion systems are the main stuff of research. Current experiments with air-breathing scramjets are making good progress, but new ideas include Xenon-ion propulsion; solar focussed rays to vaporise liquid hydrogen; or even plutonium. The Chinese are talking about mining the moon for isotope helium-3, for use as a clean nuclear-reactor fuel.

Ensuring minimal energy expenditure has led to even more weird propulsion proposals, including space tethering. In this system, two satellites are connected by about 20km of conductive wire. The spinning of the cable rotates one of the satellites around the other (generating additional propulsive energy as it cuts through the earth's magnetic forces). On release, the satellite will fly off into a different orbit, or deeper into space, taking little momentum and power from the original satellite.

Lines of throwing and catching satellites are among the scenarios envisaged. Other ideas include firing laser beams at satellite light sails to knock them into different positions.

These ideas, while technically exciting and imaginative, are generally being devised to minimise the vast costs of maintenance missions to replace and reposition unmanned satellites. Manned missions to deep space, and certainly inhabited space colonies, have been put on the back burner in the rush to find cheap means of propulsion and maintenance schemes. Perhaps it is about time even NASA started to think big again.

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