Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Speaking of Space Settlements

In my last post, I referenced the NSS space settlement art contest and calendar, and this reminded me of something I've been meaning to write about for some time - the Lifeboat Foundation "Ark I" space settlement concept. The Lifeboat Foundation is a private foundation that is studying ways to protect humanity from various "existential risks" - things that might wipe us out, ranging from runaway biotechnology or nanotechnology to various terrorist actions (biological, nuclear, etc.) to asteroid strikes and more. They have many interesting people studying a lot of cool defensive ideas, but if the worst happens, they are also looking into space settlements, self-sustaining space colonies that could allow at least some human beings to survive to preserve our legacy and perhaps rebuild our civilization.

Of course this sounds like science fiction, and it is nowhere near practical implementation, but you have to start with ideas and designs. Ark I is essentially a large space station or space colony in low Earth orbit, built to house about 1000 people. A structure this large would clearly require advanced and lower-cost space transportation than we have now, and this too is part of their planning. If humans are to live for a really long time in space, solutions to problems such as artificial gravity, radiation shielding, food production, and extreme recycling of everything (the "self sustaining" bit) need to be developed.

When you think about it, the International Space Station is a pretty good testbed for this whole "living in space" thing. Many people have said this and it only seems "out there" because people see no immediate need for anyone to live in space when we have a perfectly good planet down here. Or shall I say as long as we have a perfectly good planet down here. But this might not always be the case.

Of course if things get really nasty down here (my favorite Tom Lehrer line, "when the air becomes uraneous, we will all go simultaneous"), being in LEO may not be the best spot either. But it's a good place to practice and relatively easy to get to compared to, say, the Moon (and protected by the Earth's magnetic field). You could easily imagine (as many SF writers have) that materials from the Moon or near-Earth objects might eventually be used to build these space habitats rather than lifting everything out of Earth's gravity well.

The picture above is an artist's impression from the Lifeboat site, not an Orbiter shot. It would be cool to have Ark I and the waverider space planes in Orbiter - I'll ask around and see if any add-on developers are interested in modeling these for Orbiter. There is one historic space settlement concept that was developed as a nice add-on for Orbiter, the Stanford Torus, shown at left. This design was the result of a 1975 space habitat workshop that was inspired by the early space colony ideas of the late Gerard K. O'Neill. The white disk is a reflector used to direct and control sunlight for the living areas on the inside surface of the toroid. More Stanford Torus pix from Orbiter here.

P.S. Lifeboat Foundation has a cool 3 minute video of the Ark I and the Waverider spacecraft (21 MB streaming WMV here, 800x600). It is reminiscent of the scene of the Pan Am spaceliner docking with the big wheel space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it's as silent as space itself - add your own Strauss.

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