8 Things We Can Do Now to Build a Space Colony This Century

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Before humans start living in space on a regular basis, there's a lot of basic science and political agendas that need to advance. We talked to scientists and experts about the fundamental things they think we should do right now, if we want to have a space colony in the next 100 years.

Interstellar Mayflower, art by Stephan Martiniere

1. Save Earth

NASA astronomer Amy Mainzer, who studies Near Earth Objects at JPL, says our number one priority has to be here on our home planet.


She told io9 that it's a pretty inhospitable universe out there, so our space colonies will probably never replace home:

From my perspective, the most important thing we can do to be prepared for any activity far in the future is try not to wipe out life here. Indiscriminate environmental destruction and the practice of rendering entire species extinct cannot continue if we want to have a long-term future either in space or on Earth. As an astronomer, I spend a lot of time thinking about other places than Earth, and they are not particularly hospitable. It's pretty clear that the vast majority of humanity will stay here. Therefore, I'd say that the defining challenge of the next hundred years is to come to grips with creating a sustainable future here, as a minimum precursor to building a sustainable future anywhere else.


2. Change the Way the U.S. Government Plans Space Missions

Ariel Waldman is a committee member of the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on Human Spaceflight, and she told us about that group's latest thinking on how we'd develop a human colony on Mars in the next century. The group recently presented a hefty plan for human space missions to the U.S. government, and Waldman told us that the upshot is that we absolutely need to change NASA's direction now if we want a space colony in the twenty-first century.


In an email, Waldman outlined what the Committee on Human Spaceflight found out, and what they suggest we do about it — her answer covers everything from mission planning, to funding and the technologies we need to focus on most:

If the nation decides to begin a space colony outside of low Earth orbit, you need to talk about changing the way NASA does business. Currently, NASA engages in a capabilities-based and/or "flexible path" approach in which technologies are developed with no specific set of missions in mind. Future missions are then selected/favored based on what you can do with the technologies. I am a committee member of the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on Human Spaceflight, and we recently produced a report recommending that NASA switch to a "pathways" approach. A pathways approach would outline a horizon goal along with a very specific set of stepping stones along the way. This would allow for continuity of technology development, the minimization of dead-end technologies that don't contribute to the next step along the pathway, and more efficiency. You can see in the ARM-to-Mars pathway versus the Moon-to-Mars pathway (see figures below) how different pathways can utilize more/less feed-forward technologies.


Then, you can talk about that any missions involving landing humans on Mars with current/foreseeable technologies are on the order of hundreds of billions of dollars over a number of decades (the amount of $ that can only realistically come from governments). Involvement from international partners and the commercial/private sector for such an endeavor would be of great significance, however, and could provide a number of notable benefits. Landing on Mars is truly an unprecedented collective human challenge. In fact, to defray a portion of the cost, international involvement would need to be on an unprecedented level (imagine going in 50/50 with another country, or 1/3rd in with two other countries). By contrast, a significantly large majority of the International Space Station has been paid for by NASA, even when combining all of other countries' contributions together.

As you can see in the figure below, we have three possible funding scenarios and their outcomes. A scenario in which the NASA human spaceflight budget remains flat, missions would end with cislunar space. A scenario in which the NASA human spaceflight budget kept pace with inflation would not be able to maintain a high enough flight rate (one crewed mission every 2 years with up to 5 year gaps) to maintain proficiency. If, however, the budget was increased 2-5% above inflation for over a decade, the scenario could be modified to increase the flight rate. We explain the steps in our report like this: "Astronauts would explore new destinations at a steady pace: operation at L2 is achieved in 2024, a rendezvous with an asteroid in its native orbit in 2028, and the lunar sortie in 2033. Continuing, a lunar outpost would be constructed in 2036, and the martian moons would be reached in 2043. Humans would land on Mars at the midpoint of the 21st century." Of course, in the current fiscal environment, it is difficult to imagine such a significant increase in budget.


As far as technologies needed for a pathway that leads to Mars, the committee assessed 10 high priority areas in terms of the technical challenges. The 10 high priority areas are: Mars Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL), Radiation Safety, In-Space Propulsion and Power, Heavy Lift Launch Vehicles, Planetary Ascent Propulsion, Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), Habitats, Extravehicular Activity (EVA) Suits, Crew Health, and In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU - using the Mars atmosphere as a raw material).


3. Develop 3D Printing in Space

One of the biggest concerns is where we'll get resources once we're in space. Author and NASA technologist Les Johnson suggests:

3D printing and the rocket engine are the two inventions that will eventually enable space settlement. With 3D printing you can cut that supply chain and make all the spare parts you need locally ... A colony cannot survive if it is dependent upon a supply chain from Earth. We must mine asteroids for their raw materials (making solar arrays, colony structural materials, etc from the raw materials in Near Earth Asteroids). Mine comets for water. Water is for drinking, bathing, radiation shielding, electrolyzing into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket propellant and for use in fuel cells.


4. Let Space Tourists Take Vacations in Orbital Hotels

Seth Shostak is the astronomer who heads up research programs at the SETI Institute, which searches for life beyond Earth. He said that our best bet is to create a thriving space tourism industry today. Once we have enough space hotels, we can start really gathering data about how a longterm space habitat would work. He told io9:

At space conferences, people interested in commercializing space want to build small hotel rooms in orbit. You already a have commercial space launch industry, so you could do that. We've got SpaceX supplying the space station. They could put people in orbit for a weekend in 5-10 years. We're not talking in a century, This could happen quickly, if you could find a market or incentive. Giving people a hotel room for a weekend might be that market.

The big problems here are not technical — they are liabilty. But there is a market. That's the way I would start. That starts to show you the difficulties and problems and solutions of just putting Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch into space.

Yes it would be expensive, but there is a market at any price point for putting people in orbit. So the first eight space hotel rooms are expensive, but then it's cheaper for next eight, and the market grows.


5. Figure Out How Ecosystems Work

If we're going to live in space habitats or on other worlds, we need to understand the fundamentals of how ecosystems work. Otherwise, we'll find ourselves with nothing to eat. Hedvig Nenzen, a PhD student in ecology at Université du Québec à Montréal, gave us the lowdown on all the things we need to research now if we ever hope to terraform a barren world:

I'm going to assume that we find a new planet without an ecosystem already on it. Thus, in order to live in space we will have to build something from scratch with species we bring us.

Scientists are realizing that it's more and more difficult to make an ecosystem from nothing, and to know how exactly the new ecosystem might work. There are just so many details and parts in an ecosystem that we don't understand yet. Let's say we decide to bring a specific useful insect because it pollinates coffee plants. Then we also have to bring the parasitoid bug that kills our bug, otherwise there would be too many of our bug. And to make sure that there aren't too few bugs, we have to bring the parasitoid that kills the parasitoid that, in turn, kills our bug. But the situation gets even more complicated, because we also have to think about the parasitoid that kills the parasitoid that kills the parasitoid that kills our bug!

Science doesn't (yet) understand these connections between species, but we are trying. We are now trying to use DNA barcoding to identify all parasitoids that live on spruce budworm. Think of Biosphere 2, which gave us many ecological lessons and surprises!


Another big question that we have to prepare for during space colonization is that a species might change very quickly once on the new planet. Ecologists are realizing this now because recent research shows that evolution can happen quickly ... An example of rapid evolution of species we can see, occurs on the Galapagos islands, where the birds change and interbreed, and species disappear and appear.

So even if we bring one species that we've figured out does something, it might change completely within a couple of generations. Ecologists don't even know how many species there are on earth, much less the general rules of how species interact and respond to each other, nor how this changes over time. Ecosystem studies are useful, because ecology is just starting to ask these questions. And while we're waiting for space colonisation, this ecological knowledge might help us survive on the earth!


Sun umbrellas, by Roger Angel

6. Build a Giant Sun Umbrella with Robots

UC Berkeley economist Brad De Long, who has written a great deal about how robots will change our future economy, noodled around late one night with a few robot-fueled ideas he shared with io9:

It seems clear to me at least that anything done at or inside the moon's orbit over the next century will be better done by teleoperated robots, because beyond the van Allen belt and the atmosphere we become very heavy creatures that need not only water but also sheaths of lead. So I have been trying to think of something we might need to do far enough outside the moon's orbit that teleoperated robots won't won't do it, and that would be wildly profitable — as the late Jim Baen liked to say, successful space travel and space colonization will be exothermic, not endothermic ...

The big one, of course, is the giant sun umbrella at L1, 930,000 miles away. That is far enough that teleoperated robots controlled from a local station shielded against solar storms and cosmic rays might do much better then robots with a 10 second response leg controlled from earth, and that might be a vastly cheaper way of dealing with global warming successfully then hoping for the nuclear/better solar fairies to show up.

Were I NASA, I would be planning for the sunshade now—both the Earth-control 10 second lag teleoperated robot and the local station controlled versions. And, of course, the moon base—perhaps robot only, alas!—for manufacturing the station would make lifting it out of the gravity well to L1 much cheaper.


7. Study How DNA Repairs Radiation Damage

Sylvain Costes is a molecular biologist at Lawrence Berkeley Labs who studies, among other things, h0w cells repair themselves after radiation damage. He's worked with NASA on some of his research, and points out that one of the biggest barriers to living in space is all the cosmic radiation that can cause cancer damage. But in his research, he's found that some people's DNA repairs itself better than others when hit by radiation. He's founded a company, Exogen Biotechnology, to study this further.


But in the meantime, he has some advice on what we should study to deal with the effects of radiation during space travel — as well as on planets like Mars, where the magnetic field is fairly weak and doesn't shield the planet's surface from radiation the way Earth's does. He told io9:

To colonize another planet, you need to focus on biology. The best way to deal with radiation is to take nutrients that will protect you, like antioxidants. Of course, you need the right ones. NASA and other groups have shown that there are a lot of nutrients blueberries, and more efficient ones, that will protect you against radiation. It won't stop radiation, but it can mitigate the effects.

When radiation enters your body, some of it damages your DNA by direct ionization and there's nothing we can do about that. But at least 40 to 50 percent of the damage will come from indirect effects effects. That means it will split the water in your cells, creating an OH radical that is active and will hit DNA and cause damage. But that's a chemical process so we can stop it. Anti-oxidants are good scavengers of those radicals and will stop the process from happening. So with anti-oxidants you can reduce DNA damage by 50 percent.


Costes believes we need to plan for space colonies by discovering better anti-oxidants, adopting a "risk management" approach to space travel. He also notes that it's possible that some people simply may not be able to thrive in space, because their DNA doesn't recover from damage as easily as other people's.


8. Educate People About Our Connection to Space

Mae Jemison is a doctor who served as an astronaut on the Space Shuttle. Now she heads the 100 Year Starship project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to getting humans outside the solar system in a century. She told io9 via email that the most important first step is education:

If we are to have any hope of having a robust, healthy nation of humans living, working, growing up and excelling happily in space we have to reconnect people here on Earth today with their ancient space heritage! The task is to get people to feel that we, like our ancestors, are linked to the stars above, not just the ground beneath our feet. And to know that what we prepare now builds the future.

Teach that the reason we can predict aspects of flooding today is because everyday people thousands of years ago noticed the connection of the tides to phases of the moon. And they created calendars based on the movement of the stars. Call weather and crop satellite pictures "images from space," or GPS directions "satellite navigation."

Astronauts are great, but we couldn't go anywhere without the skilled laborers who build the vehicles, make the space suits, maintain the launch pads… Oh yeah, all that cool biotech, laser stuff, MRI, electric cars, drones are based on basic science research and engineering innovations from the 50's 60's and 70's.

But just a rational discussion won't do it; to feel it, let's make sure that at least once a year we go outside at night with all the lights off and experience a star-studded vista!