Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: NASA

Cutaway views of a Stanford Torus and a Bernal Sphere from the mid-1970s.

Real and Fictional Space Stations

By Jan S. Gephardt

I love both real and fictional space stations. Anyone who’s read my books, or the blog posts I’ve devoted to this topic will probably roll their eyes and say, “No. Really?”

Yeah, really. You got me. I love the whole idea, and I’m endlessly fascinated by the many visions of what a space station—or space habitat—could be.

Why? I’ve enjoyed science fiction for decades. When I was a kid I thought of sf books as “the books that give you stuff to think about.” (Perhaps I should clarify: I considered that a good thing). I was interested in how we humans might someday live somewhere other than on Earth.

Throughout human history, there’s always been a healthy exchange of life influencing art, which then influences life. In the case of real and fictional space stations, that’s definitely true.

When it comes to space exploration, the “art part” came first. From flip phones to satellites to space stations, visions cooked up by science fiction writers, artists, and filmmakers electrified and inspired several generations of 20th-Century rocket scientists, engineers, and designers.

Buzz Aldrin on the Lunar Surface July 20, 1969.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, stands on the surface of the moon near the leg of the lunar module, Eagle, during the Apollo 11 moonwalk. Astronaut Neil Armstrong, mission commander, took this photograph with a 70mm lunar surface camera. (NASA/Wikimedia Commons).

Living Somewhere Other than on Earth

I was a schoolkid when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, so I remember the excitement (and the setbacks) of the Space Race.

But that timing means more than just that I’m now “older than dirt.” It means I was an idealistic art major who embraced the environmental awareness of the 1970s. Concerned as I was about Earth’s future, I hated dystopian sf stories in which humans left a dying, poisoned Earth for supposed “greener pastures” (to, um, . . . poison and kill those, too? Great legacy, humans!).

Back then, a lot of us feared the “population explosion” that was supposedly going to devastate the planet. This was the era when Harry Harrison wrote his 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!, from which the 1973 movie Soylent Green was adapted.

Space habitats interested me, but not as places to flee after the earth dies. I was interested in their potential to ease some of the environmental pressure on our natal planet.

The "Earthrise" photo.
Earthrise, taken on December 24, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders. (NASA/Wikimedia Commons).

Digging into the Details

I wasn’t the only one interested in what were then called “Space Colonies.” NASA commissioned multiple studies into the feasibility of space-based habitats for humans.

Rana Station’s design origins came from those studies. The idea is a surprisingly old one, but interest at NASA proliferated, starting in the 1970s. The differentiation between real and fictional space stations got kinda thin when the ideas came from the space agency.

That is, until a Senator named William Proxmire made a big fuss about them as a waste of taxpayer money, and gave the programs a Golden Fleece Award. Publicly humiliated, the powers-that-be swiftly shut down that line of inquiry.

I felt wary of the “space colonies” idea, in any case. Colonialism was rightfully beginning to receive a lot of pushback. The idea of being a colonist dependent on corporate control smacked way too much of being trapped in a “company store” scenario.

Cutaway views of a Stanford Torus and a Bernal Sphere from the mid-1970s.
Two classic paintings by Rick Guidice, showing cutaway views of a Stanford Torus and a Bernal Sphere. (NASA via Space .com).

Real and Fictional Space Stations

“Space colonies” may have received a decades-long black eye, but we clever apes didn’t stop thinking about space. Nor have we stopped studying it, nor longing to explore space in person, as well as with our robots.

And in the name of exploring it in person, we started building space platforms where we could experiment. When I went into high school, the only kind of space stations anywhere that we knew about were those in science fiction.

The year before I graduated, the Soviet Union successfully launched Salyut 1. The early history of the Salyut series, Almaz (Soviet military) stations, and US Skylab included a lot of problems. Even so, ever since April 19, 1971 we have lived in an age of both real and fictional space stations.

I’m not sure it’s possible to explain how huge that step still seems. Nor my pleasure that I was privileged to (vicariously) see it happen.

Early space stations SALYUT 1 (rare photo), SKYLAB, and MIR.
Early space stations, L-R: Salyut 1, a rare photo of the first-ever-space station; Skylab; Mir. (See credits below).

Real Space Stations

The earlier stations weren’t as large or long-lived as the later Mir (1986-2001) and the International Space Station (commissioned by President Reagan in 1984 the first pieces went up in 1998, and development is ongoing to this day.

Are you old enough to remember when the ISS first went up? Or has it always been out there, hanging out in space since you’ve been alive?

Have you ever glimpsed it passing overhead? I’ve seen it—or at least I’ve thought I saw it—several times. But I usually can’t, because I live in a brightly-lit city with lots of trees. That means light pollution and an obstructed horizon. Thus, even when it’s a clear, cloudless night, station-spotting is a challenge. But when I can glimpse it, I’m always delighted.

Life Influences Art

The conversation between real and fictional space stations continues. Rana Station and I owe a long string of debts of gratitude to the International Space Station.

I’ve watched hours of videos showing the inhabitants of the ISS demonstrating various aspects of living and working in microgravity. I hope that’s helped me create more realistic depictions of things that happen in and around Rana Station’s Hub.

It’s from NASA information that I began to learn about the physical havoc human bodies undergo in any environment that strays too far from Earth-normal gravity.

These findings are the basis for my novels’ limitations on the hours one may spend “up top,” in the microgravity of Rana’s Hub. There are set lengths of time beyond which characters are not allowed to work in microgravity. These are my best guesses, based on what I’ve been able to find in available literature.

Infographic: women and men have different bodily reactions to microgravity.
This diagram shows key differences between men and women in cardiovascular, immunologic, sensorimotor, musculoskeletal, and behavioral adaptations to human spaceflight. (NASA/NSBRI).

Lessons from a Real Space Station

Making babies in something other than Earth-normal gravity? I find it hard to swallow the idea that we could do that without danger to both mom and baby (it’s hard enough, here on earth!). Mouse sperm is one thing, but there haven’t been nearly enough studies of the entire process and long-term effects, even in smaller animal species, to reassure me.

Meanwhile, the bottom line is clear, based on more than two decades of research (including a certain fascinating twin study)on the ISS. If we ever want to live and produce future generations any place besides on Earth, we’ll need to do one of two things.

Either we must change our biology, or we must create non-terrestrial habitats that support the biology we’ve got. There’s already ample science fiction that explores either choice. Art points to problems and opportunities with each direction.

I imagine genetic modifications may form a part of our future. But on the whole, I’m betting we’ll prefer the second option, and build to suit our biology. The “conversation” between real and fictional space stations continues!

IMAGE CREDITS

I owe a ton of thanks to NASA for the vast majority of the imagery in this blog post. Not only do they have an inside scoop on “all things space,” but their imagery is blissfully in the public domain (and also my blog posts normally fall under the “fair use” exclusion).

I also owe a massive debt of gratitude to Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Commons, which provided easy-to-find source information for the photos  I used. Makes giving credit where credit is due lots easier!

Specifically, the MOON LANDING PHOTO of Buzz Aldrin by Neil Armstrong is courtesy of NASA, NASA Image and Video Library, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons. The iconic “EARTHRISE” photo, taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders is courtesy of NASA, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The NASA CUTAWAY VISUALIZATIONS montage features two paintings by Rick Guidice: Cutaway views of a Stanford Torus and a Bernal Sphere from the mid-1970s. Via Space.com.

Credits for the photos in the “EARLY SPACE STATIONS” montage: Salyut 1, an extremely rare photo by Viktor Patsayev (fair use), via Wikipedia. Final Skylab Flyaround, by crew of Skylab 4, courtesy of of NASA, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Mir, from the Space Shuttle Endeavour, courtesy of NASA, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The video about the assembly of the International Space Station components was created and published by ISS National Laboratory, and shared via YouTube. The “Women and Men—In SPACE!” infographic is courtesy of NASA and NSBRI, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute. Many thanks to all!

Celestial trifecta

The Super Blue Blood Moon did not look like this from the second floor bedroom of our Westwood, Kansas home. There were branches. There were other houses. It was setting (at totality) about the time the sun was coming up on the opposite horizon, so we only got to see the Frog eat the Moon, but then he ran away with it, below the horizon.

This moon looks way cooler than ours did–but I’m still glad we got up for it.

It was still totally worth getting up for. For one thing, it wasn’t cloudy! We had a total eclipse of the sun in the Kansas City area last August, and it was totally socked in and raining at totality, where we were. So we saw it get dark. We saw the 360-degree sunset. But we barely got to use our solar sunglasses at all.

Somewhere up there a solar eclipse was happening. Very frustrating.
The cloudy “wrap-around” sunset, mid-afternoon August 21, 2017, taken without the proper filter so it doesn’t look as red as it did in real life.

I’ve been pretty busy, these past few weeks, but some things just must be taken time for. The main thing I’ve been doing is making a final push to finish my novel. If all goes well, I’ll be done by Sunday with this part of the writing.

And presumably, the Frog will give us the Moon back tonight.

IMAGES: The gorgeous photo of a previous (September 2017) Super Blue Blood Moon, by real NASA-affiliated photographer Dominique Dierick, is courtesy of Sky News. Thank you! The two “Alleged Eclipse” photos are ones I took last August with my trusty iPhone 6, at my friend Marna’s farm.

My horse-trough “Hab” lives on!

A I recently confessed, I’m a lifelong gardener. However, in the last few years Earth has had little need to “fear my botany powers.” After a couple of bad falls on the ice a few winters ago, it was hard for me to get low enough to garden. I needed some kind of raised bed for easier access.

Signy and Pascal created a sturdy base for my project last May. Later, Ty filled it for me.

Well, thanks to my Beloved and my long-suffering adult offspring, I’m back, Baby! My Mother’s Day present was a galvanized horse trough on a sturdy wooden stand, filled with rich, composted soil. This collection of creative solutions now sits on our back patio in easy reach of a hose, and I’ve been having lots of fun with it.

My cool-season crops (spinach, kale, and a leaf-lettuce blend from Morgan County Seeds) continued to yield regular crops of salads and greens well into what we Kansas Citians think of as “winter.”

As cold weather approached, Pascal and I made a “dome” out of two basement-window-well covers, to protect my plants from the frost. On windy days (here at the edge of Kansas, we get a few of those), a bungee cord holds it down. It’s not excessively elegant, but it works.

But then it snowed. It got really cold. I thought when temps hit the single digits that my horse-trough garden was a goner.

I was wrong. Under the dome, it’s alive! How can this be? Fortuitous placement, it turns out. Back in May, we set it up right next to a furnace vent. The air goes out, and directly up under the edge of my makeshift dome. You can see the life-giving vent pipe at lower right in the photo below:

We’ve gone through two rounds of single-digits and snow, now, and each time I’ve gone out as soon as I dared, uncovered the garden, added a couple quarts warm water, and my crops have come back to life. In fact, I really need to harvest again.

Potatoes in the Hab, from The Martian: now that’s extreme farming!

I’ve started thinking of my little survival-miracle on the back patio as “The Hab.” (For Christmas, my son gave me a copy of The Martian, by Andy Weir. Thanks, Ty!). My horse-trough garden is not as amazing as “Martian potatoes,” but who knows? At this rate I might be able to harvest spinach all winter long.

IMAGES: I took most of these images myself, except for the last one. Many thanks for it to NASA! It’s from their fascinating article, “Nine Real NASA Technologies in ‘The Martian.'” 

Space Station DIY: Should we go Tubular?

NASA artist Don Davis gave us a vision of how it might look inside an O'Neill cylinder with reflected sunlight.

NASA artist Don Davis gave us a vision of how it might look inside an O’Neill cylinder with reflected sunlight.

My quest to find a plausible, space-based home for the characters in my novels continued.

I needed a space-based habitat that would feel earthlike-enough for me (and my readers) to believe that humans could be comfortable there long-term. But it also must be believable, based on what we know or can reasonably extrapolate from physics, space, engineering, and technology.

So far in this DIY Space Station series we’ve considered space stations/colonies in general, Dyson structures, and Bernal spheresThe next design I considered was the O’Neill Cylinder, a design developed by one of the founders of this area of engineering and design, Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill, of Princeton University. 

the_high_frontier_coverThe idea for this design evolved out of O’Neill’s work for NASA and at PrincetonHis Island One and Island Two designs were Bernal spheres, but the larger Island Three design proposed a paired-cylinders design that sought to solve several problems with the Bernal sphere design.

His 1976 book, The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space described the “Islands,” and developed the concept of the paired cylinders. Why paired cylinders? So they can  cancel out a gyroscopic effect that would make it difficult to keep them aimed at the sun. Each cylinder was to be four or five miles in diameter and up to 20 miles long, with six sections: three “window” areas, interspersed with three “land” areas. Each cylinder could provide habitat for several million people.

spacecolony1

There would be a separate section for agriculture, designed much like the so-called Crystal Palace” of the Bernal sphere design. As I pointed out in my Bernal sphere post, today we know far more about the pitfalls of industrial-style agriculture than we did in the 1970s. I’ll go into more detail about space-based agricultural issues in a future post.

O’Neill cylinders utilize a shape identified by the creators of Kalpana One as the most efficient for a space habitat (more about Kalpana One in a different future post), but I ultimately found it difficult to imagine living in one, for many of the same reasons as the Bernal sphere.

goetzscheuermann-oneillcylinder-650

Also, I didn’t like the slight Coriolis effect that would occur if the habitat was built the size O’Neill originally proposed. There were economic reasons for that size: O’Neill was trying to get the US Government to consider funding one of his “Islands.” Their size was dictated by 1970s-based calculations. Unfortunately, the head of the Senate subcommittee that handled NASA’s funding considered a large-scale space habitat a “nutty fantasy,” and the project was killed.

Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) thought Gerard K. O'Neill's space-settlement ideas were a "nutty fantasy." Proxmire was famous for identifying government programs he thought were silly, and awarding them the Golden Fleece Award. Fear of his wrath led NASA to kill O'Neill's project.

Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) thought Gerard K. O’Neill’s space-settlement ideas were a “nutty fantasy.” Proxmire was famous for identifying government programs he thought were silly, and awarding them the Golden Fleece Award. Fear of his wrath led NASA to kill O’Neill’s project.

Of course, there’s no reason to think a larger version couldn’t be built, if the economics of the builders supported it. Rama, the space habitat described by Arthur C. Clarke in his 1973 novel Rendezvous with Rama, is about 50% larger than the classic O’Neill cylinder, but as I understand it, it’s based in part on O’Neill’s design. I found a video that offers a 3D-animated “tour” of Rama. I enjoyed it, and I hope you do too.

Side note: yes, my own Rana Station‘s name was chosen with a nod to Rama, although I ultimately chose a different design configuration for my space habitat. The name “Rana” (with an n) means “attractive, eye-catching, elegant,” which is what cinched the choice for me. I’m an artist: it had to appeal to my eyes, too!

Besides Clarke’s Rama, other famous O’Neill cylinders in science fiction include the space station Babylon 5 and the space habitats (sides) in the Gundam Universe.

Babylon 5--but where are the windows? And are those solar panels, or heat exchangers?

Babylon 5–but where are the windows? And are those solar panels, or heat exchangers?

Animators of the Mobile Gundam series paid close attention to the design of O'Neill cylinders. This is an interior view of Loum (Side 5).

Animators of the Mobile Gundam series paid close attention to the design of O’Neill cylinders. This is an interior view of Loum (Side 5).

IMAGES: Many thanks to Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons and Don Davis for the upper image of the cylinder interior; for the High Frontier first edition cover featuring art by Rick Guidice; for the 1970s rendering of an exterior view of paired cylinders, also by Guidice; and for the photo portraits of Senator William Proxmire and Gerard K. O’NeillI am indebted to the Maveric Universe Wiki for the GoetzSheuermann image of Island One. Many thanks to YouTube and Eric Bruneton for the Rama animation, to Science Fiction & Fantasy Stack Exchange for the image of the Babylon 5 Space Station, and to The Universal Century, for the interior image of Loum (Side Five) a space colony from the Mobile Gundam universe.

Space Station DIY: Bernal Spheres?

I needed a plausible space station for my fictional characters to live in. My research yielded such riches, I decided to share them with you in a series of “Space Station DIY” blog posts.

John Desmond Bernal

John Desmond Bernal

Today, let’s consider the Bernal Sphere. It’s an idea originally cooked up by John Desmond Bernal in 1929. Bernal was primarily known as a pioneer in molecular biology, but his concept of a spherical habitat in space seemed plausible enough for NASA to launch a more in-depth study in 1975-76.

Gerard K. O’Neill

That study led to Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill’s proposal for Island One, a relatively small Bernal Sphere. This was followed by the larger Island Two (which, it was hoped, would provide a more practical industrial base). By the time O’Neill got to Island Three, he’d evolved to a different shape, the O’Neill Cylinder (we’ll discuss that design in a future post). Other research rooted in the Bernal Sphere eventually led to a toroidal design, often called a Stanford Torus.

The wine-tasting party doesn't seem to mind if the world is inside-out.

The wine-tasting party doesn’t seem to mind if the world is inside-out.

What would it be like, to live in a Bernal Sphere? Artwork from the mid-1970s gives us a glimpse of an inside-out world, in which you could see the other side of the colony “up in the sky.” I don’t know about you, but I think that would give me terrible vertigo.

Recreation at the poles: nets and micro-gravity sex?

Recreation at the poles: nets and micro-gravity sex?

The artificially-generated centrifugal gravity would fall to nothing at the poles, which some have thought would make those good recreational areas. The illustration above envisions “Zero gravity honeymoon suites,” but doesn’t seem to consider the problems of space-sickness caused by microgravity, or the realities of Newton’s Third Law. Perhaps people would be better advised to enjoy their marital bliss in the 1-G areas, and play Quidditch at the poles.

Perhaps people could play Quidditch at the poles of the Bernal Sphere.

Perhaps people could play Quidditch at the poles of the Bernal Sphere.

The outside view shows a series of rings on one end, stacked next to the sphere. This would be the so-called “Crystal Palace” for agriculture to feed the population of 10,000 (on Island One).

External view of Island One, with agricultural "Crystal Palace" tori at one end.

External view of Island One, with agricultural “Crystal Palace” tori at one end.

Unfortunately, scientists and engineers in the 1970s were not much concerned about the issues involved in intensive farming, so they followed contemporary ideas, and designed their Crystal Palace to be a cow-, pig-, and chicken-hell. I wonder how much concern they had about overuse of antibiotics and methane production (perhaps they could use the latter as a fuel, but what about the smell?), as well as the relative economies of growing plant crops versus livestock. Maybe they just couldn’t imagine life without steak?

Livestock Hell in space? Maybe not such a good idea after all.

Livestock Hell in space? Maybe not such a good idea after all.

Ultimately, I decided the Bernal Sphere was not the design for my fictional space station. If I didn’t want to imagine living there, why would I try to make my characters do so? Might recall O’Neill apparently moved away from the original sphere-focused idea, too, once he looked into it more. But although my fictional Rana Habitat Space Station didn’t turn out to be a Bernal Sphere, the design gave me some interesting ideas. I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration.

Earlier posts in this series have discussed space stations in popular culture and conjecture, and the idea of Dyson spheres.

IMAGES: Many thanks to the ever-invaluable Wikipedia, for the photos of John Desmond Bernal and Gerard K. O’Neill; to the NASA Ames Research Center for the 1970s-era artwork of the Bernal Sphere interior, exterior, and “Crystal Palace” cutaway detail; to the National Space Society, for the artist’s rendering of the Bernal Sphere recreational area; and to Entertainment Weekly for the Harry Potter Quidditch image. I appreciate all of you!

 

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