Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: pregnancy in space

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!

Why does the Earth so often have to die?

How many times and in how many different ways have we destroyed the earth?

here's a visualization of a very large asteroid hitting earth.
One common scenario envisions an asteroid impact. 

The “we” in that sentence refers to science fiction writers. Yet again the other day, a friend read a book description out loud, and the rest of us could almost guess how each phrase would go before she said it. A “dying Earth” (COD not specified in this blurb) has been fled by the “last remnants of the human race” who are, of course, “desperate [for] a new home among the stars.”

It doesn’t matter which specific book she was reading about. It’s a trope so common I’d say it’s a cliché at this point.

This shows a visualization of a cloudy earth with nuclear explosions all over the region.
A visualization of the destruction of Earth through war, courtesy of the Hellcat Fandom Wiki.


Is killing the Earth really necessary?

We’re always screwing up the Earth in science fiction

We over-pollute it, overpopulate it, blow it up (or aliens blow it up for us), fill it with fascists who drive us out, fill it with Zombies who drive us out, fill it with invading aliens who drive us out, we pave it, we run out of food, we run out of . . . you know the scenarios

All are pessimistic views of our future, and the underlying idea is twofold: killing our mother is inevitable, and we’ll find refuge in the stars. Somehow, somewhere

Here's an eerie photo of a dump in the early morning, with a little girl walking through clouds of mist generated by escaping gasses.
Widespread environmental destruction is a very real danger, dramatized in this amazing photo of an out-gassing dump in Myanmar. Photo: Nyaung U/United Nations Development Programme 


I’d like to argue that neither is likely, but there’s the oil lobby (to refute the first half). We’ve so far avoided the nuclear holocaust that haunted my childhood during the Cold War, but climate change might just do the job–for humans, anyway. 

I imagine that even if we humans kill ourselves, the planet will do what it’s always done: grow new things that are better-adapted to the new climate reality. Just look at the woods around Chernobyl.

bushes grow where streets were, and vines hang down from the sides of buildings in a visualization of how nature would reclaim cities if people disappeared.
Here’s a modification of a Google Street View by Einar Öberg, exploring the idea of how familiar places might change “after people.” It was inspired by the 2009 History Channel project by that name.

And how ’bout that home among the stars?

As I’ve outlined in earlier postsspace is a really hard place to live, much less be fruitful and multiplyMicrogravity makes everything harderdistances are, well, astronomical, and providing what humans need to survive is hideously expensive, at least right now. 

So let’s soft-pedal the destruction of earth already, people! We still have no good place to go!

A space habitat like a ring of boxes with an odd, forklike center orbits above a pink-looking planet in this visualization of a space habitat.
We’re very far, still, from creating a space habitat that can safely house space-dwelling families and provide for their childrearing needs.

Anyone who looks at a photo of the ISS can see we aren’t currently able to create a viable long-term habitat in space. Who are we kidding, here?

Personally, I’d rather explore the ideas of the Solarpunk movementwhich focuses on sustainable scenarios in science fiction. And yes, this means I’ll talk more about it in future posts.

IMAGE CREDITS: Many thanks to Universe Today for the asteroid-impact visualization of Earth’s demise; to the Hellcat Fandom Wiki, for the visualization of war on Earth; to the United Nations Development Programme for the otherworldly dump photo; to Einar Öberg  on Geek.com, for the visualization of “earth without people” via Google Street View; and to the Patheos blog “Evangelical” for the Interstellar screen shot.

Challenging assumptions in science fiction: 2. Oh, the humanity!

This is the second post in a series that questions some basic assumptions that underly several classic science fiction tropes. To start from the beginning of this discussion, go back to last Wednesday’s post.

Last week I took serious issue with the way the people running Ceres Station were doing their job in the must-read space opera Leviathan Wakesby James S. A. Corey.

Apart from the abysmal law enforcement practices I discussed last time, I made a list of other outstanding reasons NOT to live on Ceres:

  • Human life is apparently cheap, and easily squandered with no penalty.
  • Freedom of speech is nonexistent, and so is freedom of the Fourth Estate.
  • The nutritional base is crap. Seriously? Fungi and fermentation was all they could come up with? Readers of this blog don’t need to guess what I think of this idea.
  • Misogyny is alive and well, but mental health care is not.
I’d specifically like to take up the first point this week, because it’s one of the great, universal “givens” in most science fictional universes: that humans will breed like rats, once we’re finally unleashed like a plague on the universe, and that we’ll mostly all live miserable, short, brutal lives under the heel of this or that authoritarian system.
1973’s Soylent Green created a what-if future (in this case, in New York City) overrun by excess population, as envisioned in both the movie and the 1966 book Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison, which inspired it. Realities have changed since then, but the trope hasn’t.
Yes, life is brutal, out there in the Mean Future, but it makes a handy low point from which Our Heroes can rise up and conquer whatever their particular nemesis is. And I suppose if that’s the story you’re writing, it certainly has a long and–sorry!–storied history as a canon trope in sf.
But seriously. This trope treats human life like detritus, and the vast bounty of space like a zero-sum game. I personally do not see either of these things as inevitable, especially not in an in-system situation such as what we have in The Expanse. Let me explain.
First of all, where are all these people supposedly coming from? Six million on Ceres Station alone? Really? If you are going to treat human beings as if they’re worthless, this implies that there’s an endless, inexpensive supply of them, readily available. But would there be?
This tiny person (fetal development at 16 weeks shown here) would really have a hard time surviving and developing properly in a space environment.
It’s not as if we’re going to be growing them like having litters of kittens out there on the Final Frontier. I mean, pregnancy would be a really hard thing to support in a space-based environment. Yes, I’m going to talk about matters that concern icky lady-parts (note, that’s any lady-part NOT being currently utilized by a protagonist for coitus). If any of you guys can’t handle it, you can skip down a couple of paragraphs.
Like many physical functions, human pregnancy and childbirth have evolved in a 1-G environment. Heck, we can’t even maintain muscle strength and bone density in micro-gravityNot to mention what space radiation can do to sperm or growing fetal cells (yeah, it’s a good thing the squeamish folk skipped this paragraph). Ceres Station supposedly has a gravitation of about 0.3-G, which means mamas ain’t havin’ no (healthy) babies there.
Yes, all that.
I know I’m probably not the only woman who daydreamed, when I was 8 or 9 months along, of floating in micro-G, where my ankles wouldn’t blow up like balloons and my kid’s head wasn’t squashing my bladder into a 1-cc-capacity pancake. But so far the science isn’t encouraging. studies on animals show viability levels are lower, and serious abnormalities can develop. Given that kind of outlook, I’d choose put up with football-feet and micro-bladder.
Also, birth rates fall, even without the environmental difficulties, in more technologically advanced societies. We’ve seen that industrialized nations with access to good birth control (which you’d absolutely have to have, in space) historically show birth rates well below the replacement fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman.
Somehow, science fiction consistently misses this basic fact.
Thus, any model that assumes runaway population growth in an industrialized society is based on a seriously retro–and misogynistic–fallacy. Actually, I believe it’s based on a flawed model promulgated in the 1950s-through-1970s. As far as I can tell, it has not been seriously examined in science fiction since then. I think it’s time we did.
IMAGES: Many thanks to Amazon, for the Leviathan Wakes cover image; to The Ace Black Blog, for the still from Soylent Green; to WebMD for the 16-week-old fetus image; to MumBlog, for the “Pregnancy Symptoms” graphic; and to ValueWalk, for the fertility rate chart. I deeply appreciate all of you!

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