The Case For A Second Space Station

Today’s article is posted by guest author Chet Lang. I hope you enjoy it.


The Case For A Second Space Station

by Chet Lang

The International Space Station, formerly Space Station Freedom, is a marvel of modern engineering and sheer economic brute force. It has been continually manned and womaned for more than twenty years, and throughout that time has served as a platform for scientific experiments involving the presence of micro gravity. It is scheduled to remain in use for another seven years or so. So, the ISS has served it’s purpose; we don’t need another one, right?

Well, the Chinese government thinks we do. Since they have been denied participation in the ISS, they have plans to launch their own. Also, there has always been talk of private “hotels” in space. It would seem that the space station concept is not yet dead.

Humanity went to the moon in 1969-1972, but since then we haven’t ventured beyond Earth orbit, the space station has been our only crewed destination. It’s past time to get back the moon and beyond.

Having said all that, why on earth would we need another time and resource wasting orbiting platform in space? The short answer is we don’t, at least not another one like the ISS. But it could be time for something a little different. A station that could free us to travel to other worlds, instead of endlessly orbiting our own.

Think of something that can move. A space ship? Not in the usual sense. Nor would it be what we think of as a space station. The ISS can move. It does so periodically to avoid space debris, or to change orbit to accommodate some supply missions. If it could carry more fuel, it could theoretically leave Earth’s orbit, but it wasn’t designed for that. The thinking has been that if you want a space station somewhere else, you put one in permanent orbit at the desired spot, and that’s that. We’re already planning a second space station, the Lunar Gateway to orbit the moon.

Projects like this get planned long-term, but often priorities and budgets change, and projects get canceled. Maybe there’s a better way to approach our travels in space. Build a space station designed to leave orbit and venture out to wherever needed. If we want a space station orbiting Mars, fuel it up and send it there. If we ever want to move it again, just send out some more fuel, and “make it so”.

We’re occupied with returning to the moon and going to Mars, and we want to get there as quickly and cheaply as possible. One could cross the Atlantic Ocean in a rowboat, but would that be the safest and most practical way to do it. Of course not. So why do we think it’s smart to send a few astronauts millions of miles in a tiny craft more reminiscent of a dingy than a three-masted sailing ship?

Let’s imagine a sizable space craft, yes, like in the science fiction movies, both space ship and space station, designed to travel or linger as the mission requires. And if the mission changes, the vehicle doesn’t need to. Just refuel, and set sail.

What would such a ship look like? It would be modularly constructed, of course, just like the ISS, and could initially play a similar role and a LEO destination. After a shake down period, it could be fueled up and sent to the Moon, no Lunar Gateway required. Another mission could send it to Mars. Orbit the planet then return with valuable experience dealing with radiation, weightlessness, and isolation. Maybe equip the next mission with a couple of Mars landers for easy access to and from the surface.

But would it look like the ISS, modules connected randomly, poking out in all directions? No, that’s part of why the traditional idea of a space station can’t venture out. The modules have to be stacked in a straight line with crew quarters at one end, and rocket engines at the other, with cargo and fuel tanks in between. The longer and skinnier the better for stability during acceleration, and also to make a long surface for mounting solar panels and thermal radiators.

Just as we’re striving for reusable rockets, we need space vehicles that we can deploy to one mission after another, rather than junking them after one trip. We need a multi-use space ship, larger than a probe or capsule, virtually a movable space station capable of supporting a crew with relative comfort and safety. Whether you want to call it a ship or not, let’s get to work building the next space station.


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