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An illustration of SSI’s proposed G-Lab module that would perform reduced-gravity experiments essential to future permanent habitats beyond Earth. (credit: SSI)

A new “Great Enterprise” for space settlement

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For many space advocates, their ultimate goals go beyond reducing the cost of space access, opening new markets, and creating new uses for space. For decades, their long-term goal has been to enable humans to live in space permanently: space colonization or, more recently, space settlement (avoiding the negative historical connotations of “colonization”). It sounds fanciful and far-fetched to many, but has the endorsement—albeit a rhetorically inelegant one—from President Obama, who spoke at the Kennedy Space Center two years ago this month of a long-term goal “for people to work and learn and operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are more sustainable and even indefinite.”

Before humans can live and work in space for those “indefinite” periods, researchers need to tackle a variety of issues, from affordable and reliable transportation to the economics of space settlement. A new initiative announced last week by a venerable space organization seeks to address those issues, starting with a biomedical topic of literally some gravity.

Partial gravity, total ignorance

The Space Studies Institute (SSI) dates back about 35 years, founded by Gerard K. O’Neill in 1977 to support research on efforts to create a permanent human presence in space, such as through the space colonies that O’Neill, a Princeton University physics professor, first espoused in the early ’70s. SSI has had its up and downs since then, but started showing some new signs of life a few years ago with a move of its offices from Princeton, New Jersey, to Mojave, California, a nexus of the entrepreneurial NewSpace industry, and restarting SSI’s series of Space Manufacturing conferences in late 2010.

We cannot answer the question of whether, in a permanent off-planet settlement, can a human female give birth to a child, can that child grow up, can it return to Earth, can it have children of its own,” Hudson said. “We simply have no idea. If we cannot do that, we cannot settle space.”

Last December, SSI named long-time space entrepreneur Gary Hudson as the organization’s new president, succeeding Freeman Dyson. “Freeman inveigled me to take the position at SSI,” Hudson recounted during a presentation Thursday at the Space Access ’12 conference in Phoenix. Hudson said he agreed, but on the condition that the organization’s structure be streamlined, and that SSI take on a major new project. “We need to do a bold project, and we also need to do a bold hardware project, because that’s SSI’s legacy,” he said.

At the conference Thursday, Hudson unveiled what SSI calls The Great Enterprise Initiative. The initiative is designed to outline the technologies and other capabilities needed to enable the long-term goal of space settlement, and to host multiple projects in relevant areas. “This is not central planning,” he said. “We’re not smart enough to figure out what the exact path to space settlement is. There are some things that will need to be done and we’re putting them into rather large buckets.”

The “buckets” are the five general areas of interest to the initiative: transportation, resources, environment, society, and economy. Hudson said SSI will spend the rest of the year developing the details of this roadmap, which in turn will serve as the basis of future SSI conferences to bring in people to discuss projects in specific areas.

One area of immediate attention is the subject of environment, namely, the ability of humans and other animals and planets to live off-Earth. Hudson said SSI plans to start on two specific projects in that area now. One, called E-Lab, is designed to test closed-loop life support systems in a terrestrial environment, integrating promising concepts into a “system of systems architecture” that could later be used for future human habitats in space.

The other, and more ambitious, project is called G-Lab and is designed to study a key topic that has not been addressed in spaceflight research to date. “We cannot answer the question of whether, in a permanent off-planet settlement, can a human female give birth to a child, can that child grow up, can it return to Earth, can it have children of its own,” Hudson said. “We simply have no idea. If we cannot do that, we cannot settle space.”

G-Lab, Hudson said, will study that issue by seeking to understand the effect of partial gravity on organisms. “The core, fundamental issue that must be addressed is how much gravity is necessary for the permanent human settlement of space,” he said. G-Lab “is going to be focused on that question, because we see no one else doing it.”

There have been plans in the past to place centrifuges on the ISS, but all those efforts have been abandoned for cost or other reasons. In 2001, The Mars Society started a university competition for a project called the Mars Gravity Biosatellite, to test the effects of Martian gravity (about three-eighths of Earth gravity) on mice for several weeks. That competition led to several years of work by several universities, led by MIT, but the project shut down in 2009, citing the economy and NASA priorities.

“We have no preconceived notion of what it looks like,” Hudson said of G-Lab.

A National Research Council report last year, Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration: Life and Physical Sciences Research for a New Era, highlighted that gap in knowledge. “We currently know that biological processes that operate properly at 1 g do not in microgravity, but the threshold for restoring proper function is unknown,” it stated. It later recommended that NASA “reconsider the placement of a centrifuge on the ISS so that long-duration partial-gravity experiments can be conducted.”

“It’s pretty obvious that partial-g research is vital,” Hudson said. G-Lab, a free-flying module, would support such research by hosting two centrifuges to accommodate plant and small animal experiments. G-Lab, as currently envisioned, would be co-orbital with the International Space Station, trailing the station by about 10 kilometers. That would allow cargo and crew vehicles visiting the ISS to also go to G-Lab with a delta-v of only about one meter per second. A free-flyer, instead of a module attached to the station, eliminates any concerns about the vibrations from the centrifuges disturbing microgravity experiments on the station.

G-Lab is notionally designed to be launched on a single Falcon Heavy rocket, but Hudson said specific details about the lab module have yet to be worked out. “We have no preconceived notion of what it looks like,” he said. “We don’t know how big it is, we don’t know how many people need to be on it, we don’t know if it we can do it human-tended versus permanently inhabited, and so forth.”

Wanted: donors seeking legacies

The answers to those and other questions about G-Lab will come during a “Phase A” study phase that effectively starts now, Hudson said. SSI is working on getting a Space Act Agreement with NASA to provide some support for the project. SSI will also start fundraising for the project within the next month.

Hudson said he didn’t know how much money the project would need, since it would be driven by the design of the module. Development of the project, though, would likely cost several hundred million dollars as currently foreseen, as a Falcon Heavy launch alone would cost between $83 and 128 million, given prices currently quoted by SpaceX for that rocket. (One option Hudson said SSI had ruled out is using a module from Bigelow Aerospace, saying that would be too expensive.)

“People will contribute because they’re looking for a legacy,” Hudson said, like billionaires “who want their names to survive themselves.”

“We have no idea when we will be fully funded, or even how much money that will cost,” Hudson said. On the SSI website there is an “optimal” schedule for the project unconstrained by funding that shows a launch of G-Lab in 2017, but Hudson emphasized the funding caveat in his presentation. “Do not come back in three years and hold me to this unless we raise a substantial amount of money in the next few months,” he said.

G-Lab will be privately developed, he said, but emphasized SSI was seeking donors and not investors, as this was not a commercial venture. So who might donate the hundreds of millions needed to build it? “People will contribute because they’re looking for a legacy,” he said, drawing an analogy to donations by the wealthy to funding laboratories and other facilities at universities. The donors they’re looking for, said Hudson, are billionaires “who want their names to survive themselves.” Once built, though, Hudson said G-Lab would likely operate as a public-private partnership with one or more space agencies helping support the lab’s operations.

Those donors seeking a personal legacy may enable SSI to support its own legacy, and put society one step closer to the vision of living beyond Earth permanently—perhaps the biggest legacy of them all.