Updated: 8/30/05; 3:51:57 PM
    Documenting a personal quest for non-toxic housing.

daily link  Thursday, April 3, 2003

Ideas - Shelter in Space 

I was discussing the pros and cons of the use of space frame systems with a colleague recently who suggested a rather interesting idea for fulfilling both my need for housing and home-based employment with the same technology. He discovered that there was a fairly sizeable and growing market for space themed mock-ups and simulators for entertainment and education purposes. One firm developing particularly sophisticated simulators is Unistellar Industries which builds whole ship mock-ups as the basis of simulations that can be run for periods of many days, creating the possibility of virtual space vacations. My friend suggested that since the construction of these mock-ups can be based on metal building systems consistent with what could be used for non-toxic housing, this line of work had the potential of killing two birds with one stone, providing a means to both housing and earning a living.

This seems plausible to me. Thinking about the current trends in space systems design, realistic mock-ups of near-future spacecraft, space stations, and Lunar/Martian settlements are actually becoming easier to design because the manner of construction for mock-ups would be pretty much the same as the construction of the real thing -though obviously not with the same structural performance. Even before the recent Columbia tragedy, it was becoming apparent that the two largest space programs in the world are both on the rocks and their only chance to survive is to seriously embrace a new design paradigm based on simpler lighter systems in smaller payload packages. After Columbia, we face a near future where the largest operational spacecraft available to the US may be the Delta IV -now currently being developed as the basis of a new much smaller and variously named and configured shuttle vehicle derived from the Soviet BOR-4. As a result the future of space systems is likely to see an increasing reliance on systems akin to the Transhab technology; an inflatable space station module that was planned for demonstration on the ISS before being killed by budget cuts. The bottom line here is that we may no longer have the payload capacity needed to support the old pre-fab 'tin can' space structure paradigm and instead must adopt the use of deployable structures assembled on orbit from light compact components.

Consequently, the likely architecture of tomorrow's space systems may be based on space frames, modular trusses, and pneumatic enclosures assembled on orbit. The second generation space stations will consist of Transhab-like modules with functional systems retrofit to core trusses attached to a supporting space frame and shielded by modular panels clamped to light enclosure frames independent of the pressure vessel itself. Larger spacecraft, as would be used in expeditions to Mars, would be similarly structured and built on orbit using core trusses to which both habitat and propultion systems are retrofit. Lunar and planetary habitats would likewise rely on similar pneumatic habitat modules deployed within shells of gathered/processed regolith using techniques like the Khalili SuperAdobe method or placed inside excavated rock chambers. New expedition concepts would need to be developed where these kinds of deployable habitat structures are deployed in advance of human explorers who now must rely on much smaller 'hard shell' vehicles to transfer them between space and the surface.

Mock-ups of such systems should be relatively easy to create with conventional steel and aluminum space frame and theatrical truss systems, since they would be largely indistinguishable from the 'real thing' and represent the primary hard structure components. Conventional architectural and other fabrics, membrane materials, as well as simple craft foam products would easily match the look and feel of the more sophisticated composite fabrics used in a real pneumatic hull system. SuperAdobe structures would be largely identical to their Lunar and Martian equivalents. Such structures would also be easy to disassemble and transport, making for a good traveling platform for exhibitions.

Since much of this hardware would also be readily suitable to low and non-toxic housing -especially when using the Urban Nomad inspired aproaches I described in the newly added Gallery article- the simultaneous use of such hardware for my own housing would be a logical extension of such work. The simulated soft hull systems certainly aren't going to be sufficiently low toxic and would probably not be durable enough for permanent housing. But the use of the space frame and truss components in simple pavilion and/or box frame structures is feasible. However, a lot of this simulator/mock-up construction work would be beyond me because of the materials involved. Design, software, and working with the primary structural hardware is fine but little involving plastics and nothing involving paint, adhesives, welding and soldering, and the like would be. And as simple as these mock-ups might be in design, they certainly would not be cheap. So such a venture would definitely be beyond my solitary ability. Still, this is a compelling idea. If there were people with the necessary talents I could work with to create such a venture, it could be feasible. Other people are making a living in this field so it's viable. 

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