Updated: 2/22/03; 11:39:54 PM
    Documenting a personal quest for non-toxic housing.


My position on the development of space has long been a bit odd. The convention among space advocates is a vision of the future centered on the astronaut and the routine use of passenger space flight. Thus there has been an obsession in the community with the concept of reusable manned spacecraft and the idea that the essential problem of space development is simply one of realizing the minimum dollar-per-pound launch cost. This has never made much sense to me because I don't see launch costs as something independent of application. In other words, transportation systems evolve to suit known markets. Satellite systems developers don't do a lot of complaining about launch costs hurting their bottom line. For that application the current launch costs are nominal. The lack of anything cheaper is the result of there being no investment in development of cheaper systems as a consequence of there not being actual demand for it. It's not a 'build it and they will come' proposition. Investment is contingent on known demand and there is no evidence that demand for satellite launches would dramatically increase if launch costs dropped because that's just one of many factors involved, not least of which is the rather dubious government management of orbital real estate.

Perhaps because my disability has left me resigned to doing most things by proxy, I have tended to see the practical role of humans in space to be rather limited, preferring instead a vision where remote controlled systems play the key pioneering role in a development program founded on commercial sustainability and clever compact and cheap technology making the most of in-space resources. We live in an age where the dominant trends in technology are decreasing size matched to increasing flexibility and capability and the increased power of projected rather than physical human presence. Thus I foresee an immediate demand not for big launch systems to enable grandiose manned space projects but small ones suited to the needs of small business and the deployment of compact automated systems.

In America's original pioneering era the human cost of colonization and exploitation of the frontier was very casually accepted since the society of the time placed a fairly low value on the lives of all but the upper-class and there was no instantaneous communication of news to generate an illusory sense of personal connection to far-away events. But in our current age injured and dead pioneers on the new frontier of space -despite their ready willingness to assume the risks of space flight- have become such an extreme political liability that every accident in space threatens the very existence of space programs. So much effort is therfore invested in trying to assure accident-proof manned flight systems that it greatly inflates the cost of doing anything in space and may actually have the potential for the reverse effect -making systems so complex that they potentially increase hazard in the attempt of avoiding it. This is why manned space flight has never proven commercially practical even though it would seem to make sense to try to exploit human labor on-orbit in order to increase the operating life of commercial satellites through on-orbit maintenance and repair. In general, the costs of manned space flight is so exorbitant and the threat to a project and its sponsoring companies imposed by any failure resulting in death so great that it simply isn't practical no matter how expensive the payload or how high the collective commercial value of the mission. This is why there has never been a commercial version of the Space Shuttle even though any American company that might want one is perfectly free to build it. Like most of the systems NASA has deployed, it is utterly useless commercially.

This is a critical problem for space development. The future of space depends on the demonstration of numerous ways to earn a living there and to date there is only one proven sustainable way to turn a profit in space; satellite telecommunications. Much more industrial research needs to be done to develop new products and services that justify further investment in space facilities and new more cost-effective means of transportation and this isn't being done because the source for most industrial innovation -small business- doesn't have access to space. Government space programs have never shown much interest in this, perhaps because it seems too mundane for programs so focussed on winning geopolitical prestige or because they tend to be partnered exclusively with the largest of corporations who are generally less innovative and tend to exploit corporate and government nepotism to suppress competitors rather than honestly compete against them. NASA's ISS program, which logically would have no more important application than industrial research, only recently added leased industrial research space as an after-thought and at a cost that is still laughably exorbitant.

Thus I have foreseen the need for a very different kind of space station; a space station not for humans but for small tele-operated machines. A space station dedicated to the role of a continuous industrial research platform offering access at the lowest possible cost. A space station served not by big elaborate launch systems but by a diversity of small payload systems. And a space station that can evolve from a research platform into a fully capable automated orbital factory complex once it has succeeded in enabling the invention of promising orbitaly manufactured products. With this in mind I devised a concept I call the MUOL -Modular Unmanned Orbital Laboratory -which was introduced in an article in the LUF organization's on-line journal Distant Star.

MUOL - configuration study

The MUOL would consist of an open space frame structure using a 2, or 3 meter module size which supports a plug-in backplane bus akin to that of a personal computer but which hosts instead a diverse assortment of functional and laboratory modules all engineered to suit the same set of modular interface standards. The space frame would be a ball socket node system using a quick-connect joint suited to automated assembly. (such system has already been developed by Star*Net Corp. for the ISS but was shelved by NASA in favor of a structure using very large prefabricated truss segments that, of course, favored its bigger contractors and rationalized use of the Shuttle and its astronauts rather than robotic assembly) Modules would plug into the ball sockets along the outside surface of the space frame just like its struts while separate backplane connectors plug-into backplane connector modules just inside the open frame and clamped to its struts. Functional modules consist of attitude control, power, radiator, communications, robot anchor and tool pallets, thermal and debris shield panels, parts storage containers, and control systems modules. Leased service modules consist of self-contained containers or exposed pallets in a diversity of shapes and sizes in multiples of the space frame module size, that size defining the basic leased space unit. These modules may be temporary -designed to be discarded or returned with their own reentry system when their limited experiments are complete- or permanent -relying on resupply by docked containers or plug-in casettes. On-station servicing and assembly is performed by teleoperated robots called Inchworms which are similar to Shuttle robot arm but feature a quick-disconnect interface on either end. This allows the robots to 'walk' around the station by alternately plugging into and disconnecting from anchor pallets that provide anchoring, power, and network link. They perform work by plugging into different modular actuators stored on tool pallets. The heart of the MUOL is, simply enough, an IP based LAN which hosts separate VPNs for each leased client as well as the MUOL's own systems. The default control technology is simply based on web controllers with the command and control environment for the platform consisting of a hierarchy of web-based virtual control panels and Java based sequencing programs.

MUOL - seed structure study

Starting with a seed structure featuring a core truss, a control module, a PV panel, and a robot arm similar to that used on the Space Shuttle, the MUOL would expand incrementally with shipments of truss parts and plug-in modules delivered individually by small launchers or on a modular 'pallet' vehicle which is lofted by medium to large sized launch vehicles and accommodates small clusters of plug-in modules and cargo containers. These pallet vehicles would also be used to de-orbit discarded modules and upon reaching sufficient size the station would keep one or more of these parked on the station for use as needed. As the station grows progressively larger modules or combined groups of modules could accommodated, allowing a transition from research work to manufacturing. Adjacent factory modules would have the option to interface side-by-side so that a system of workstations could be established for complex production processes. Eventually the MUOL could even support manned habitat modules but there would be little practical need for it except for the specific purpose of man-in-space biology experiments.

The MUOL would be operated as a leased space venture which rents out space in modular units, rolling a portion of its profits into its own expansion. The larger the station becomes and the more routine its service launches the lower this space cost would become and as the station drew the attention of investors speculative expansion of the structure could be financed. In addition to the operation of the MUOL itself, the venture would also be able to generate revenue from engineering and fabrication services for the lab and factory modules and perhaps may be able to invest in its own launch systems and facilities.

This concept has been well received by my colleagues in the LUF organization and they have been working on web sites to promote it. Unfortunately, for me it is yet another project my quest for housing has forced me to set aside.

Copyright 2003 © Eric Hunting.