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[GUEST POST] Rob Boffard on How Close We Are to Having a Large-Scale Habitat In Orbit

[Image by Nicole Simpson]

[Image by Nicole Simpson]

Rob Boffard is a South African author who splits his time between London, Vancouver and Johannesburg. He has worked as a journalist for over a decade, and has written articles for publications in more than a dozen countries, including the Guardian and Wired in the UK. Tracer is his first novel.

How Close Are We To Having a Large-Scale Habitat In Orbit

by Rob Boffard

When it comes down to it, all you have to do is build a slightly bigger, more complex International Space Station.

Really, it’s that simple. Well, okay, it’s not that simple, because nothing in space is simple, but the theory is perfectly well understood. To get, let us say, a million people living comfortably in space is to construct a habitat that deals with three fundamental issues: gravity, radiation, and sustenance, in the form of food and water. In theory, these are really easy to deal with. You take care of gravity by having the habitat shaped like a tube or a ring (the latter of which I used in my book TRACER and its sequels), and having it spin to generate centrifugal force, which in turn can be precisely calibrated to generate Earth-like gravity. Radiation can be stopped by decent shielding, and it’s quite possible to create a self-sustaining ecosystem aboard the habitat that allows us to consistently create food and water. After all, as astronomer Phil Plait points out, we already have a planet that is doing just that.

Of course, none of that actually answer the question about how long this is going to take. The answer, as you’re probably not hugely surprised to hear, is a bloody long time.

If you’re like me, and you love the idea of living in an enormous habitat which validates humanity’s awesomeness, then this probably comes as a disappointment. It’s especially disappointing given that it is actually entirely possible for us to do it. It’s just that until the price tag comes down, it’s not going to happen, and the earliest estimate we have (courtesy of NASA Ames Research Center contractor and space settlement enthusiast Dr Al Globus) is the end of the century.

Getting stuff into space, and keeping it there, is hideously expensive. Even something as low-tech as sending an object weighing no more than three pounds into the stratosphere on a balloon (as my publisher and I did with my second book – for the lulz, OK?) costs a couple of thousand dollars. The International Space Station, which is a good deal higher up, has cost the planet approximately $150bn, which includes materials, crew costs, labour and launch. This for an apartment-sized set of modules that can house a maximum of six people.

Let us do some unbelievably crude math. Let’s say that we wish to build a habitat housing 60,000 people. Let us further say that because we’re buying space parts in bulk, we can get one almighty discount and halve the cost. It would still cost us $75,000,000,000,000. That is a good deal more, by an order of magnitude, than the total GDP of the entire planet, and it would still only just manage to take the entire population of Springfield City, Ohio (Pop. 59,956). This is not an optimal situation. Probably not even for those in Springfield City.


Ultimately, it comes down to getting stuff up there. Conventional rocket fuel launches cost a staggering amount of money. Obviously. One solution that is often mooted is a space elevator, but its proponents conveniently overlook the fact that should anything happen to the cable – such as a meteorite strike, or an errant plane crashing into it – then whoever is in the elevator is going to have one hell of a last twenty minutes.

It’s not as if we’re never going to solve this. That’s the one beautiful, brilliant thing about humanity in the 21st century. Sure we have Donald Trump, and Justin Bieber, and #OscarsSoWhite and everything else, but we also have some of our most brilliant minds dedicated to space. If anybody can solve the problem of getting things into orbit in a cost-effective manner, it’s Elon Musk, or Jeff Bezos. Maybe it’s even an unknown kid from Springfield City, Ohio, looking up at the sky and cooking up something really clever. Whoever does it, there’s a good chance that Al Globus’ prediction may just prove accurate.

1 Comment on [GUEST POST] Rob Boffard on How Close We Are to Having a Large-Scale Habitat In Orbit

  1. Camilla Cracchiolo // March 9, 2016 at 5:39 am //

    The number you put for cost is 75 trillion U.S.dollars. The last time I found stats (2012),Total World Product is 77 trillion US dollars. If it’s off by an order or magnitude, you need to add some zeros. If you’re calculating in something other than U.S. dollars, you need to mske that clear.

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