Private space stations are coming. Will they be better than their predecessors?

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A new era of space stations is about to begin. NASA has announced three commercial space station development proposals, joining an earlier proposal from Axiom Space.

These proposals are the first attempts to create places where humans can live and work in space outside of the framework of government space agencies. They are part of what has been called “Space 4.0”, where space technology is driven by business opportunities. Many believe this is what it will take to bring humans to Mars and beyond.

There are currently two occupied space stations in low Earth orbit (less than 2,000 km above the Earth’s surface), both owned by space agencies. The International Space Station (ISS) has been occupied since November 2000 with a typical population of seven crew members. The first module of the Chinese station Tiangong was launched in April 2021, and is intermittently occupied by three crew members.

The ISS is expected to retire at the end of the decade, however, after nearly 30 years in orbit. It was an important symbol of international cooperation after the Cold War “space race” rivalry, and the first true long-term space habitat.

The plans for several private space stations represent a major change in how space will be used. But will these stations change the way people live in space, or will they replicate the traditions of earlier space habitats?

The International Space Station, the most intensely inhabited site by mankind in space.
Nasa

Marketing life in space

The change is driven by NASA’s support for the commercialization of space. This focus really started about a decade ago with the development of private cargo services to supply the ISS, like SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon, and private vehicles to transport astronauts to orbit and to the moon, like the Crew. SpaceX’s Dragon, Boeing’s Starliner, and Lockheed Martin’s Orion. capsules.

Start-up Axiom Space won a $ 140 million contract from NASA in February 2020 for a private module to be attached to the ISS. Axiom has announced that Philippe Starck will design a luxurious interior.

Starck compares it to “a nest, a comfortable and convivial egg”. There is also a huge viewing area with two-meter-high windows for tourists to look at Earth and space.

The first module should be delivered to the ISS in 2024 or 2025, others will follow each year. By the time the ISS is decommissioned around 2030, Axiom’s modules will become a free-flight station.

Axiom has signed a contract with the Franco-Italian entrepreneur Thales Alenia Space, which has built nearly 50% of the living space of the ISS for NASA and the European Space Agency, to produce its habitat.

Several modules, including a large visualization module, all labeled with Axiom Space's corporate logo are added to the front of the International Space Station in this conceptual image
Artist’s impression of the new modules Axiom Space plans to add to the International Space Station in the coming years.
Axiom Space

But there is more. Three other groups have just been selected for the first phase of NASA’s Commercial LEO Destinations competition to build free-flight space stations to replace the ISS.

First, a group of Nanoracks, Voyager Space, and Lockheed Martin proposed a station called Starlab to provide research, manufacturing, and tourism opportunities. This was almost immediately followed by a competing project called Orbital Reef, by Blue Origin, Sierra Space and Boeing. A third project, by Northrop Grumman, will consist of modules based on its existing Cygnus cargo vehicle.

A corporate convention exhibition stand with a giant photograph of a space station.
Lockheed Martin’s exhibit at the 2021 International Astronautical Congress, with a billboard promoting the Starlab space station.

But how are space stations actually used?

It is less clear whether private space stations will be more habitable than previous generations of space stations, like Salyut, Mir and ISS.

Typically, older space stations were designed to meet technical constraints rather than starting with crew comfort. What lessons have been learned to improve life in space?

Until recently, little research focused on the experience of astronauts in space stations. This is where social science approaches come in, such as the ones we are using in the International Space Station archaeological project.



Read more: How to Live in Space: What We Learned from 20 Years of the International Space Station


Since 2015, we’ve developed new data-driven insights into how the ISS crew cope with life in a context of containment, isolation and microgravity. We observe and measure their interactions with built spaces and the objects that surround them. What are the modes of use of the different spaces and objects?

Asking these kinds of questions reveals information that had never been factored into habitat design before. It turns out that the crew don’t necessarily use the spaces inside the ISS as they were designed – for example, they personalize different areas with visual displays of objects that reflect their beliefs, interests. and their identity.

In this image from March 2009, two astronauts and a space tourist are seen in the Russian module of the ISS Zvezda. Behind them are a variety of different items placed by the crew over time.

Nor do the crew use all the spaces inside the ISS in the same way. People of different genders, nationalities and space agencies appear in some modules more than others among the 16 that make up the station. These models relate to the division of work between teams and agencies, as well as the layout of the modules themselves.

The absence of gravity is one of the great challenges of life in orbit. Items like handrails, velcro, bungee cords, and resealable plastic bags act as “gravity surrogates” by securing items in place while everything else floats. Our research maps how the crew adapts these gravity substitutes to make their activities more efficient, and how the placement of the substitutes alters the way different spaces are used.

Society and culture in space

Even with additional luxury features like large windows, designers and engineers have a long way to go in making space stations efficient, comfortable and welcoming, especially for the intended space tourism market.

The plans for privately owned and operated space stations are undeniably ambitious and could transform the way humans live in this environment. But it’s likely that the companies working there still don’t know what they don’t know about how people actually use space habitats.

It is only by turning to new types of questions and research from a social and cultural perspective that they will be able to make real changes that can improve mission success and performance. well-being of the crew.


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