"Space travel is life-enhancing, and anything that’s life-enhancing is worth doing. It makes you want to live forever." — Ray Bradbury, American science fiction author and screenwriter
Have you ever tried to imagine what a lunar base would look like? The European Space Agency (ESA) has, with one rendering of its vision for a moon base showing habitat modules with roofs that look like the backs of armadillos, standing beside garages designed to house lunar rovers, while more vehicles continue the construction. These could be produced and maintained with 3D printing.
That’s not all. There is also a launch site for spacecraft, solar arrays for energy generation and greenhouses for food production. Far away on the horizon, you can see a bright planet, almost like a blue marble, surrounded by thousands of stars. It’s probably Earth.
This visual could soon become a reality. In the near future, astronauts could be living on the Moon, mining for water and precious minerals. In just two days, humans will take the first steps to return to the Moon: US space agency Nasa’s Artemis 1 is set to launch on 29 August. This will be the first in a series of complex missions to build a long-term human presence on the Moon, where no human, remember, has been since 1972.
Maybe the likes of you and me won’t make it to the Moon. But soon enough, space tourists—yes, that’s a term now—will have other orbital destinations, like a rotating space hotel and a space-based business park to start with. Humans will live, work and holiday in space—and all this could happen within the next decade. Sub-orbital flights are already taking people, who are not necessarily astronauts, to the edge of space.
In December 2021, a record 19 humans were in space at one time. To make space travel possible, researchers are developing everything from high-tech computing systems to magnetic, self-assembling tiles that could help create space habitats. Indian scientists have even found a sustainable method for making space bricks with lunar regolith. And we are months away from the beginning of arguably India’s most ambitious space mission yet—the Gaganyaan programme for human spaceflight.
Such developments also mean that the issues that bedevil us on Earth will travel to space too: from regulating activity to tackling growing quantities of waste. There is already discussion on some of this. For most people, though, the excitement currently outweighs the concerns.
Technological challenges aside, the idea of travelling to space is like selling a dream, one that looks more achievable than ever before. Space tourism took giant leaps last year. Now, even India is aiming to develop indigenous capabilities for space tourism. A big first step towards that is human spaceflight.
The first milestone is the Moon—before humans set their sights on Mars. In her 2020 book, Once Upon A Time I Lived On Mars, journalist and former laser physicist Kate Greene writes: “Now, perhaps more than ever, conversations about space exploration are opening up to new ideas and complexities. The Earth is heating and crowding, resources are increasingly unevenly distributed, and there’s a sense that, at least among some people, there should be a plan-B planet.”
Susmita Mohanty, director general of Spaceport SARABHAI, India’s first independent space think tank, says if humans are to make space settlements a reality, we will need to up our technology readiness levels for bio-regenerative life-support systems, terraforming, waste processing, off-planet sophisticated medical interventions, 3D-printing, advanced materials for spacesuits and space structures, advanced modes of propulsion and transportation. “By 2030, we will see human landings on the Moon, and, by 2050, on Mars. I envision human outposts on both the Moon and Mars by this mid-century but do not think that settlements consisting of sizable human populations will happen in the next 50 years,” Mohanty predicts.
Crucial years ahead for India
August is a key month in India’s space history. It was on 15 August that the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) was formed in 1969, superseding the Indian National Committee for Space Research (Incospar) set up by the Union government in 1962.
Just three years later, the space commission and department of space were established. In 1975, India’s first satellite, Aryabhatta, was launched. The Indian space programme has come a long way since — Chandrayaan-1 (2008) and the Mars Orbiter Mission (2013) are a testament to that — slowly building its own identity in the global space race. In 2023, India is also planning to launch the Gaganyaan programme.
Two unmanned missions and one manned mission (this one is targeted for 2024) have been planned so far as part of Gaganyaan. Isro says the next step will focus on achieving capability “for a sustained human presence in space”.
Earlier this year, the space agency also successfully completed a static test of a rocket booster for the Gaganyaan programme. The first abort demonstration mission, considered a big milestone, is also slated for later this year. Abort demonstration missions test systems that can help the crew escape from a spacecraft in case of any failure.
“Personally, I am so thrilled (about Gaganyaan). I think every space enthusiast is looking forward to it,” says Srimathy Kesan, founder and CEO of Space Kidz India. “After Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma—he flew from Russian soil (in 1984)—we haven’t had a cosmonaut. India is doing so much in the space ecosystem. We should have our own cosmonaut flying to space from India.”
Kesan says space is the future; there is a buzz about space photography and space tourism too, with the recent success of companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. “There is huge potential in suborbital flights,” she says, adding that people in India would be willing to spend on something like this but don’t have many options. “Imagine if an Indian company managed to do suborbital flights. Even a five-minute flight to space and back would change people’s mindset.”
Sirisha Bandla, vice-president of government affairs and research operations at Virgin Galactic, who was part of the space tourism company’s first fully crewed spaceflight in 2021, has voiced similar thoughts. In an interview with Lounge in July, Bandla described her flight as “a perspective-changing and transformational experience”, adding that each person’s reaction to the experience of space would be different. “People are going to come back energised. People are going to come back and use that opportunity to further positive change in whatever projects they are pursuing.”
Keeping it neat and clean
During a talk on the value of human spaceflight and space exploration in 2008, the late astrophysicist Stephen Hawking had said that “if the human race is to continue for another million years, we will have to boldly go where no one has gone before”. But Hawking had also warned later that pollution and overcrowding were some of the biggest threats to human existence.
This principle also applies to space.
Orbital debris, leftover chunks and discarded rocket parts have already crowded Earth’s orbit. There are more than 27,000 pieces of space junk that are currently tracked by ground-based radar and space surveillance systems. In the past, these fast-moving parts of space debris posed a threat to functioning satellites and spacecraft like the International Space Station (ISS). A recent study from Canada’s University of British Columbia has even warned that rocket parts left in orbit from space launches have a 6-10% chance of severely injuring or killing a human being in the next decade.
Once we clear this field of man-made debris and reach, say, the Moon, lunar settlements will need more than just oxygen and water to sustain life. According to Nasa, astronauts could collect local resources on the surface of the Moon, and eventually Mars, and transform them into breathable air, water for drinking, hygiene and growing food, rocket propellants and more.
All this would be possible through in-situ resource utilisation. “It’s a fancy term that space agencies use. But humans have essentially been doing that for a long time—using local resources as they went from one continent to another,” says Aloke Kumar, associate professor, department of mechanical engineering, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru. “We are not that far away from a lunar base. It’s like looking in the side-view mirror: Objects in the mirror are nearer than they seem… Mars is a bit more of a challenge. That challenge comes from the idea of self-sustainability.”
Two years ago, Kumar’s team of researchers at the IISc published the results of a sustainable process for making brick-like structures that could be used to assemble habitats on the Moon. They used a lunar soil simulant, bacteria and guar beans to consolidate the soil into load-bearing structures. Earlier this year, the team, in collaboration with Isro, developed a similar sustainable method for making bricks out of Martian soil, using bacteria and urea. While the previous method could only produce cylindrical bricks, the current slurry-casting method can also produce bricks of complex shapes. The findings of this study were published in April in the PLOS One journal.
Lunar dust, or regolith, also has potential in other applications. In May, Nasa revealed that for the first time, scientists from the University of Florida were able to grow plants in the nutrient-poor lunar regolith, samples of which were collected by astronauts during the Apollo missions (from 1968-72). The plant used in this research is the Arabidopsis thaliana, native to Eurasia and Africa, a relative of mustard greens and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. Owing to its small size and ease of growth, says Nasa, it is one of the most studied plants in the world, used as a model organism for plant biology research.
Scientists are also developing new ways to assemble space structures in orbit. In an interview with MIT News earlier this year, Ariel Ekblaw, founder and director of the Space Exploration Initiative in MIT’s Media Lab, explained that under the TESSERAE (Tessellated Electromagnetic Space Structures for the Exploration of Reconfigurable, Adaptive Environments) space architecture project, magnetic, self-assembling tiles—once deployed in space—would connect on their own to create spacious, habitable and reconfigurable structures. Loosely put, structures that could build themselves—with a little help from humans.
According to the MIT News article, the project cleared a key milestone in April when TESSERAE samples were flown up to the ISS with the Axiom Space AX-1, the first ISS-bound mission to fly a fully privately funded crew. During their 15-day stay, the paying astronauts ran tests on TESSERAE and other science projects aboard the space station.
“The first structure we’ve designed is based on a buckyball geometry, which has one of the best surface area-to-volume ratios,” Ekblaw explains in the article. This buckyball could be either a single room, around the size of crew quarters, or the galley for a kitchen, or even a science lab, Ekblaw adds. “And then you could stack multiple modules on top of each other to create a station. Further in the future, we might be able to have a really grand, large buckyball in orbit that has much more open space, and is something more like a space cathedral or concert hall or gathering space.”
Other existing technologies on Earth could also help in the future: 3D printing, for example, and even innovative toilet designs. Nasa’s Lunar Loo Challenge, which was conducted in 2020 and generated its fair share of memes online, called for ideas and novel design concepts for compact toilets that could operate in both microgravity and lunar gravity.
The winning idea, called THRONE, involved a bladeless fan that would entrain waste; currently, astronauts use a suction/vacuum pump system. The bladeless ring fan used in THRONE pulls the waste down, using concentrated air flow. This design also has a “genital guard” and retractable cover to make the toilet both safe and easy to use for astronauts. According to Nasa, the team behind THRONE “also came up with a system to minimise crew interaction with waste bags, using a diaper genie-type concept to keep the waste bagged”, facilitating easy turnaround between uses.
“It seems trivial but this is an extremely important factor (for space travel),” says Kumar. “From brushing our teeth and using the toilet to how we build houses, we will have to rethink all aspects of our lives.”
By 2027, you could be checking into a space hotel
The idea of expensive private space flights is a thing of today. But luxury space travel might get new destinations tomorrow, like a space hotel. In fact, the world’s first space hotel is not too far into the future.
The Voyager Station, a flagship project of the California, US-based large-scale space construction company Orbital Assembly Corp. (OAC), is expected to open in 2027. This rotating space station, when completed, may be able to accommodate up to 440 people. It will be designed to produce varying levels of artificial gravity by increasing or decreasing the rate of rotation.
According to OAC, artificial, or simulated, gravity is essential to long-term habitation in space: “The station is designed to accommodate commercial and manufacturing partners as well as national space agencies conducting low gravity research.” The Voyager Station will also provide luxurious accommodation for tourists who want to experience an extended visit to space. In a recent interview with CNN, Tim Alatorre, OAC’s chief operating officer, said: “The goal has always been to make it possible for large amounts of people to live, work and thrive in space.”
Don’t be surprised if the station’s design (see image on the left) reminds you of Space Station V, an orbiting station that featured in Stanley Kubrick’s cult film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The European Space Agency has described Space Station V as “a large, international, rotating wheel space station, used as a transfer point from Earth orbit to the moon and other planets”.
Once complete, the Voyager Station will have an overall diameter of 200m. It will feature a docking hub, which would be an arrival point for transport spacecraft. People will also be able to see live views of Earth and space on video monitors. The station will have a total habitable space of 125,000 sq.ft and 44 emergency return vehicles, or lifeboats, designed for autonomous landing.
While the Voyager Station is expected to be operational by the end of the decade, OAC has also announced plans for a space-based business park with gravity—the Pioneer Station. This free-flying, habitable, privately operated facility in orbit, the first of its kind, could be ready in just three years.
In case you are wondering, the technology to work out of such stations is already being developed. One example is the Spaceborne Computer developed by Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE)—an edge computing system, a supercomputer of sorts—that can function in the harsh environment of microgravity. Its latest iteration, Spaceborne Computer 2, was sent to the ISS in February 2021.
In an interview with Lounge in 2021, Mark Fernandez, principal investigator, Spaceborne Computer-2, at HPE, described the possibilities of on-board computers as fascinating. “Self-sufficient computing enables self-sufficient (space) explorers,” he said, adding that reliable in-space computing could transform how research is conducted in microgravity.
How realistic, though, are plans for a space hotel? It remains to be seen. In the past, the Aurora Station, slated for a 2021 launch, was envisioned as the world’s first luxury hotel in orbit. The plan never took off. Now, there is more interest in space tourism than ever before. In an interview with Lounge in July, Sirisha Bandla, vice-president of government affairs and research operations at Virgin Galactic, had said there is interest even among Indian customers in what the space tourism company is doing.
Companies like Virgin Galactic are only expected to scale up. The frequency of flights, access to space will increase, Bandla said. “We have over 800 people ready and excited to fly. As we scale up, we have two spaceships now, we are going to be manufacturing a fleet and getting to a cadence of 400 flights per year out of the spaceport.”