Astronauts can live in space for six months, so what’s to stop others from spending half a year there, too? Or living there permanently?
“An American millionaire who has made a fortune on hotels is already trying out inflatable space stations for use as space hotels,” notes Chris Welch, lecturer in astronautics and space systems at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France.
“Once we have hotels in space, living in space won’t be very far away.”
The millionaire, Robert Bigelow, runs the company Bigelow Aerospace, whose space capsules will provide long-term accommodation for up to six people.
Galactic Suites also plans space hotels, while Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic intends to launch short-term space flights to lower orbit.
PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, who now runs space-exploration company SpaceX, says he’d like to retire on Mars.
And at universities around the world, researchers are designing the buildings, furniture and even games for humans in space.
The human colonies could float in lower orbit, like the International Space Station, or even be built on the moon.
But even though the science and engineering exists, outer space remains uninhabited by humans.
“It’s not a technical problem, but a political one,” explains Larry Bell, professor of space architecture at the University of Houston.
“Politicians are trying to fix the economy and national and international problems, so space isn’t a priority. It’s seen as too expensive.”
Launching a spacecraft carries a price tag of some $10,000 per kilo.
Space agencies and private companies, however, are undeterred. NASA is even developing new space food for the expected increase in space travellers.
“Because there’s no gravity, you can’t even fry an egg in space,” explains Alvin Drew, a NASA astronaut and head of NASA’s advanced exploration systems habitat demonstration unit.
“But until now, the space food could only last for one to two years. Just going to Mars takes 18 months. So our food laboratory is developing new ways of cooking in space. It’s still prepared food. But if you inject it into liquid you get a meal that’s tastes very good. I just ate a space steak that tasted just like the real thing.”
In the end, leaving Earth may become a necessity.
“Building space colonies will increase our chances of surviving,” says Welch.
“Space exploration is humans’ insurance policy.”
Big space, little interest
The University of Houston’s world-famous space-architecture program, headed by Larry Bell, has developed many of the buildings and furniture that could be used in space colonies.
But, says Bell, the number of applicants to the program has been dropping for the past several years.
“Young people see no future in space exploration,” he notes.
That’s because, five decades after John F. Kennedy announced the U.S. would send a man to the moon, the space race with the Soviet Union is over and politicians are reluctant to make major investments in space.
“Space isn’t expensive compared to other things we spend money on,” reflects Bell. “But as far as governments go, space now seems to be perceived as a burden.”