Space a sustainability solution – Part 2: Living on the high frontier


Figure 1: A future space colony?

In the previous post on this topic I outlined the general problems regarding space propulsion. In this article I’ll be looking at the problems of living and working in space, and the logistical challenges that this presents.

Motivations and costs

In the table below is a list of current metal and commodity prices.


Table 1: A list of key commodities which might be of interest to space miners in the future and their present day market price

To mine such resources from space would mean moving tens of thousands of tonnes of mining equipment to space. Its worth just looking at the spec’s for one or two of these machines and try to imagine how difficult and expensive it would be to re-locate such equipment to the moon or an asteroid. Even at launch costs in the order of a few hundred per kg it seems doubtful it would ever be economically possible to extract said resources and then send the ore back to earth (rare earth and precious metals being perhaps some of the few exceptions).


Figure 2: Lunar mining conceptional art [Source: NASA, 2013]

And speaking of which, recall that even after we’ve built our mine and extracted said ore, we would need to get the stuff back to earth. Some space cadets talk of building a giant “mass driver” to fling cargo into earth orbit, where cargo slugs are then de-orbited either by shuttle or retrofire and crash landed in the deserts. However both of these will still have some sort of cost associated with them. And even if said costs were small, say $100/kg and even if we could mine the stuff for less than its current mining cost on earth (which we can’t) commodity prices would have to get absurdly high before it would be economic to mine them from space.


Figure 3: A mass driver

What about He-3 I hear you say? shouldn’t we be mining the moon for that? Well actually no! That’s more of a fantasy and the last place you’d go to mine for it would be the moon.

A common and perhaps fatal mistake of many cornucopian’s is to assume that the price of commodities will just escalate upwards until some other lower grade of ore (or space mining) becomes economic (some will even go to such absurdities of suggesting that soil and water could be “mined”). However in reality the cheapest solution to escalating prices has always been conservation, using less, better recycling and switching to alternatives (or just making do without). Any time the oil price has gone up, cars which are more fuel efficient, or indeed cars that don’t need oil at all, have been churned out. Spikes in the price of rare earth metals (crucial for renewables) has resulted in conservation and more efficient use of said materials, as well as the development of alternatives.

So even if say, we began to run out of copper, its probable we’d sooner switch to Aluminium wire (or perhaps in the future graphene) and just make do, rather than go to the trouble an expense of a space mine. With the exception of certain niche markets (again rare earth metals) I can’t ever see space mining being economic. The one game changer would be if industries (i.e. factories) were to move into space (perhaps for environmental reasons), although again we’d face the problem of getting produce back to earth (could be viable for high value products, although not the cheap stuff we buy from China). Then there would be a demand for raw materials in space and it would make sense to source them locally. However for that to work we need to assess how easy (or hard) it would be to relocate large numbers of people to space to operate these mines and factories.

Space sustainability

At present it requires at least 10 kg’s of resupply to keep an astronaut alive on the ISS for a day. At present launch costs that’s a good half a million in resupply costs to keep a crew of 6 alive and functioning. Relocate all of that to the moon (which roughly triples the costs), increase the size of the crew to say a hundred (a reasonable estimate for a lunar mining colony), consider that building the ISS cost $100 billion, so something even bigger on the moon… get the message! Using current technology its not even remotely feasible. Even with launch costs down in the region of a thousand per kg, it still looks pricey (£5 million a day, not including crew rotation and construction costs).


Figure 4: The space life support process [Source NASA, ND]

If there’s any more potent symbol for what’s wrong with our society and our attitude to the environment, its astronauts on the ISS, living a throwaway life style needing regular flights to send them up supplies and deorbiting cargo ships to dispose of their waste. Clearly there is a need to develop a more sustainable life support system. And space agencies have been experimenting with creating viable self sustaining ecosystems in space, where plants absorb carbon dioxide, produce oxygen and grow food.

Photograph by John de Dios

Figure 5: The Biosphere 2 experiment [Source: University of Arizona, ND]

In the 1980’s the Biosphere experiments were carried out in which a group of 20 volunteers were placed in a hermetically sealed greenhouse for several months at a time to see if a viable biosphere could be created. It was found that the oxygen levels fell, as did food supplies, necessitating that air be pumped in an food from outside supplied. This lead many critics to label the experiments a failure and proof that any attempt at colonising a planet (or long range space flight) was doomed to failure. However this wasn’t the case. NASA did managed to drastically cut the resupply needs from what they would be on any space station. Also it did identify where the problems may lie. Further tests were somewhat more successful.

Certainly the Biosphere experiments did seem to indicate that any future space colony will need some level of resupply. However if they can get access to water (and thus oxygen and hydrogen) then this would cut down the level of resupply needed. Mars has abundant supplies of water frozen within its polar ice caps. The moon may have some small deposits of ice within permanently shadowed craters at the poles. The moons of Jupiter are almost entirely ice bound. So it does hint at a solution. However, resupply isn’t just food, water and air, but also spare parts and electronics. NASA is already toying with the idea of using 3D printing to aid in machine repair. So all in all, space colonies will need some level of resupply, but it can be cut down substantially from that demanded by the ISS. Indeed one could argue this the whole point of the ISS, to find those weak links in the supply chain.

No country for old men

Another problem is the health effects of long term exposure to low gravity and a heighten level of background radiation. Several long duration flights were carried out by astronauts on Mir and the ISS, which showed a astronaut can survive for several years in space. I actually once attended a talk from Mir astronauts and they did admit to having some difficulties on return (after over a year in space), but they quickly recovered over the following months. However, this was done in the comparatively calm and safe waters of LEO. What happen to any astronaut who ventured out beyond the earth’s magnetosphere?


Figure 6: Radiation dosages in space compared to earth based scenarios, note this is a log scale! [Source: JPL, 2013]

The consensus is that long duration missions to Mars or the Moon, lasting a few years should be possible. The astronaut will take a pretty hefty dose of radiation and suffer quite a bit of bone loss from microgravity. Keep in mind that even when he gets to his destination gravity isn’t nearly as strong as it is on earth (Mars its about 1/3rd earth’s gravity, the moon about 1/11th). The jury is out as to what’s the minimum level of gravity needed to stay healthy. So our returning astronaut may have to take some sort of hit to his or her long term health, but probably no worse than someone who smokes, drinks and doesn’t exercise enough.

However, the longer an astronaut stays, the worse its going to get. Insulating the colony to cut down on exposure is one solution, but at some point they will need to go outside and obviously they need to get there and back. Beyond a certain point the astronauts health will likely deteriorate to the point where they are more a hindrance than a help. They may fall victim to things like cancer, arthritis, leukaemia (which means you suddenly need to start shipping in a whole load of medical supplies). So its probably likely that in any space colony it will be necessary to rotate the entire crew out of the colony and pack them home to earth at regular intervals (exactly how regular is the question).


Figure 7: Burying future space habitats might make a lot of sense

This is an important point from a logistics point of view. It means that one way missions, such as those proposed by Mars One are little more than an expensive form of suicide. Quite apart from the astronaut’s health, a one way mission leaves no line of retreat. If a crew on a two way mission experience a medical emergency or an equipment failure, they can withdraw back to earth (either the entire crew or just those at risk). A one way mission crew have no way out, they either deal with the problem or die. If a resupply rocket crashes on take off (leaving them short of supplies), they’re dead. If their habitat fails they’re dead, if the only engineer/doctor on the mission falls down a crater they’re dead. Basically with a one way mission its a case of rolling the dice often enough and sooner or later you’ll end up with a TPK .

I recall some space cadet telling me how he planned to retire on Mars. Unfortunately, no way that’s ever going to happen. The last thing a Martian colony needs is a bunch of work shy geriatrics. With it costing the company or government running the colony tens of millions a day just to keep the lights on, they will try to keep the crew to a minimum and will want everybody working. Indeed they will no doubt make use of robotics to cut crew levels down to as low as possible. In much the same way that during Apollo program each astronaut had a pool of backroom boys running errands for him back on earth, each of our future space colonists could have the same. A small team of staff on earth who would sort out admin tasks, write programming code for him, run simulations, handle calls from the mother in law, etc. All he needs to do is focus on the tasks they can’t handle remotely, or the robotic drones can’t deal with. This could perhaps allow the numbers on a future space colony to be cut down to just a handful of people (such as in the movie Moon where there is literally just one man on the moon).

And no wee’ins neither!

Inevitably one has to ask the question, what happens when our astronauts start doing what humans have done through history and engage in “specific relating” (NASA terminology for astronauts humping) and the inevitable consequences that follow from that. Suffice to say they will be well advised to use birth control, because any women who get pregnant on a future space colony will likely be bundled into the first shuttle back to earth pretty quickly.


Figure 8: NASA conceptional art at its worst!

Above is probably one of the most scientifically inaccurate images ever produced by a NASA commissioned artist. Where to start. Well a space walk is pretty much the most dangerous thing an astronaut can do, what sort of deadbeat dad takes his infant son on a space walk? And how much would that space suit sized for kids cost?..not to mention the dozen others he’ll need as he grows older. And a child living on a space station would be exposed to low gravity and cosmic radiation levels at a critical point in his development…. and that assumes he wasn’t already born horribly deformed.

Those Russians I mentioned on Mir kept themselves busy by breeding chickens (well actually it was Quail, the idea was to create an protein rich food supply for future astronauts). They discovered that the birds suffered quite severe birth defects and a 60% mortality rate. They managed to correct this problem with a small centrifuge incubator, but they never quite solved the problem. And of course the problems would be much worse beyond LEO (due to heightened radiation exposure) and one assumes a chicken is a good deal less complicated than a human baby. Similar experiments were conducted with rats by NASA on the ISS, with research still ongoing.

And quite apart from the health risks to the child, or the mother since we’re talking about it, there’s the problem of having to have schools, maternity wards, a fully trained mid-wife, etc. And even inside a space colony can be a potentially dangerous environment. Recall that NASA started having kittens when they learnt of the Russian plan to fly space tourists to the ISS. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and in an emergency any rugrat on a space colony is going to be a very weak link. Therefore space colonies will almost certainly be child free zones (were can I sign up!).

A stable of science fiction is that of future space colonies being the new Americas or Australia’s of the future. Of them eventually becoming sovereign states in their own right. However, given that the entire population of any future space colony will likely be transient labour, that doesn’t seem likely. In fact such colonies sound like the most awful grotty little mining town hellholes (the sort of middle of nowhere mining towns you’ll find in the Australian outback or Canadian Northern Territories). The sort of place people only travel to because some company’s paying them a shed load of cash to work there. They sound less like star trek and more like the space colony portrayed in the film “Outland.

Indeed speaking of Australia, its possible that space colonies might eventually become penal colonies, as portrayed in the Judge Dredd series (where Titan has become a penal colony for corrupt Judges). Where those sentenced to twenty years for questioning the size of the one true Donald’s….hands…..can cut his sentence down to five if he goes to work in the colonies (if he survives of course!). In the movie “Total Recall the colonists are fighting for independence from an oppressive corporation. In reality, they’ll be fighting for a seat on the next shuttle back to earth.


So by all accounts even if we do ever get around to building space colonies they ain’t going to be places people will flock too. Someone will go there yes (if you pay them enough!) but we’re not talking about a mass migration or anything. Which kind of suggests we cannot relocate a large chuck of the earth’s population off the planet. Is there anything we could do to create a place people would actually want to go to? One idea is to terraform planets, notably Mars (although there are other potential targets for terraforming), to create a living breathing atmosphere.


Figure 9: Terraforming Mars might take longer and be harder than many suppose [Source:, ND]

While there is no question we could heat up Mars (take a look a recent IPCC data and you’ll see we’ve been doing that to the earth!), but simply heating a planet up might not be enough. Just because a planet gets hotter doesn’t mean its going to magically sprout a oxygen rich atmosphere. This process took many millions of years on earth, one assumes it would still take a considerable period for any Martian atmosphere and the ecosystem it interacts with to evolve as well. And its far from proven whether we could control this terraforming process once its started (after all its not as if we’re in control of the process on earth, that’s precisely the problem with climate change!). And given that the planet’s original atmosphere (which was almost certainly not earthlike) was stripped away by the solar wind, what’s to stop that happening again?

One possible short cut is what’s known as Paraterraforming. This involves building a dome over some small area, e.g. a crater or one of those large valleys on Mars, pumping in air and starting to grow plants and develop a self sustaining ecosystem (as I mentioned that didn’t quite work out with the Biosphere, but I’m assuming we’d have corrected all the issues on earth before attempting this). So it represents a sort of “pay as you go” option of gradually terraforming small segments of a planet in stages. Incidentally, experiments have shown it is possible to grow plants in lunar soil, given suitable levels of fertiliser, water and protected from the cold. And we won’t be limited to just Mars, lunar craters could be terraformed, as could caverns built under the ice sheets of the moon’s of Jupiter.


Figure 10: Paraterraforming – life under the dome

However there are some things we can’t change. While our domed colony could be designed to limit radiation exposure levels (using a radiation absorbing aerogel to construct the dome, or indeed locating the entire colony under ground rather on the surface) any colonists will still take some level of elevated dosage (not least when they have to go outside or travel back to earth). We simply don’t know how much is too much. Also the gravity on such worlds is going to be much lower than earth gravity. It is, like I said, far from proven that its possible for humans to survive long term on a world with low gravity.


Figure 11: The interior of a future underground space colony? Note the guy with wings. In low gravity it would be possible for a human to fly like this

Rotating space colonies

One possibility is to build large rotating space stations, as proposed by Stanford Professor Gerard O’Neill back in the 1970’s. By spinning the entire colony, gravity can be generated. However there is the (not so) small matter of costs. Recall what we said about launch costs earlier. The ISS is costing at least $150 billion. We’re talking about lifting at least 10 million tons into orbit, against the roughly 420 tons of the ISS. Even with launch costs 1/100th that of the present level and a fairly aggressive experience curve to bring down manufacturing costs, you’re still talking about something with a price tag in the tens of trillions. Who is going to pay for that?


Figure 12: The interior of a rotating space colony

And what the hell are they all going to do up there?….aside from gradually soak up an elevated dose of radiation? I’ve heard some space cadets talk of setting up an offshore tax haven on such stations. This falls down for three rather obvious reasons A) No government in the world will ever recognise such a legal entity. There have been numerous attempts by libertarian types to set up new countries on oil rigs, ships or unoccupied Islands and every one of them has failed for this very reason. B) There are already plenty of nations on earth who offer these same services, who don’t require tens of trillions in initial start up costs and don’t need expensive resupply from earth and hence have lower running costs, so a non starter. C) Living on such a station would be extremely expensive (giving its likely high running costs) and is not without risks. This would immediately wipe out any tax savings.

A new breed of astronaut….literally!

One theory is to use genetic engineering to breed new species of humans adapted to low gravity and elevated radiation levels. But we have now drifted well into science fiction rather than science fact or even science possible (incidentally a good website on such speculations but with a “hard” science fiction view point is Orion’s Arm). We simply don’t know enough about genetics at present to even tell if any of that is even an option. But it does seem clear to me that we are unlikely to ever be able to relocate a significant proportion of earth’s current population to another world. Not now and not even in the distant future.


Figure 13: Future humans adapted to life in space….as envisaged by sci-fi authors [Source: Bernd Helfert &, 2000]

The reality is that we humans are evolved to live on earth. Other planets are basically outside our bodies design envelope. We can make extended stays, but that’s about it. Even if that new planet they’ve just discovered around Proxima centuri turned out to be a living breathing world (not unlike the planet Pandora in the movie Avatar), it would be an entirely alien world which we are not adapted too. Yes we’d probably send some scientists out there to pick up some rocks and study its eco-system, but that’s about it. It would be easier (and considerably cheaper) to try colonising Antarctica than Mars or any other planet.


Figure 14: Artist impression of the surface of the exo-planet Proxima Centauri b [Source: ESO, 2016]


All in all, I would argue that space does not offer a solution to our planet’s current sustainability issues. Yes over a long enough time period (hundreds of years!) its possible we’ll develop the technology needed and perhaps build some space colonies, but its unlikely to happen any time soon (by which I mean within the next 50-100 years). And we’re probably never going to be able to migrate millions off world. Running away from this world’s problems simply isn’t an option, we’ve nowhere to run too.

Does this mean space exploration is a waste of time? Absolutely not. Many technologies have come out of the space race, everything from carbon fibre, solar panels, fuel cells, microchips, even velcro and freeze dried food. And many of these technologies are crucial to developing a more sustainable world. One assumes this trend will continue. Any money spend on space exploration is (and has been) money well spent. And the sums spend on space exploration have, at present, not been particularly unreasonable (in the grand scheme of things). Although obviously a more aggressive campaign with higher levels of funding could change that, and we’d then have to question whether such a program represent value for money.

Therefore we do need to be realistic about what is achievable and what isn’t. And recognise the challenges and dangers such endeavours will have to overcome. For example: Is a crewed mission to Mars a worthy objective?

Well if the justification is to study the planet’s geology because this will tell us a lot about not just Martian geology but other worlds too (including some of those exoplanet’s we’re now finding). And also a Mars mission would try to establish whether or not there ever was life on Mars, and thus the probability of whether there might be life on those other worlds beyond this solar system which we’ve started finding. That sounds like a reasonable justification to me (although that does depend on the price). However if the justification is that we want to go to Mars to pave the way for near future colonisation and to start the terraforming (as Elon Musk appears to be saying), well now you’re just being silly. Go back to reading comic books!

However one conclusion to make is that like tackling climate change, space exploration requires an international effort. Voting for policies like brexit, or voting in divisive politicians like Trump is all but guaranteed to kill off space development long term.

About daryan12

Engineer, expertise: Energy, Sustainablity, Computer Aided Engineering, Renewables technology
This entry was posted in aviation, economics, future, politics, space, technology, transport and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Space a sustainability solution – Part 2: Living on the high frontier

  1. stanem2stan says:

    the space program is a make work project

    • daryan12 says:

      Certainly it is true that Congress tends to treat NASA as some sort of jobs program for swing states. And the Russians are even worse.

      But that’s not to say something good doesn’t come out of the space program from time to time.

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