Star Hotel in the Heavens: The Future of ISS
Russian Space company Roscosmos has apparently taken a decision not to renew their ISS obligations beyond the initial period of their MoU of 15 yrs from the date of fully commissioning in May 2009. Accordingly, they will pull out their Space Modules Zvezda and Nauka out of the International Space Station (ISS) after May 2024. This will put the ISS at a sure risk of gradual loss of orbit (to re-enter atmosphere and crash to the Earth partially burnt) unless propelled by another rocket. Although both SpaceX and ESA have indicated that they may be able to send the propulsion system to the ISS but unsure if within this stiff timeframe. Questions also arise whether it will be economically viable and justified to sustain the ISS reaching its lifespan.
The ISS was originally designed for a service life of 15 yrs with a factor of safety of 2-2.5 for different modules of the manned missions starting from 01 Nov 2000. With timely servicing and maintenance carried out, its life in principle, could be extended up to 30 yrs. Hence, for all practical purposes, ISS life span is till 2030 as recently approved by US Congress…and all this only if Roscosmos are on-board with NASA/ESA. The present orbit of the ISS can be maintained only if re-boosted periodically (thru’ Russian Zvezda/Nauka thrusters) for continuous atmospheric decays (which in initial years was ~5.5m /day but by now, as much as 100m / day). Decay rate is higher at lower altitudes. In addition, there are many other reasons too to use thrusters. Hence, ISS will remain afloat only if Russia extends their contract or if thrusters from other sources are integrated to the ISS. Only then it could be further utilised for commercial/ tourism interests of “Star Hotel in the Heavens” concept.
If the ISS has to be kept in an LEO, the technological challenges will remain the same whether for scientific purposes or tourism; or it could be a fine balance of being both. How long could its certification for Human Occupancy be ensured, depends upon the wear & tear of the hardware and replacement of the elastomers. The costs of keeping it afloat are essentially through the replacement of spares, replenishments of consumables and turnaround of human occupants. along with the transportation costs. In addition, costs of periodic orbital-boosting must be added. Some of the major works in customising the ISS for tourism include the followings:-
- Decide on the modules to be utilised further; remaining parts be off-loaded for controlled atmospheric re-entry and crash into the ocean.
- Plan for only periodical occupation. Automate all operations to be monitored and controlled remotely from ground stations. This includes shutting down and restarting of the EC&LSS when required. Relocate/re-orient re-filling/recharging of the on-board consumables with relative ease.
- An astronaut may have to accompany the guests to operate/maintain the station, to look-after the exigencies that may arise during inhabitation of the guests. This will take-away the 24x7 presence of astronauts and his/her cost of sustenance.
- Refurbish the interiors for the purpose of its further utilities. This may need providing flexi-cabins with privacy, windows for viewership, introducing recreational/rendezvous acts for lifetime experience, a small section for short-time research and so on.
- Once the above are done, a conscious decision may be taken to raise the altitude where orbital decays could be minimum yet keeping it away from the inner Van Allen Belt.
- Relocate the docking ports for ease of coupling without re-orienting the ISS.
The ISS may be customised/refurbished as a ‘luxurious hotel in the heavens’, for adventure/ space tourism if so decided. A part of the ISS may also become a short term experimental lab and there could be numerous educational and R&D institution who may wish to hire its services for their tasks. The adventures of space to experience the thrills of lifetimes could include the followings:-
- The Microgravity…unhindered Free Floating …without any obstacle.
- View the curvature of the Earth with its bluish Atmospheric cover.
- View the Sunrise or Sunset every 90 min which is totally different experience.
- Viewing the changing perspectives of the Earth under the day and the night
- Situational demands of viewing the changing perspective of the Earth under Solar or Lunar Eclipse or any other celestial events.
- Special occasion celebrations in space…proposing, marrying, honeymooning and so on.
- Sufficient exposure time under microgravity for short scientific experiments.
- Other innovative ideas will surely come-up for space recreational objectives in the future.
Astronauts’ syllabi for training of the tourists may be uncalled for. In the modern times, seldom any adventure tourist will have spare time of months/years for training before space tours as required for the astronauts, that requires huge infrastructures, trainers and also costs fortune. However, some amount of training will be mandatory for even temporarily experiencing the microgravity. Donning & doffing the Space Suit (esp under emergencies), avoiding collisions while moving afloat, managing personal chores etc with answers to the FAQs must be done. A medical/health screening for the tourist must rule out communicable disease, serious cardio-respiratory disorders, Vestibular mismatch/motion/space sickness as well as some others.
Space tourism for adventure/pleasure could best be of few hours for an elite, extremely busy, partially trained clientele. A longer stay may become monotonous and boring. Toilet will often be common and its usage will be tricky for the tourists. Bathing under microgravity is near impossible, with possible sponge-wash at best. Even brushing/mouthwash is difficult when one may have to swallow it. Consuming food or fluid is mostly by squeezing a sachet directly in mouth but occasionally a magnetic/self-adhesive plate over a floating table-top could be used as luxury. If one sneezes/vomits (possible for some tourists), entire living space will be soiled with droplets of sneeze/vomitus floating everywhere. For the honeymooners, their sexual activities will have limitations although there is no research paper in public domain. Surely they will adopt newer ways and means that could become a topic of ongoing research. Sleeping afloat is difficult, very unique, invariably strapped to the craft panel and the dark phase lasts only for approx. 45 min. In the initial days or on a short trip, sleep may not be as refreshing as on Earth. Headache, nausea, vomiting, increased urination, puffiness of face etc are common. The posture in microgravity is fairly awkward, in semi-flexed position. In short, although living in space environment could be imaginous, fascinating and glamourous; in effect it is with many limitations. Stay in microgravity for long periods have altogether different problems.
As it looks today, the options for utilising the ISS for tourism have challenges but is certainly feasible. Will Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson or Elon Musk utilize the concept of ‘Star Hotel in Heaven’, remains to be seen. If not, they may have to modify their crafts for better comfort and luxury, for prolonged durations of ventures to orbital flights or longer flights of one or more circles of the Earth, for the tourists to be able to view Sunset/Sunrise, changing perspective of the Earth for lasting memories. Elon Musk has a readymade recipe of orbital flight experience for his clientele, to exploit it. Some amount of innovative refurbishment of the ISS may have to be done to make it more attractive, luxurious for their clientele; and also economize its operations and maintenance. It will be interesting to see in the coming years as to how the ‘Space-Tourism’ shapes up with the options of utilizing ISS.