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A Surprise Commentary Plus Advanced Life Support: Don’t Leave Earth Without It

Updated: Apr 1

(courtesy of Scott Hubbard in Vol. 5 new Space)


This issue is a two-fer bonus! As regular readers are aware, New Space was the first journal to publish the ‘‘Minimal Architecture for Human Journeys to Mars’’ study by the JPL staff.1 In this issue, Elon Musk has submitted a written version of the SpaceX ‘‘Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species’’ that he presented at the last International Astronautical Congress in 2016. In my view, publishing this paper not only provides an opportunity for the spacefaring community to read the SpaceX vision in print with all the charts in context, but also serves as a valuable archival reference for future studies and planning. My goal is to make New Space the forum for publication of novel exploration concepts—particularly those that suggest an entrepreneurial path for humans traveling to deep space.


I’ve studied and implemented space exploration concepts and programs for more than 40 years. With that experience, I can say without hesitation that an absolute prerequisite for any viable human space exploration program is a set of procedures, materials, and devices that will provide for the support of life. The natural public focus of space projects is the fire, sound, and excitement of a launch. Indeed, the reliability and cost of the rocket system and spacecraft is fundamental to sustainable exploration. However, once people are involved, the next most important (and often overlooked) systems are the devices that provide air to breathe, water and food (if the trip is long enough), and also protect our fragile bodies from the extraordinarily harsh environment of space.


In addition to the constraints cited above, which are also encountered in aviation and underwater ventures, space has the very special environmental effects associated with prolonged exposure to weightlessness and the ionizing radiation present outside the protection of Earth’s magnetic fields. Whether the exploration approach is more traditional and governmental or entrepreneurial, all human mission designers must address life support and how it mitigates the risk inherent in an endeavor such as space exploration.

For flights of any substantive duration (i.e., more than a few hours), life-support systems must perform a variety of tasks in as efficient a manner as possible. So-called Environmental Control Life Support Systems (ECLSS) must scrub CO2 from the cabin air, recycle liquid wastes to drinkable water, and package solid waste for disposal, among other requirements. The ‘‘holy grail’’ of ECLSS, which has not yet been achieved, is a 100% closed-loop system—in other words, full recyclability. On a voyage of 7 months or more, for example to Mars, taking additional resources such as air, water, and food to make up for losses represents a cost and additional risk burden to the project.


One critical element of the entire life-support system is the ‘‘space suit.’’ Protective clothing has routinely been developed for the launch in case of sudden depressurization, as well as for the ‘‘spacewalks’’ that have become a regular part of space travel. The experience of the International Space Station has clearly demonstrated the utility of in-space repair, maintenance, and upgrades to a very complex facility. Future deep-space exploration or establishing a Moon or Mars base will not be any different.

I recall a NASA exploration planning meeting perhaps 20 years ago where our team was fortunate to have several Apollo astronauts in attendance, including Buzz Aldrin. When asked about future needs, Buzz didn’t hesitate: ‘‘Give us a much better space-suit glove,’’ he responded, and, he continued, ‘‘Find a way to clean off the (Moon) dust..’’ Those of us who are Earth bound fail to realize that even with the low pressures typical of a space suit (4.3 psi), a glove in a vacuum will be extremely stiff and difficult to manipulate. Similarly, the exit and entrance from the Apollo module was complicated by the ubiquitous presence of the surface dust. Mars—the dusty Red Planet—may well be as problematic.

In this issue, we decided to address the complex issues of ECLSS, space-suit design, and the like from a commercial or entrepreneurial view. To that end, we have invited a set of papers from individuals and organizations that have taken on the substantial challenge of future life-support designs. I hope you find this material thought provoking in an area that is critical, but often underrepresented, in the general space-exploration publications.

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