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Space Stations of the Future

Space Stations of the Future

International Space Station Alpha, which has been in operation since December 2000, is scheduled for completion in 2006. "Alpha," as it is nicknamed, is becoming the site of extensive human physiological research, life and physical science investigations, and commercial work that will continue for at least ten more years. Circling Earth once every 90 minutes, and at an altitude roughly the same as the distance from Washington, D.C. to New York City, Alpha is the latest and most evolved orbital space station .* But almost certainly there will be others. What will they be like? And how might they be used?

As the work at Alpha returns knowledge and stirs public interest, national space agencies, scientists, and business people are considering beneficial activities that could be conducted onboard future stations in orbit. Even the armed forces have considered the use of crewed space stations, although no sufficient reason has yet been found to develop a capability there for the military.

In the early twenty-first century, almost all civilian interestsfrom basic science experiments to tourismhave found reasons to think of future facilities in space. As with other environments and territories new to human experiencesuch as the deep seafloor, the Antarctic continent, or even Alaska in the nineteenth centurythe scope of opportunity for human activity in space is only beginning to become clear.

Politics, People, and Purposes

The very nature of Space Station Alpha typifies a reason for human spaceflight: international politics. Alpha is a cooperative program of sixteen countries. Russia was admitted to the circle in part as a gesture to apply the rocket industry of the former Soviet Union to peaceful purposes. China is publicly stating its intention to either join the Alpha Station partnership or build a space station of its own. If the latter happens, it may be because the feat will be touted to the world as a demonstration of China's technological and economic power, as was the case in the 1970s for America and the Soviet Union. In the future, additional nations may demonstrate their status in the same manner. But other needs will also drive nations to focus portions of their space programs on new space stations. And future orbiting facilities may be single-purpose ventures as opposed to the multipurpose Alpha.

Science and Technology.

Proposals for scientific investigations will probably increase as new discoveries expand the interest in using the very low-gravity and high-vacuum environments of space. As a consequence, there will be a continuing string of future scientific space stations or laboratories. Isolation from human presence may be an important factor in the design of these lab stations. The movement of people causes vibration in the structure of space stations, and these vibrations can upset delicate experimental processes and measurements. Hence, the stations will probably be staffed by robotic systems controlled from scientists' desktops on Earth. Astronaut "maintenance" crews will visit these laboratories infrequently. Also, research on virulent diseases or genetic engineering could mean that work is better done robotically in the isolation of a medical facility off the planet.


In 2001 the first person to join a spaceflight for pleasure, Dennis Tito, flew to the International Space Station for six days. Primarily because Alpha was still under construction, that trip caused a furor among the partner nations other than his sponsor nation, Russia. But it also set a benchmark for popular future activities in space. More "space tourists" and nonprofessional astronauts will follow Dennis Tito.*

There may soon be vacation or sightseeing modules orbiting Earth for the use of those rich enough to buy a rocket ride into orbit. Scientist astronauts will not want to be bothered with these wealthy tourists, so a self-sustaining "orbital cabin," outfitted at first with only a picture window and the basics for human comfort, may become the foundation for "orbital resorts" further in the future. The thrill of experiencing life without gravity and viewing the ever-changing scenery as this cabin-station orbits over Earth will fuel the desire of millions to experience it firsthand.

But spaceflight for the masses is decades in the future. Until then, the vicarious experience that can be conveyed through cinema and video will have to suffice for most people. Filming and production facilities dedicated to weightlessness and space-walking action shoots may become part of a private enterprise station in orbit. This industrial park may support various nongovernment businesses in tourism, thrill-seeking, filmmaking, and theatrical productions. While research and commerce exploit orbital space in these ways, another station will function as a staging depot for expeditions to other worlds.

Jumping Off to Other Worlds

In the near future, human expeditions to the Moon and much farther to Mars will be organized and launched from orbiting docks. Because Earth is at the bottom of a gravitational "well" that must be climbed to get anything into space, it will be useful to use Earth orbit as a kind of "ledge" near the top of that well. In terms of energy, a spacecraft is essentially halfway to any other world in the solar system once it is in orbit around Earth. Cost and risk may both be reduced by launching astronaut explorers, their vehicles, and supplies to Earth orbit, where they can be assembled and checked before propelling them completely out of Earth's gravity and outward to Mars, for instance. For that purpose, a future space station that is an orbital dock and way-station may be developed. It would be the point of departure for human or even complex robotic explorers to other planets, asteroids, or comets. This station would also be the interim stop for deep-space explorers at the end of their travels. A module or laboratory at this station will likely be the destination of the rocks, soil, and maybe even other-worldly life brought back for in-depth study. Quarantining returning explorers and their samples may be a very sensible precaution.

It is virtually certain that the twenty-first century will see increasing numbers of space stations orbiting our planet and filling diverse roles.

see also Business Parks (volume 1); Hotels (volume 4); International Space Station (volumes 1 and 3); Space Industries (volume 4); Space Tourism, Evolution of (volume 4); Tourism (volume 1).

Charles D. Walker


Cleator, P. E. An Introduction to Space Travel. New York: Pitman Publishing, 1961.

National Research Council. Evaluating the Biological Potential in Samples Returned from Planetary Satellites and Small Solar System Bodies: Framework for Decision Making. Washington, DC: Task Group on Sample Return from Small Solar System Bodies, 1998.

*Alpha uses sunlight to generate its own power (as much as that used by ten American homes) and is constructed around air-filled modules with more room than a 747 jetliner.

*South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttle-worth became the second space tourist to the International Space Station in April 2002.

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