Communion Of Dreams

Wasn’t that a plot point . . . ?
July 20, 2008, 9:20 am
Filed under: Arthur C. Clarke, ISS, Jupiter, movies, NASA, Paleo-Future, Science, Science Fiction, Space

I just came across an interesting idea from Michael Benson in the Washington Post last weekend:

Send It Somewhere Special

Consider the International Space Station, that marvel of incremental engineering. It has close to 15,000 cubic feet of livable space; 10 modules, or living and working areas; a Canadian robot arm that can repair the station from outside; and the capacity to keep five astronauts (including the occasional wealthy rubbernecking space tourist) in good health for long periods. It has gleaming, underused laboratories; its bathroom is fully repaired; and its exercycle is ready for vigorous mandatory workouts.

The only problem with this $156 billion manifestation of human genius — a project as large as a football field that has been called the single most expensive thing ever built — is that it’s still going nowhere at a very high rate of speed. And as a scientific research platform, it still has virtually no purpose and is accomplishing nothing.

* * *

Send the ISS somewhere.

The ISS, you see, is already an interplanetary spacecraft — at least potentially. It’s missing a drive system and a steerage module, but those are technicalities. Although it’s ungainly in appearance, it’s designed to be boosted periodically to a higher altitude by a shuttle, a Russian Soyuz or one of the upcoming new Constellation program Orion spacecraft. It could fairly easily be retrofitted for operations beyond low-Earth orbit. In principle, we could fly it almost anywhere within the inner solar system — to any place where it could still receive enough solar power to keep all its systems running.

Like I said, interesting. But problematic – the ISS wasn’t constructed to provide adequate protection from radiation (the orbit it occupies is within the Earth’s protective magnetosphere), and therefore would need to be retrofitted extensively to protect inhabitants on a long-distance voyage. It would likely also need retrofitting to reinforce the many joints where components have been mounted together, since these were not designed to withstand significant stress from propulsion.  I think Mr. Benson may have underestimated these problems and costs.

But it is still an interesting idea.  Unfortunately, it’s not original.  Well, not exactly.  Like so many things related to our early exploration in space, something similar was proposed by Arthur C. Clarke over 25 years ago.  Yes, about 15 before construction began on the ISS.   It is a plot point in his novel 2010: Odyssey Two (the book differs significantly from the movie 2010, so you may not have come across it).  In the book, a Chinese space station under construction in LEO surprisingly reveals itself to be an interplanetary craft, and takes off for Jupiter, getting the jump on both the American and Soviet missions planned to investigate the monolith in orbit there.

Just a little factoid for a Sunday morning.

Jim Downey

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