Living amongst the stars and traveling across the endless expanse of the cosmos has long been a dream for humankind. Both scientific communities and science fiction alike have spent over a century exploring this ideal. Lifetimes of scientific research, inventions by the most innovative minds, and billions of dollars spent, have meant reaching that monumental breakthrough moment. Humans have been living continuously in space for over 20 years in the International Space Station (ISS). And in our current lifetime, humankind could go live on the Moon or even Mars.
We can envision a future where people will have the option to live off Earth, on a different planet, moon, or even a city-sized space station. Scientists will be able to explore the surface of new planets, making discoveries and innovations as endless as the universe itself, and see further into the wide expanse of the macrocosm than we can currently fathom.
Of course, this all starts with the beginning steps: the very first planetary outposts and orbital space cities. Thankfully, there are many exciting developments that are likely to become a reality in the next few years.
Necessity and benefits of space exploration
This new space age will have many benefits, including for everyone on Earth. The need to explore space and expand human civilization is considered an important necessity for many reasons. Chief amongst these is that the very survival of humans might depend upon it. We know that there are real possibilities of worldwide extinction events, such as asteroid impacts, climate change, environmental disasters, and nuclear disasters. Not having all the humans in the same basket could be the smartest move.
Having human settlements across many worlds, and perhaps someday even other star systems, would ensure that human life will go on. With careful planning and strategic action, scientists could also ensure that Earth’s plant and animal species will exist in our new space civilizations as well. But even right now, we can benefit greatly from the advances in space travel that are about to commence. They will offer the opportunity to obtain new and possibly better resources, and new scientific discoveries that can be used in the fields of health and medicine, technology, infrastructure, and more.
Space travel – problems and solutions
Space travel has many dangerous obstacles to overcome. Some of the main problems are radiation, lack of oxygen, microgravity, pressure changes, and extreme temperatures. We ourselves can also be a danger, as there’s also the threat of biological contamination, which will need careful attention to make sure pathogens such as bacteria or viruses don’t spread between planets.
There are two ways to protect against radiation. Passive shielding uses a physical material such as polyethylene, lead, or others to block radiation. Alternatively, there is active shielding, where one uses electromagnetic fields similar to how our Earth’s magnetic field protects us from space radiation.
When it comes to air, we either bring it with us or try to make it from materials at our destination. The current method for creating oxygen in space is through water electrolysis, which splits water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen. NASA has also developed MOXIE, which takes in carbon dioxide (an abundant source on planets such as Mars) and converts it to oxygen and carbon.
The lack of gravity in space can cause severe health problems, but artificial gravity can be created by rotating space stations. Researchers have also been developing smaller rotating systems that could fit inside a room on a space station, which occupants could visit regularly to experience gravity and counteract the detrimental effects of prolonged microgravity.
One ingenious way to create artificial gravity and have protection from radiation is to use an asteroid to build a spinning space station. Underground settlements might also be ideal because they offer safer temperatures and protection from radiation.
Some caves on our Moon stay around a comfortable temperature of 17°C (63°F), and may be considered for future lunar settlements. Space stations, interplanetary settlements, and space suits need to be properly pressurized and made of materials that protect against radiation and extreme temperatures. It is a work in progress.
Orbital space stations and planetary outposts coming soon
There are many unknowns when it comes to human space living. Many top space organizations have created inventive ways to not only survive in space but to thrive, and even live in comfort. Not all of those ideas are at hand. But these are some of the exciting plans from private enterprises and agencies for what’s next:
The Orbital Reef, designed by Blue Origin and Sierra Space, will be a space station for long-term living and used for commerce, research, and tourism. It will be in low Earth orbit, with large windows facing Earth for a breathtaking view, and will offer amenities including medical care and recreation opportunities. They plan on offering spaces to lease, for uses such as opening a space hotel or setting up your own research lab. Orbital Reef is projected to be operational by 2027.
NASA Artemis Missions
The Artemis Missions will include the Base Camp on the Moon’s surface and the Gateway spaceship in lunar orbit. Artemis I, an uncrewed flight test, launched successfully in 2022. Artemis II, a crewed flight test, is scheduled to launch November 2024. Artemis III will land the crew on the surface at the Moon’s south pole, and Artemis IV will deliver part of the Gateway spaceship into lunar orbit and land more crew. These missions are also in preparation for future Mars settlements.
Starlab, designed by Nanoracks and Voyager, will be a free-flying commercial space station. To make sure it’s a top-notch comfortable experience, they’re partnering with the Hilton Hotels hospitality team for interior design. It will have space labs for biology, plant habitation, physics, and materials science. It plans on being a hub for international astronauts and providing opportunities for researchers and explorers of all backgrounds and fields. It has a planned launch date of 2028.
Sierra Space LIFE™ Habitat
The LIFE™ Habitat will be an orbital space station with three levels including a lab, kitchen, garden, and sleeping quarters. After launching on a rocket, it inflates in orbit into the three-story-tall structure. It’s for use in low Earth orbit as well as long-duration flights to other planets, and its Astro Garden is envisioned as a way to grow fresh produce for sustaining long missions. The LIFE™ Habitat is still in development and has not yet released a launch date.
The SpaceX Starship will be capable of carrying 100 people on voyages to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, and other planets. It’s a fully reusable spacecraft, and will be capable of long-duration interplanetary flights. Its first orbital test flight in April 2023 ended in an explosion, but SpaceX has since made many improvements to the Starship. It’s scheduled for another test flight sometime in 2023, and is expected to deliver NASA astronauts to the lunar surface as soon as 2025, if all the testing goes well.
Icon Project Olympus
Icon’s Project Olympus will deploy self-building technology to turn Moon regolith into a strong building material and construct a habitat on the Moon. The plan sees Olympus land on the Moon, drive itself to a selected build site, process lunar surface material into strong building material, and create structures with 3D printing technology. Olympus will also be capable of building a base on Mars in the future. They plan on going to space in late 2023 or 2024, and building on the Moon in 2026.
ThinkOrbital's ThinkPlatforms are spherical-module space stations that will be used for research and space tourism. The whole thing will eventually be a free-flying space station four times bigger than the ISS. Their concept is for a large thriving commercial hub made by combining multiple ThinkPlatforms, capable of carrying hundreds of people. The ThinkPlatforms are still in development and no launch date has been announced yet.
Haven-1 Space Station
The Haven-1 Space Station, created by Vast and partnered with SpaceX for launch, will allow for spaceflight missions up to 30 days long. This low-Earth-orbit space station will offer WiFi, room to stretch and rest, and opportunities for lunar artificial gravity via spinning. Haven-1 will be used for science, research, in-space manufacturing opportunities, as well as space tourism. It’s planned to launch no earlier than August 2025.
The Axiom Station, by Axiom Space, will operate in low Earth orbit, with comfortable accommodations and unobstructed views of Earth. The first section of the station will dock to the ISS in 2025, with a second module attaching to the first in 2026, a third module in 2027, and a fourth in 2028 for a larger and expanded space station. After the ISS is decommissioned, the Axiom Station will be separated from the ISS to become its own station.
Humanity's future in space
Not all of these projects might come to fruition, and many others not mentioned or not yet in the works might be revolutionary. Whatever the future holds, this wide interest in exploring and settling space, and all these upcoming launches, show that we are witnessing history in the making. In time, we may have the opportunity ourselves to venture forth and live in space.
Space cities and interplanetary living have always been represented as advanced and futuristic. We are now living in the exciting age of seeing how these dreams become a reality in our lifetimes. Once we’re living in that future, what will be next? We can expect many exciting developments and discoveries for us in the years ahead.