Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Life In Space.

There's been some recent news about activity surrounding the International Space Station. Apparently the Japanese have been working with NASA for a couple of years with the intention of attaching a lab to the ISS. The operation has made me think about life in space. One of the recent tidbits of news to come out in the media regarding the ISS is that it is equipped with just one bathroom. To make matters especially dire, this sole facility was 'out-of-order' for awhile. This has to make life inconvenient for the three longterm residents of the station. You'd figure that an object that is reputed to be the most expensive man-made item in history (at an estimated cost of $158 billion) would include more than one place to take a crap.

Eventually it is going to require additional facilities to accomodate the full six-man crew that will be working at the ISS in the future. After all, it's a joint venture between the US, Russia, Japan, and the European Space Agency (with Brazil and Italy being limited partners). It's clearly a rare project in its scope of international cooperation. Indeed it makes a lot of sense for these nations to have combined their separate plans for space stations, considering the astronomical individual costs. So far the vast majority of the astronauts staffing the ISS have been citizens of Cold War opponents Russia and the US. The German Thomas Reiter became the first resident from a third country, although many have visited.

Perhaps in the coming years the ISS won't be the only option for folks that want to spend a bit of time in space. A company called Bigelow Aerospace has already launched a test inflatable habitat module, and plans to put up a prototype space station as early as the end of this year. By 2010 they believe that they can launch and successfully operate the first commercially viable space station (tentatively named the Nautilus). They have launched a contest called "America's Space Prize", which promises $50 million to any company able to create a reusable craft with the capability of shuttling tourists to and from the proposed Nautilus. As fanciful as this sounds, there are companies with even grander plans.

There is an organization called Space Island Group which predicts that it can build and maintain a "Space Island" with a capacity of 20,000 people by the year 2020. Of course this sounds unlikely with the economy in the toilet and gas prices on the rise. Who would be able to afford a leisure trip to space? Believe it or not, there have already been five space tourists- four Americans and one Brit. All of them were separately conveyed to the ISS on board the Russian spacecraft Soyuz. They arranged this through the Space Adventures travel agency, and each paid in the neighborhood of 25 million bucks. That's an exorbitant amount of cash for a "vacation". Not to worry- opportunities for suborbital space flights are ever-expanding.

If you have a lot of disposable income, your opportunities to play 'spaceman' are only going to increase (barring a global catastrophe, of course) throughout this century. Perhaps one of your friends or family members will experience microgravity conditions within your very lifetime. As for me, I'm not that interested in space travel. I can't think of a compelling reason why I would spend exorbitant amounts of money to be stuffed in a small, cramped metal hulk... only to be vaulted outside of the Earth's atmosphere, with no guarantee that I will be returning safely. I'm sure the view is quite spectacular. Additionally it might be both liberating and/or terrifying to do a spacewalk, but I wouldn't want to have to wait to take a piss.

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