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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The human colonization of space

Will newly designed space rockets and vehicles be used only for exploration, travel and tourism in the coming decades, or will humans take the first major steps toward establishing multi-generational “colonies” of people in space?

Professors and students at UC Davis involved with Professor Steve Robinson’s upcoming research center on campus for the study of human/vehicle interaction will be debating such topics in the coming academic year. Students who take his “Introduction to Spacecraft” class in the spring will also participate.

“I think we’re a long ways from really putting colonies of people out there that would live their whole lives in space,” said former NASA astronaut John Glenn.

Robert W. Phillips, a former chief scientist of NASA’s International Space Station (ISS) program, agreed: “You don’t want to get too carried away with living someplace else until you’ve at least gone to visit and explored it to determine what’s there.”

Phillips, who graduated from UC Davis in 1965 with a Ph.D. in physiology and nutrition, trained as an astronaut in the 1980s.

While much of the debate about space colonies in the 1970s focused on the idea of creating space habitats in the “free space” between the Solar System’s planets, many experts today say establishing colonies on the surface of a planet (like Mars) or on the surface of a planetary body (like the Moon) would be much more feasible.

“Eventually you have to produce something that is of value to people back here on Earth or elsewhere,” Phillips said, adding that mining for helium-3 (He-3) on the Moon for energy use on the Earth is an achievable goal.

Since the amount of cosmic dust in free space is relatively small, natural resources there are limited, so it would be difficult for free-floating communities in space to make products for interplanetary commerce.

“If they don’t have exports, it will be a dying unit, because in order to get money coming in – in order to do other new things – they’re going to need help from the outside,” Phillips said.

Phillips is the author of the new book Grappling with Gravity: How Will Life Adapt to Living in Space? which explores these issues in depth.

The aging process in space was explored when Glenn flew on the Space Shuttle Discovery with Robinson in 1998. Glenn allowed himself to be studied as a kind of human guinea pig.

Glenn explained that the purpose of the research was to compare test results from him with results from younger astronauts, and find differences in the immune system, protein turnover and vestibular functions and the balance system.

A further step in aging research as it relates to possible human colonization of space is to study multiple generations of animals in space.

“We have absolutely no information on multi-generations in space, not even with rats,” Phillips said.

With President George W. Bush’s decision in 2004 to phase out the Space Shuttle program before a replacement vehicle was ready for use, opportunities for research of this type are reduced and NASA astronauts can currently only fly to the International Space Station on Russian rockets.

“I think President Bush’s decision to cancel the shuttle was just flat wrong. I just disagree with that,” Glenn said. Glenn retired from the U.S. Senate in 1999, five years before the decision was made. President Barack Obama did not reverse the decision, and the shuttle program ended in 2011.

“We’re in a newly competitive position around the world,” Glenn said, adding that more research in space and research at centers like the one planned by Robinson are needed in order to “expand our knowledge and continue research in keeping [the U.S.] in the lead in research in the world.”

“I think UC Davis is very fortunate to have gotten somebody like Steve Robinson,” Glenn said. “Steve is really an outstanding person. NASA’s loss is UC Davis’ gain.”

BRIAN RILEY can be reached at science@theaggie.org.



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