Designing for the Space Environment

Left: View out airliner window; Right: View outside spacecraft window
Left: View out airliner window; Right: View outside spacecraft window. (Left picture: © James Michael Snead, used with permission; Right Picture: U.S. Government)

The image above shows two views of “space.” Left is a view of the “open space” of the American west.  Right is a view of the “outer space” above the Earth. The left picture was taken from a human aircraft while the right picture was taken from a human spacecraft.

Radar map of commercial airliners on a typical morning or afternoon
Radar map of commercial airliners on a typical morning or afternoon. (Source: U.S. Government)

What is the same for both pictures is that the “space” environment immediately beyond the window glass is deadly to humans. Yet, despite the clear risk to human safety, on a typical afternoon, some 4,500 aircraft fly the skies above America. They safely and comfortably carry about a quarter million humans of all ages. Many people spend most of their working careers within this harsh “space” environment and do so safely and routinely by working within the well-engineered habitats called aircraft.

The successful expansion of human civilization into new and possibly deadly environments is not new. As humanity expanded across the Earth over the last 40,000 years, human adaptability—combined with the creative ability to engineer their environment—has enabled most of the Earth’s surface to become continuously inhabited.

Eskimo building a snow house in Canada (Source: Library of Congress; no known restrictions)
Eskimo building a snow house in Canada. (Source: Library of Congress; no known restrictions)

In South America, for example, adapted humans have lived for thousands of years at altitudes where non-adapted humans would likely become seriously ill or die.  In the arctic, extremely clever humans have engineered available natural resources to enable them to survive and prosper for hundreds of generations. They invented the means to utilize available natural resources to enable them to live in fixed (snow houses) and mobile habitats (clothing) that maintain their next-to-skin temperatures within the comfortable range, despite frigid outside temperatures.

What we know is that the threats to human life and safety posed by new environments can usually be overcome. Outer space will be no different, despite what we see in the movies. Of course, like on the Earth’s surface, there will be locations in space where trying to “live” will not be practical. Fortunately, this does leave much of space where humanity will be able to successfully live and work in well-engineered environments just as is done on the Earth.