We Are About to Enter a New Era of Space Stations

Motherboard talks to Robert Pearlman about his new book Space Stations, and how NASA, China, and space companies are building the next phase of human life off Earth.
NASA space station at the Moon
Lunar-Orbital Platform Gateway. Image: NASA

The International Space Station (ISS) may well be the most valuable project created by humans. Not only is it the most expensive structure ever built, the station has also amassed unrivaled scientific, geopolitical, and aspirational value.

But while the ISS is a singular achievement, it is also just the latest incarnation of a dream that dates back centuries. This history is explored in the new illustrated book Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space by Gary Kitmacher, Ron Miller, and Robert Pearlman, out from Smithsonian Books on Tuesday.


Beginning with the telescopic observations of Galileo Galilei in the early 1600s, the book details the cultural and technological breakthroughs that have made space stations possible. Space Stations also outlines some of the most promising concepts for the next generation, from near-term development of commercial orbital habitats to far-future visions of megastations with millions of residents.


O’Neill Cylinder exterior. Image: Painting by Rick Guid

Motherboard spoke with author Robert Pearlman, founder and editor of collectSPACE, about how the history of space stations can inform a shared human future off Earth. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Motherboard: What was the initial impetus for the book?

Robert Pearlman: There have been books about the history of the space program, and the direction that our efforts to explore space have gone, but only a few have delved into how we’ve learned to live and operate in space for long periods of time. The idea of a space station predates any of our efforts by centuries in terms of how we imagined we’d live in space before we ever got there.

The book takes a look at it from not just the technical details, or the physics of placing a platform in Earth orbit, but what it meant culturally. We now have a situation where there are 18-year-olds who have never had a day in their life when there weren’t people living in space. That’s a social change. That’s a change for humanity.

What did early space station visionaries not anticipate about the construction of the first space stations?


The order of things was different than anybody imagined. [Rocketry pioneer] Wernher von Braun’s initial vision expressed in Colliers magazine, illustrated by Willy Ley and brought to animated reality by Walt Disney, always imagined us establishing our foothold in low Earth orbit before going out further. But because of the realities of the Cold War, and the way that forced our direction in entering the Space Race, we pushed out to the Moon without establishing a space station.


Image: NASA

Salyut, Mir, Skylab, and the ISS were seen as a step back because the public perceived that we were retracting from our foothold on the Moon. But the engineering realities and the difficulty of establishing a stable platform on which humans can live above the planet are much greater than any of the visionaries anticipated.

A lot of the early space station concepts were also based on establishing artificial gravity with the assumption that if humans live in a 1 g-force environment on Earth, we would want to live in a 1 g-force environment elsewhere. But as it turned out, the most valuable asset that the ISS offers us today is the microgravity environment—to learn how our bodies react to microgravity over a long period of time.

Will space stations with artificial gravity come back in style?

People are looking at it again because we’ve learned by studying the human body’s reaction to microgravity that there are detrimental effects if you ever want to re-enter a higher g-force environment like Earth.


To establish an artificial gravity space station or interplanetary craft, you would need a rather large ring because otherwise you’d be introducing other detriments to human biology, including vertigo. So, it is still something of science fiction even now.


Prototype of an artificial gravity module that was proposed for the ISS as a laboratory, not a living space. Image: Tnk3a

You also have a new push of companies establishing platforms in space for commercial reasons. You may see an increase in trying to establish a 1 g-force environment in space to make it easier for tourists to go there—the idea of an orbital hotel.

What contemporary science fiction narratives might be most relevant in thinking about the future of space stations?

What you see in The Expanse, or Star Trek reimagined by JJ Abrams, are elements of the ISS. They start to recognize, where we haven’t in past science fiction, the need for resupply ships, individual modules, rotating solar panels, or spacewalkers to service the outside of the craft.

"We now have a situation where there are 18-year-olds who have never had a day in their life when there weren’t people living in space. That’s a social change."

The way that Mir and the ISS came together influenced science fiction writers and directors to incorporate those concepts to present a more realistic interpretation.

“Planetary chauvinism”—the preference for settling planetary habitats as opposed to living in space stations—still seems to be fairly common in contemporary science fiction. Why do people seem more comfortable with the idea of living on planets instead of space stations?


When [spaceflight advocate] Gerard O’Neill wrote science fiction about humanity moving out to the planets, he thought that you would live in artificial platforms above the planet and do sortie missions down to it. It then became that you would live on the planet’s surface. That may not be the best approach. No surfaces are compatible with the human body other than Earth that we know of.

Is there an argument to be made that living on space stations is a more responsible way for humans to inhabit space?

It depends if we discover life [in the solar system]—not ETs, but microbiological life. Then, there may be a very convincing reason why we do not want to introduce humans to that system as quickly as possible because we’d want to study the advent of that life.


Concept for a crewed Mars station. Image: NASA

If we discover, on the other hand, that these planets and moons are devoid of life and we’re the only existing creatures here in this solar system, then there may be no harm in moving into these locations because we can only make them better.

It will come down to logistics. There’s no doubting that it will be expensive to establish either surface or orbital platforms, but who is doing that activity, whether it’s commercial, a government, or a consortium of governments, will dictate the approach that goes forward.

When do you think there will be more of a civilian presence on space stations?

Space exploration hasn’t accelerated more quickly because for the vast majority of the public, it is a spectator sport. They are watching but they can’t take part in it. Once suborbital spaceflight begins and more people go, not only will that democratize the experience but it will also drive the desire for more.


The best example of that are the seven individuals who paid to go to the ISS and live aboard for ten days; one of them liked it so much that he went again. It’s not necessarily a “once in a lifetime” experience and the more people who do it—coupled with other advances in reusability and rocket technologies bringing the cost down—the more we’re going to push humanity into space. Jeff Bezos has said that one of his goals with Blue Origin is to put not hundreds of people into space, but thousands of people into space. He sees that potential that once you get people going, it’s only going to snowball.

How will the role of government-operated space stations, like the ISS, evolve over the coming decades?

I think we’ll see multiple platforms that are being utilized by multiple countries, as well as countries establishing their space programs on a more solid footing.

China is building its space station, but it has already announced that any country in the world is welcome to come partner with it. The European Space Agency has already sent astronauts to train with China. Just this past week, there was a report that Pakistan intends to fly its first human in space with China to their space station in the 2022 timeframe.


Concept art of China’s space station. Image: CMSA

Russia has talked about establishing its own space station, but also wanting to be a part of the next US effort, which looks to be the Deep Space Gateway. That’s a mini-space station of sorts—it’s crew-tended, not continuously crewed, and serves as a platform for accessing the lunar surface. But it’s based on the same modular approach that we advanced with the ISS.


The ISS’s future, as hoped by the current administration and by NASA, is to see a commercial partner take over operations so that NASA doesn’t have to be the lead tenant. The most recent engineering assessment qualified all of the station’s major components to at least 2028, or even 2030, so it’s not near its end of life.

What is NASA’s reasoning for pushing out towards the Moon with the Deep Space Gateway?

NASA wants to send humans back to the surface of the Moon to get ready for trips out to Mars. It would provide crews that do visit for, say, a month at a time, the opportunity to experience working in deep space, where you’re not always in touch with Earth, and help is two days away instead of four hours away. That’s the one aspect that we don’t really have a lot of practice in, even dating back to Apollo—operating without an active mission control and support system back here on Earth.

If NASA were better funded, its plans would be considerably different than the Gateway, but the Gateway fits the budget and the near-term infrastructure that it has available to it.


Stanford Torus cutaway view. Painting by Rick Guidice courtesy of NASA

The book concludes with some far-future concepts of space stations and other habitats that could support major civilian populations. What kind of technical infrastructure would be needed to build space stations of that scale and ambition?

We would need to be at the point where we are no longer exploring the Earth, Moon, Mars, and asteroid systems, and be at the point of utilization. That means mining resources from the asteroids, deriving water from the Moon and Mars, and being confident in our abilities to build more complex structures than what we do now. That’s a distant future but it’s one that should be envisioned because when we stop dreaming, we stop doing.

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