Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

Archive for the tag “space habitats”

How many people could be housed if we demolished the asteroid Ceres and turned it into [space] colony materials?

In my entry for Space Settlements: spreading life throughout the solar system  I claim that you can answer the question “How many people could be housed if we demolished the asteroid Ceres and turned it into [space] colony materials?” with this resource. Here’s how:

  1. Visit the site, then click on “Where?”
  2. Type “control-f”, then “Ceres”. This will give you the following paragraph:

Much greater growth potential. The Moon and Mars together have a surface area roughly the size of Earth. But if the single largest asteroid (Ceres) were to be used to build orbital space colonies, the total living area created would be approximately 150 times the surface area of the Earth. Since much of the Earth is ocean or sparsely inhabited, settlements built from Ceres alone could provide uncrowded homes for more than a trillion people.

There’s a lot to dig into on this site. If your story is set in the medium term future with large habits, spending some serious time here would really benefit your story.

Space Settlements is just one of the space-habitat related resources available from Writer’s Guide to Government Information.




Space Settlements: spreading life throughout the solar system

Space Settlements: spreading life throughout the solar system – http://settlement.arc.nasa.gov

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • How could we build a space station without using many resources from the Earth?
  • How many people could live in one colony?
  • What justifications could be made to build a large space colony?
  • How many people could be housed if we demolished the asteroid Ceres and turned it into colony materials?
  • What sort of farm livestock might you have on a space colony?


This site talks about the kinds of space colonies that I hoped I’d be living in one day. The dream is still alive and it is big, according to the website:

In the 1970’s Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill with the help of NASA Ames Research Center and Stanford University showed that we can build giant orbiting spaceships and live in them. These orbital space colonies could be wonderful places to live; about the size of a California beach town and endowed with weightless recreation, fantastic views, freedom, elbow-room in spades, and great wealth. In time, we may see hundreds of thousands of orbital space settlements in our solar system alone. Building these settlements will be an evolutionary event in magnitude similar to, if not greater than, ocean-based Life’s colonization of land half a billion years ago.

Here’s a little more specific description of the habitats they have in mind:

Rather than live on the outside of a planet, settlers will live on the inside of gigantic spacecraft. Typical space settlement designs are roughly one half to a few kilometers across. A few designs are much larger.

Settlements must be air tight to hold a breathable atmosphere, and must rotate to provide psuedo-gravity. Thus, people stand on the inside of the hull.

Enormous amounts of matter, probably lunar soil at first, must cover the settlements to protect inhabitants from radiation. On Earth our atmosphere does this job, but space settlements need about five tons of matter covering every square meter of a colony’s hull to protect space settlers from cosmic rays and solar flares.

Each settlement must be an independent biosphere. All oxygen, water, wastes, and other materials must be recycled endlessly.

Turning to the site itself, it is divided up into several sections:

  • Basics (Who, What, Where, How, Why, When, How much will it cost?)
  • Student Design Contest (for 6-12 Graders) – See 2012 results at http://settlement.arc.nasa.gov/Contest/Results/2012/index.html. The results might be a good map for your own settlement.
  • Online Space Settlement Books (Mostly from 1970s) – Some of these are close to blueprints.
  • Images
  • Other Space Settlement Web Sites
  • Miscellaneous

Story Idea

One of the “Other Space Settlement Web Sites” is the Space Settlement Institute which is pursuing legislation to recognize land ownership on the moon. See their pitch at http://www.space-settlement-institute.org/strategy.html. Complications arising from such legislation might make for an interesting story.

Skylab Mission page

Skylab Mission page – http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/skylab/index.html

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What’s involved in creating a working bathroom in zero g?
  • When were the first and last Skylab missions?
  • How did NASA control Skylab when it had no crew?
  • What can you do if your docking thrusters misfire?


Before Mir was Skylab, our low key successor to Apollo. From the website:

Skylab was launched into Earth orbit by a Saturn V rocket on May 14, 1973. Through the use of a “dry” third stage of the Saturn V rocket, the station was completely outfitted as a workshop area before launch. Crews visited Skylab and returned to Earth in Apollo spacecraft.

Three, three-man crews occupied the Skylab workshop for a total of 171 days and 13 hours. It was the site of nearly 300 scientific and technical experiments, including medical experiments on humans’ adaptability to zero gravity, solar experiments and detailed Earth resources experiments.

Skylab was small compared to the Mir and ISS stations. Unlike Mir, Skylab had long periods where it was uninhabited. There were not regular shift changes where one crew handed off the station to another.

The site links to several NASA books that may be useful for establishing station context:

  • Skylab: A Chronology (Includes statistical appendix)
  • Living and Working in Space – Chapter 8 talks about the challenges of a working space toilet.
  • Skylab, Classroom in Space

Photos and video are also available on the site.

Shuttle-Mir program

Shuttle-Mir program – http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4225/toc/toc-level1.htm

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • Who was the first Russian cosmonaut to fly on the U.S. Space Shuttle?
  • How do you respond to a fire in space?
  • What would an appropriate backstory be for a character who served on Mir?


A history of the program that took American astronauts to the Russian Mir space station. Details on each mission, along with biographies of the crew. Also relates incidents during the program such as the fire that occurred in 1997 during the time that American astronaut Jerry Linenger was onboard the station.

Mir space station history

Mir space station history – http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4225/mir/toc-mir.htm

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What are some ways to resupply your space station?
  • When did Mir burn up in Earth’s atmosphere?
  • What was the purpose of the Kvant I module?


This is an extract from a longer book about the Shuttle-Mir program (http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4225/toc/toc-level1.htm). This section deals with the Soviet/Russian Mir Space Station, which came after Skylab and before the current International Space Station. It is a description and history from the American perspective and is put into the context of the “Shuttle-Mir” program. The American perspective is non-hostile, as this portion of the introduction shows:

The space station Mir became a legend in its own time reflecting Russia’s past space glories and her future as a leader in space.

The Russian Space Station Mir endured 15 years in orbit, three times its planned lifetime. It outlasted the Soviet Union, that launched it into space. It hosted scores of crewmembers and international visitors. It raised the first crop of wheat to be grown from seed to seed in outer space. It was the scene of joyous reunions, feats of courage, moments of panic, and months of grim determination. It suffered dangerous fires, a nearly catastrophic collision, and darkened periods of out-of-control tumbling.

The section on Mir is subdivided into short blocks organized around the various components of Mir: Mir Base Block, Kvant I, Kvant II, Kristall, Spektr, Priroda, Progress, Docking Module, Solar Arrays, Interior. These include pictures and descriptions of functions.

In addition there are chapters dealing with launch publicity in the Soviet Union, a description of how Cosmonauts returned from Mir and a description of Mir Expeditions 17-25, which cover the time of the Shuttle Mir program. The Mir Expeditions were scheduled to be six months and for various reasons some cosmonauts stayed in the station for more than a year. This could be psychologically hard and was probably part of the inspiration for the crazy cosmonaut scenes in the Bruce Willis movie Armageddon.

Two other sections linked from the Mir text deserve mention. One is “Bilingual Blues”, which examines the training that NASA Mir astronauts received in Russian. The quality of language training varied by expedition. According to the text, “Mir Astronaut John Blaha thought that inadequate language preparation was perhaps NASA’s “biggest mistake” of the Shuttle-Mir Program, although he became comfortable with Russian while onboard Mir.”

The section on “Long Duration Psychology” notes differences in training between astronauts and cosmonauts. In particular, Cosmonauts have ground training in isolation that lasts between two weeks and thirty days. This difference in training and the lack of psychological compatibility matching on the American side were noted as responsible for some friction on the station. It is a good read if your story includes small crews cut off from meaningful contact.

International Space Station (ISS) Reference Guide

International Space Station (ISS) Reference Guide – http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/508318main_ISS_ref_guide_nov2010.pdf

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • Where can I find the treadmill on the International Space Station?
  • What are the scematics of the water recovery system for the International Space Station?
  • What are the specifications of the Japan Experiment Module Kibo?
  • What is the Mobile Servicing System and what does it do?
  • How is the ISS protected for meteors and space debris?


This guide appears to be a fairly complete guide to a writer who is envisioning creating a small orbital outpost. The guide is a 50MB PDF file containing 140 pages of materials.

Oriented to the general public, it is divided into the following chapters:

  • What it does – Describes the goals of the Station.
  • Research guide – Explains the main research areas of the station and what equipment is used for it.
  • How it’s put together – Specifications of the various modules that make up the International Space Station.
  • How it’s supported – Overview of the nations supporting the ISS, followed by specifications of supply vessels for the station.
  • How the crew lives – Includes photos of sleep, exercise and work. Covers basic health care issues. The photos are keyed to the corresponding sections of the station.
  • How it works – An explanation of the systems that run the station along with specifications for space suits and manipulator arms.
  • How it’s built – Shows an expanded/exploded view of ISS elements along with an illustrated chronology of construction.
  • Missions – Personnel and dates of mission for the first 24 expedition crews, along with information about shuttle, Soyuz and unmanned missions to the ISS.
  • Appendix – Resource guide for further reading, an acronym list related to space station operations and a short glossary.

International Space Station (ISS) home page

International Space Station (ISS) home page – http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/index.html

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • How does the energy expenditure of reaching Earth orbit compare to that of reaching the surface of Mars?
  • What would a Earth space station astronaut see outside their window?
  • What is the habitable volume of the International Space Station?


The International Space Station has two advantages for writers of outer space stories. It’s an ongoing mission, so there is lots of information about its workings and tasks being done by the various expedition teams. The other advantage is that they have a video archive at http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/videogallery/index.html?collection_id=14555. There is also a live video feed at http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/iss_ustream.html which sometimes shows the view of earth from the Station. Writers wanting to depict weightlessness in a realistic way or to show what crewmembers see out their window just have to point their browser to the archive and start watching.

A note about combining different items to inform yourself. Start up the live video feed. F you see Earth in the window, open a new browser window, load up the ISS home page and then click on “station tracker.” This will launch a java app that will show a zoomable world map. Crank it up to its highest magnification and your map view ought to approximate what is going by the Space Station window. Now you’re oriented.

The web site for the ISS is broken up into into a number of sections:

  • Research & Technology
  • Crew & Expeditions
  • International Cooperation
  • Living & Working
  • Building & Assembly
  • Ground Facilities
  • Images & Videos
  • Facts & Figures
  • News & Media Resources

It may be helpful to comb through the news archives under “Crew & Expeditions.” While it is mostly mission news, there are some really helpful science bits, like Tyrrany of the Rocket Equation by Expedition 30/31 Flight Engineer Don Pettit. This article gives a plain English overview of the limits of where rockets can take human beings and specifications about the correct proportions of fuel to payloads.

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