Orbital Economy Developing But No One Wants To Live In Space

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A number of commercial companies are working to build a new economy in orbit above Earth, but a new survey shows almost no one wants to live space.

Researchers at San Jose State University and the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation found that only 6 percent of self-identified space enthusiasts were willing to live in humanity’s first off-planet housing, according to researchers.

“Roughly 6% of all respondents said they could be happy living in a space settlement no bigger than a large cruise ship with no more than 500 people and they would be willing to devote at least 75% of their wealth to be able to live permanently in orbit.”

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That’s potentially bad news for the United Launch Alliance, A Boeing and Lockheed Martin partnership that plans on employing 1,000 people in cislunar space, the area between Earth and the Moon, within the next 30 years.

The partnership is planning to develop potential commercial activities based on the extraction and sale of resources found in space like ice and the resultant water propellant derived from it.

Boosting objects into orbit is very expensive and most satellites need to go much higher than their launch vehicles are capable of. To get around this problem, they’re usually equipped with an additional boost stage designed to carry them into geosynchronous orbit, which is also costly.

The ULA is building a fleet of reusable rockets designed to carry these satellites to their high orbits by recycling the second stage of the spacecraft, the part that normally carries the cargo to its final destination.

After liftoff, the second stage of the reusable rocket is designed to separate from the booster and stay in orbit, where it will be refueled and ready to ferry new cargo brought up by other spacecraft, ULS Vice President George Sowers told Space.com.

“I want to buy propellant in space. Once I have a reusable stage and can buy my fuel, then I have the potential to dramatically lower costs to go elsewhere.”

[Image by NASA]

The ULA already has plans to buy water-based propellant from companies mining the surface of the moon and passing asteroids.

This setup, however, requires a lot of support facilities and the people to run them, which even space enthusiasts don’t seem willing to embrace. The idea of living in orbit sounds fun, but when faced with the reality of that decision only 6 percent of self-identified space enthusiasts appeared ready to take the leap, according to the new SJSU survey.

The research authors asked more than 1,000 self-identified space enthusiasts if they would be willing to live in a conceptual cylindrical orbital habitat called Kalpana Two, for how long, and how much they would be willing to pay to get there. The habitat, designed by Bryan Versteeg, measures 110m x 110m and would rotate to simulate gravity.

They didn’t seem disappointed in the low numbers of people willing to live in space, according to the research paper.

“While this is a small fraction of the subjects surveyed, when expanded to all space enthusiasts world-wide it should be more than enough to populate a number of small settlements.”

There are some conditions to this survey, however; it asked about permanent settlement in space instead of a one- or two-year contract. The number of people willing to live in space might also have been higher if they were offered a salary instead of being asked to foot their own transportation bill.

It brings into question, however, some of the more far-fetched plans announced by Elon Musk and, lately, the United Arab Emirates to build futuristic cities on Mars.

What would it take for you to be willing to live and work in space?

[Featured Image by ZargonDesign/iStock]