In 2012, the Gateway Foundation was founded with the purpose of building the world’s first rotating space station in orbit – known as The Gateway. This is no easy task and must be preceded by establishing the necessary infrastructure in orbit and the creation of a series of smaller structures to test the concept. This includes the Voyager Class station, a rotating structure designed to produce varying levels of artificial gravity.
In recent months, the Orbital Assembly Corporation (OAC) – founed in 2018 by the Gateway team – began working on a crucial component, known as the DSTAR. These and other updates about their Voyager Class station were the subjects of a recent video featuring Foundation and OAC CEO John Blincow. According to Blincow, he and his colleagues will be performing a demonstration and making a big announcement in the coming weeks!
The design for The Gateway was inspired by the Von Braun Wheel, a proposal made by German rocket scientist and space architect Wernher von Braun. This, in turn, was inspired by earlier concepts like the pinwheel space station prosed by Russian scientist and “father of astronautics” Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. In 1903, he released a treatise titled, Exploration of Outer Space by Means of Rocket Devices.
Among other things (like the famous Rocket Equation), this book contained a description for a space station that would rely on solar energy, a closed-system greenhouse, and would rotate to generate artificial gravity. In 1929, Yugoslav/Slovene aeronautical engineer Herman Potocnik released The Problem of Space Travel – the Rocket Motor, which contained a detailed illustration of a circular space station in Earth orbit.
The concept also inspired the space station in the 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was co-written by famed scientist and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. All of these concepts involve the use of centripetal force to simulate the sensation of gravity, which would allow for humans to spend extended periods of time in space without having to worry about the long-term effects of microgravity.
For years, economists, analysts, and space exploration enthusiasts have spoken about the commercialization of LEO – where everything from space stations and hotels to asteroid mining and space tourism will become a reality. But in order to accomplish this, the costs of launching payloads to space need to reduced (and they are!) and there needs to be a self-sustaining construction industry built in orbit.
Essential to this is the Structure Truss Assembly Robot (STAR), which will be used to rapidly fabricate the frame of the Voyager and Gateway stations. But before that can happen, a smaller prototype needs to be built and tested. That is where the DSTAR comes in, a 0.4 scale ground-based prototype of the STAR robots that will build the frame of their future stations.
In February of 2021, the Foundation will use the DStar to create a football field-sized truss here on Earth in just 90 minutes. This demonstration will validate the design and show that the technology can be used to rapidly assemble structures in orbit. As Blincow explained in the Gateway Foundation’s latest video:
“The DSTAR program will demonstrate Orbital Assembly Corporation’s ability to build large structures in space quickly. This project will demonstrate basic methods to mate and move structural members inside the full-scale STAR [in] orbit. Engineering of the DSTAR was finished in the Spring of 2020. The shop drawings from the fabricators have been approved and construction is well underway initial testing in the major components for function has begun.”
If all goes well, the Foundation will be moving forward with the next step of their plan, which is the deployment of the flight prototype – the PSTAR. This will demonstrate the robotic assembler by building a circular truss in orbit. This truss will be the basis of the Gravity Ring Program, which (like the PSTAR) is a 40% scale version of the Voyager station’s ring-shaped frame.
OAC plans to use the Gravity Ring to reduce the associated risks with the design and manufacture of the Voyager station. They also hope to demonstrate to investors that they can control the operational dynamics of a rotating frame, the validity of their rapid-construction process, and how it still allows for a high degree of precision.
At the same time, the gravity ring is meant to act as a valuable research tool that will provide vital data to space agencies like NASA, the ESA, JAXA, and others. Private aerospace companies, universities, and research institutes will also be able to use this data, which will explore the benefits of rotating space stations and rotating sections on spacecraft.
As Blincow indicated, it is also hoped that it will convince NASA to pivot from microgravity space stations (like the ISS) to rotating ones:
“To be very clear we, do not propose that NASA abandons research in microgravity. More zero-g stations will be built and used for research and production of many new products. But people need gravity to stay healthy, so at the end of their workday in a microgravity lab, they will go to a rotating station to eat, sleep, and get some exercise.”
This idea, of rotational space stations and microgravity space stations operating side by side, is what Blincow and his colleagues hope to see in the near future. The benefits of this kind of arrangement go beyond merely ensuring astronaut health and include the kind of research that will assist in deep-space exploration efforts.
For instance, the Voyager Class and The Gateway space stations are designed to provide varying levels of artificial gravity. In the case of the former, this is provided by adjusting the rate of rotation. Meanwhile, The Gateway is composed of concentric rings that are designed to simulate Lunar gravity (inner ring) and Martian gravity (outer ring) – 16.5% and 38% that of Earth, respectively.
In addition, Blincow explained how the presence of a rotating station in orbit could create opportunities for astronomers. In particular, he addressed how the recent loss of the Arecibo Observatory was a blow not only to scientific research, but also planetary defense. During its many years of service, Arecibo monitored near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) to determine if any posed a collision risk. Said Blincow:
“Rebuilding the facility for modern research needs will be a long and expensive undertaking. But the facility could be built significantly better around the Sun-Earth L2 [Lagrange] point. Arecibo primary’s reflector, the dish, could not be steered. So the limited range of celestial latitudes it could examine involved moving the focal platform above its reflector. In space, the shape of the large primary reflector could be far more optimal and could be pointed anywhere.”
On top of that, Blincow emphasized how a space-based Arecibo would not be subject to the Earth’s ionosphere, which blocks low-radio frequencies (lower than 300 kHz). This leaves astronomers “blind” to this part of the Universe, which is the only part of the electromagnetic spectrum that has never been observed with spatial resolution.
Last, but not least, there are extensive commercial benefits that these stations and a space-based construction industry will allow. In a previous video, Blincow explained how The Gateway will allow for commercial space in orbit (recreation and hotels). The Voyager station presents similar opportunities, as well as the possibility of astronaut training and orbital refueling.
One potential customer that the Foundation and OAC is hoping to work with is SpaceX. Right now, Elon Musk and the company he founded are working towards building a fleet of Starships that will allow for regular missions to the Moon and Mars. Blincow countered this with OAC Director Jeff Greenblatt’s analysis of Voyager could host a propellant depot that would make the process far more efficient:
“SpaceX wants to send a thousand Starships to Mars as soon as it can. To do this will require eight fueler Starships all just to fill the tank of one Mars-bound Starship with enough propellant to make the trip to Mars… SpaceX will also need crews with experience in space. Voyager station will generate hundreds of crew per year. Right now, there is no large pool of astronauts with hundreds of astronauts in space.”
Another benefit would be the creation of space-based solar arrays, which would be capable of gathering sunlight 24/7 and be unaffected by weather. But perhaps the most important aspect of the Foundation and OAC’s plan is the way it could assure “ascendence” for the US in space. This term, Blincow explains, was used to characterize the extraordinary growth of American industry and influence during the 20th century, but not anymore:
“The projected growth in all space-related industries is extraordinary. It is much like aviation in the 50s and the 60s. But America still has no national plan to expand into space with settlements… We believe that for America to become ascendant again we must make expansion into space not just an under-funded NASA objective, but a well-funded national objective.”
To encourage this, OAC even created a roadmap that lays out how the US could start building the necessary transportation infrastructure that would allow for human expansion into the Solar System. In the meantime, their engineers and designers are working to realize the PSTAR, the Gravity Ring, and prepping for the upcoming demonstration of the DSTAR.
Blincow also indicated that OAC will be making a big announcement on Friday, Jan. 29th, 2021. This will be an online event, the details of which will be sent to members of the Gateway Foundation in advance (click here to join). Blincow states that this will be a “big moment for Orbital Assembly Corporation and a big moment in history” that will be covered by the press and members of the space community. A little ominous, but I’m intrigued!
The Gateway project is appropriately named since it will allow humans to colonize Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and expand our presence beyond Earth. As part of Project Artemis, NASA hopes to establish a lunar base camp and the Lunar Gateway, which will facilitate long-duration missions on the lunar surface. Also, the ESA hopes to build an International Moon Village around the southern polar region as a spiritual successor to the ISS.
In order for these plans to work, the long-term effects of low gravity on astronaut health need to be explored. Similarly, there are numerous plans for long-duration missions to Mars, and entrepreneurs like Elon Musk are even hoping to establish a permanent human colony. Here too, the long-term effects on human health are unclear, which is especially true where natal development (aka. having babies).
There are also abundant opportunities to see how plants and livestock fare in low gravity, which will also be needed to ensure food security in space. And of course, making space exploration more cost-effective and accessible is key to it all. By having the permanent infrastructure in place to build, refuel, dock, and transfer in orbit, the costs of going to space will drop markedly.
The cost of setting all of this up is great, but so are the potential rewards. Much like taking a “moonshot” and building structures to space (like a space elevator), it comes down to feasibility, funding, and the drive to make it happen. Once the first two prerequisites are met, the only thing left to it is to do it!
Further Reading: The Gateway Foundation