An article in IEE Spectrum describes an idea by NASA contractor NanoRacks to convert spent fuel tanks into habitation modules in orbit.

This immediately reminded me of an idea I had in my novel Factory Orbit to use spent Space Shuttle fuel tanks (the big orange ones) to fabricate into habitation modules for an orbital factory.  (Don’t look for it; it’s not currently on sale.)

One major difference between the NanoRacks design and my own: My system would join multiple tanks together in a ring and spin them to create artificial gravity for its occupants.

ring of fuel tanksIn Factory Orbit, a conglomeration of companies intending to build an orbital factory start by arranging for NASA to carry its spent STS fuel tanks to orbit and leave them in a parking orbit, tethered loosely to each other until needed… sixteen tanks in all, each measuring 153′ length by 27′ diameter.

When the conglomeration’s astronaut-builders were sent to orbit, they cut large openings in two sides of each tank, then joined them in a ring so a person could pass from tank to tank via the large openings.  The tanks were welded together and sealed; then an insulating and protective inner layer was added to the interior, and the whole thing was pressurized with air.  Temporary airlocks were placed about the inner sides of the ring, allowing the astronauts to enter, remove their suits and construct a habitable interior in a shirtsleeve environment.

tank interior cross-sectionOnce the ring was finished, it was brought up to a rotational speed to create a standard Earth gravity (1 gee) inside the ring via centrifugal force.  The result was a habitat that would function much like the habitation ring in the space station depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey (though not nearly as large), with two main corridors that encircled the ring, and connecting corridors that gave access to living and working quarters, and engineering and storage areas in the nose and tail of each tank module.  This gave workers a fairly comfortable place to rest between shifts of creating their factory, which was nested inside the ring and counter-rotated to provide a 0-gee environment on the factory “floor.”

The intent of the orbital factory was to facilitate the manufacturing of products and synthesis of elements that could be made cheaper, purer or more efficiently in a 0-gee environment, or aided by the easily-obtained vacuum of space.  The manufacturing area, as well as a research and development area, would maintain a non-rotational 0-gee environment for daily operations round the clock, while the ring of living and command modules would constantly rotate at 1-gee. A series of ladders and elevators would allow access to the non-rotational hub of the manufacturing and research areas, allowing personnel to move from one environment to the other at will.

This would allow personnel to work in the 0-gee environment during their shift, then retire to the rotating section where their bodies would be back in their natural 1-gee environment, thus limiting the deterioration on the human body caused by exposure to 0-gee, and leading to healthier orbital workers who would have fewer health-related problems upon returning to Earth.

I had this book on the market for a few years, then took it down to update the technology developed on the facility… which I never did to my satisfaction.  At this point, the book needs a healthy rewrite anyway… but I maintain the technology behind the facility itself is sound and believable… and could even make for an interesting television series.