Building a space habitat in the classroom
Submitted by sis on 25 May 2011
On Earth, cycles exist where one species’ waste products are used by another species, so that the waste products do not build up to high levels: an example of this is the complex carbon cyclew1 in which oxygen and carbon dioxide are alternately produced and used by plant species and animal species.
The flow of recyclable resources on board the ISS
However, in space, none of these requirements for human survival are met. Therefore, to live and work in space, we have to take with us everything we need, and we need to devise ways to recycle or dispose of the waste we produce. We must do this while limiting the weight of material taken to space and building in backup safety equipment (redundancy).
Weight must be minimised as transport into space is extremely expensive. It currently costs about 17 000 USD to lift 1 kg to the International Space Station (ISS) (based on an average launch cost of 450 million USD and shuttles carrying an average of 26 000 kg of cargo plus astronauts). It will cost much more to take 1 kg to the Moon or to Mars.
The introduction to the activity will take about 2 hours, with at least a further 2 hours to design the habitat, depending on its complexity. To build the habitat could take 5-15 hours, depending on how many students are involved and how complex a habitat they are building. If the students are really enthusiastic about the idea, they might want to invest even more time.
When you have finished, send a photo of your completed space habitat to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will publish a selection of the photos on the Science in School website.
Designing a space habitat
They should bear in mind that the Moon has greater temperature changes and no atmosphere for protection but is closer to Earth. Mars has more moderate temperature changes and an atmosphere, but it is much further away from Earth, thus a Mars habitat will need to be much more independent.
Activity for students aged 10-14
An outpost on the Moon could produce lunar oxygen, conduct long-term surface operations, and reveal issues before humans begin the journey to explore Mars. The Moon’s proximity, only several days from Earth, allows the testing of systems that will enable months-long round trips to Mars
Activity for students aged 14-19
What do we expect for our everyday life on Earth?
Requirements for a planetary space habitat
Many of our requirements in a space habitat would be similar to those on Earth, but some would be specific to the new environment.
Many of these considerations were also important in the design of the ISS. For more details, see Hartevelt-Velani & Walker (2008).
Possible extension: psychology
Any crew on a long mission, for example to Mars, will be isolated from their loved ones and confined in a small space with other crew members. Training in conflict management is crucial, as is enhancing our understanding of how humans respond under stress, in a confined space over long durationsw15.
The mental state of each individual is extremely important, as it will affect the group mental state and ultimately even the overall mission success. It is therefore important to ensure good mental support for the crew.
On Earth, humans need a sense of mental well-being including interactions between people to be happy and productive. To achieve this, in addition to the points listed above, a space habitat needs to provide:
To learn about life on board the ISS, for which these considerations are important, see also Hartevelt-Velani et al. (2008).
When a space habitat is designed, it is important that it should be:
Designing an effective habitat
How can we meet the requirements of a space habitat under the constraints that are imposed? This is done by:
Hartevelt-Velani S, Walker C (2008) The International Space Station: a foothold in space. Science in School 9: 62-65. www.scienceinschool.org/2008/issue9/iss
Hartevelt-Velani S, Walker C, Elmann-Larsen B (2008) The International Space Station: life in space. Science in School 10: 76-81. www.scienceinschool.org/2008/issue10/iss
w1 – Learn more about the carbon cycle on the Windows to the Universe website: www.windows2universe.org/earth/Water/co2_cycle.html
w2 – The European Space Agency (ESA) is Europe’s gateway to space. It is a member of EIROforum, the publisher of Science in School. For more information, see: www.esa.int
w4 –For detailed information about our Solar System, see: http://solarsystem.nasa.gov
w5 – The Worldflower Garden Domes website offers instructions for building a paper dome based on a buckyball. See: www.gardendome.com/GD1.htm
w6 – Further instructions for building a geodesic dome are available on the Geo-Dome website: www.geo-dome.co.uk/article.asp?uname=modelbuild
w7 – For a list of free computer-aided design (CAD) software, see : www.freebyte.com/cad/cad.htm
w10 – For an interactive online model of the water recycling circuit on board the ISS, see: http://esamultimedia.esa.int/docs/issedukit/en/html/t030505t1.html
w11 – To find out more about the flow of recyclable resources on board the ISS, especially air, see: http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa
w12 – For fact sheets on the planets and their satellites, see: http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/planetfact.html
w13 – For more information on ESA’s life support and recycling systems for space, including French educational materials on the MELISSA project, see: http://ecls.esa.int/ecls
w14 – For more information on how NASA, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, reduces the risk of biological cross-contamination, see: http://planetaryprotection.nasa.gov
w15 – For information about Mars500, a study done to understand key physiology and psychology effects of long duration isolation and crew dynamics, see: www.esa.int/esaMI/Mars500
w17 – To find out more about the International Space University, see: www.isunet.edu
NASA has developed a problem-based learning module on space habitats. Starting from a ‘sealed room’ introductory activity, four content areas are offered, on ‘life in a sealed container’, ‘healthy choices’, ‘air and water’, and ‘trash or treasure’, exploring ecosystems, human nutrition and fitness, recycling of air and water, and waste removal. See: www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/son/habitat
The EU-funded CoReflect project has developed a teaching unit on designing a Moon habitat for 10- to 12-year-olds, available in English and Dutch. See: www.coreflect.org/nqcontent.cfm?a_id=15089
To learn more about a potential manned mission to Mars, see: http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/mars/mars_crew.html
Educational DVDs about the ISS for students aged 12-18, explaining basic concepts such as the effects of weightlessness on the human body with simple demonstrations, were produced with the help of European astronauts during their missions on board the ISS. The free materials can be downloaded online or ordered on DVD. See: www.esa.int/esaHS/SEMZTFYO4HD_education_0.html
ESA’s teaching materials on the ISS also include the 3D teaching tool ‘Spaceflight challenge I’ for secondary-school students, which can be used either as a role-playing adventure game or as a set of interactive exercises. It features science topics from across the European curricula, with scientific explanations and background information. To download the software or order your free copy, see: www.esa.int/esaHS/SEM3TFYO4HD_education_0.html
ESA’s ‘lessons online’ for primary- and secondary-school students and their teachers include text, short videos and graphics. Topics covered include ‘life in space’, ‘radiation’, ‘gravitation and weightlessness’ and ‘bugs in space’. See: www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Lessons_online
Simulate flying over the surface of Mars with Google Mars: www.google.com/mars
Here is a selection of space-related articles previously published in Science in School
For a complete list of ESA-related articles, see: www.scienceinschool.org/esa
To browse all space-related articles in Science in School, see: www.scienceinschool.org/space
The author would like to thank Scott Hovland from the European Space Agency for valuable comments and advice.
Erin Tranfield completed her PhD in May 2007 in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. She then spent two years at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, USA, investigating the effects of lunar dust on human physiology and pathology. Erin is currently at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, working on the three-dimensional reconstruction of the mitotic spindle using high-resolution electron tomography.
Erin was an author of Luna Gaia – a closed loop habitat for the moonw16, a student research report of the International Space University (ISU)w17 in 2006. She is now adjunct faculty at the ISU and will be the chair of the space life science department at the ISU two-month space studies programme in summer 2011 in Graz, Austria.
Two challenges that science teachers sometimes encounter are making science relevant to students’ lives and approaching science in an integrated way. This activity provides a feasible solution to both of these challenges.
To build the space habitat, students will have to reflect on their daily needs and requirements, evaluate their importance, and then find possible solutions (relevance) by drawing on their knowledge of different areas of science (integrated approach). Given the novelty of the activity, I believe it would generate a lot of interest and excitement among students. This is of course an advantage but means it would need to be carefully managed to be finished in a reasonable time.
The activity could be used either in integrated science lessons or to combine different science topics. If not all of the students were studying all sciences, students with different science backgrounds could be grouped in teams. Although the main topic of the activity is the basic needs for living, it can also be used to discuss the cultural and behavioural aspects of living together in a confined space.
The activity could be extended into a long-term project beyond the classroom. Perhaps it could be a competition between teams that have to abide by criteria such as maximum weight and size of the habitat, as well as the number of people, and the duration of the mission. Other students could judge the habitat that best meets the criteria.
Paul Xuereb, Malta