The Challenges of 'Keeping House in Outer Space': Carbon Dioxide, Temperature, and Companionship

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And what they tell us about scientific progress

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"The solar system is not a friendly place," warned Dr. Charles Elachi, Director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, at The Atlantic's Big Science Summit on Tuesday. In an October 1957 Atlantic article, Hartley E. Howe agreed, writing of the challenges posed by carbon-dioxide disposal, temperature control, and even companionship when "keeping house in outer space." Although it would be four years until Russia successfully launched the first man into orbit, Howe had already detailed the logistical challenges facing future missions, detailing, for example, how algae might be used to improve the oxygen supply for astronauts in space:

Every crewman will require 500 liters of oxygen every 24 hours -- too much to be carried on any but the shortest trips. Since plants release oxygen, one answer might be to carry along a batch of the tiny water-borne plants called algae: 2.3 kilograms of Alga Chlorella pyrenoidosa produce enough oxygen to supply one man. Plants require light energy for carrying out their metabolic processes, however; so artificial sources of radiant energy will have to be carried aboard the vehicle for flights outside the solar system. This presumably will increase the demand on the vehicle's power plant.

Scientists actually did research the type of algae-supported respiration that Howe proposed. One 1959 study by Boeing concluded that this kind of closed ecological system might be able to support astronauts during future missions in space. But, looking forward 50 years to today's International Space Station, we can see that this kind of technology only remained at the level of basic research, and Howe's musings on the "vital problem" of companionship and social interactions in space seem adorably outdated.

Given this example, how can one defend funding basic research into the "figments of scientists' imaginations," as Caltech Professor Fiona Harrison put it at Tuesday's summit? As the Director of NASA's NuStar Mission, which uses telescopes to explore the scope of black holes and massive stars, Harrison relies on this kind of funding, which could be jeopardized in upcoming budget cuts.

A good answer can be found in yet another historical Atlantic piece, T. J. J. See's 1902 article, "Recent Progress in Astronomy." Writing about the mysteries of "runaway stars" and "luminous stardust," See cautioned against complacency in the way we go about scientific research, especially given the amount of progress made in the previous three centuries.

Within the memory of this generation the Earth has been girdled with iron and steel, and the electric telegraph and the cable have practically annihilated terrestrial space: these modes of communication have come to stay, and they are ultimate. Whatever be the future progress of the world, it seems certain that nothing more rapid or more general will ever be used by the children of men. The velocity of electricity is the same as that of light, and no swifter messenger is possible or even desirable. The same approach to ultimate standards of speed may be observed in other lines of activity, as railroading and navigation, where the limits are fixed by the nature of organic life and by the physical properties of matter. But such physical limits do not restrict the powers of the mind for researches in pure science, whether in the biological or in the physical world. And if we continue to make discoveries throwing light upon the phenomena and principles underlying the arrangement and growth of the universe, who can doubt that some of them will augment continually the mental and physical comforts of mankind?

Maybe Hartley Howe was wrong about the trials and travails of keeping house in outer space, but his vision - and the basic research that followed - helped us to understand "the arrangement and growth of the universe" a little bit better.

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the National Channel, manages TheAtlantic.com’s homepage, and writes about religion and culture.

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