Yesterday, the US House Science, Space and Technology Committee met with NASA and leading aerospace companies to discuss future deep space habitats. As US Congressional hearings go, it sounds like an enthralling topic. But the most interesting part of the meeting was not a spirited debate over the merits of expandable space houses versus magnetic force fields: it was Andy Weir.
A NASA concept from the 1980s that could provide artificial gravity to a Mars exploration crew. Image: Wikimedia
Andy Weir is not a scientist. He does not work for NASA, Boeing or Lockheed. But apparently the man has achieved honorary scientist/space expert status in the eyes of policymakers for being the guy who wrote the bestselling book-turned-movie The Martian. And he had a lot to say about how the US should be approaching deep space living.
Specifically, Weir told Congress that we ought to be focusing on developing artificial gravity technology to counteract the long term health effects of weightlessness, which include bone and muscle wasting and vision deterioration. Artificial gravity has been a science fiction trope for decades — think the gently-rotating space wheel concept popularised by 2001: A Space Odyssey — but practically speaking, it remains an enormous engineering challenge.
According to Space Policy Online, Weir acknowledged as much but pointed out that solving impossible problems in space is what NASA is all about, and that as far as artificial gravity goes, he had “no doubt they would rise to the occasion”. Plus, Weir wasn’t envisioning a crazy giant space wheel, but rather, a small crew module connected by a long tether to a counterweight, with the entire system rotating. The concept was, in fact, first developed by NASA in the 1980s.
NASA, for its part, sounded like it was eager to get back to discussing its actual plans for space habitats in lunar orbit. Meanwhile, Congressional representatives grilled Weir on the effects of deep space radiation, and why we should be sending humans to Mars instead of developing systems to protect the Earth from deadly asteroids.