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Civil Engineering in Space (Building Closed Systems)

written by: John Moehring•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 4/27/2010

Surviving a remote and possibly harsh environment in an extraterrestrial setting is a matter of being highly self reliant. This means habitations, developments, and colonies should be considered “closed systems”, able to sustain themselves without external input.

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    Rising To The Challenge

    Building closed infrastructure systems requires much more forward planning and design than terrestrial “open systems”, those systems which have a steady source of external supply and support. To be sure, developing the terrestrial civil infrastructure as an open system has been, and will continue to be, a challenging project. Many factors affect the success or failure this project, such as engineering expertise, politics, funding, raw materials availability, manufacturing capabilities, population dynamics, conflicts, natural and man made disasters to name a few. But terrestrial infrastructure generally does not have to cope with the challenge of being designed to work in total isolation. The prospect of designing and building isolated, or closed, infrastructure systems is daunting to say the least. While there may be no significant shortage of engineering expertise (civil engineers always rise to the challenge) there will probably be sparse supply of funding, one or more raw materials, manufacturing capability, disaster response, and other factors affecting extraterrestrial civil engineering endeavors.

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    Scale Models Aren't Necessarily Small

    The modern aircraft carrier is an illustrative model for understanding the logistics of supporting a large group of working people in a restrictive environment. Some carrier missions last six months or more, and with nuclear power plants these ships can theoretically stay at sea for years. They carry large inventories of goods, spare parts and machinery, full medical facilities, shops, living and dining facilities, even some recreation facilities. All to support over 3,000 adult working crew and maintain the primary mission of air combat capability. However these ships do not have the systems needed to grow food, recycle all waste, refine raw materials, or manufacture goods. So a regular re-supply effort is needed to produce some 15,000 meals per day, remove excess waste, and supply materials not in inventory. Close off these re-supply chains, add population growth, development, aging, and decline dynamics, and a reasonable model for a civilian closed system infrastructure is produced.

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    Water, Water, Everywhere But Here

    In such a model, it is not enough to simply recycle materials. There must be active regeneration systems in place, which can take what would be considered a waste product or excess material from a process and reincorporate it into the overall infrastructure. The regeneration must be balanced over time, which means consumption must match production somewhere in the cycle, and this balance must be maintained over all material cycles. For example, the water cycle must include not only supplies for drinking, cleaning, and food production but also for manufacturing, air humidification, and perhaps recreation. The end of the water cycle must incorporate regenerative collection systems that counters consumption rates over a time period that prevents depletion of short term storage capabilities. Considering the drought/flood cycles currently experienced in terrestrial open systems, successful implementation of suitable large scale closed systems using this and other material cycles would appear to be a challenge not readily met.

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