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One of the biggest problems facing our species is the limited resources that are available to us. Americans and Europeans enjoy a standard of living that the planet does not have the capacity to offer developing countries. While there is some hope with new technologies and increasing efficiency, the truth remains that there is still a finite amount of raw materials for us on the Earth. Eventually humans will be forced to colonize our solar system.
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Bigelow Aerospace: Paving the Way
In terms of existing technology, Bigelow Aerospace is at the forefront of space colonization. They are a private company that specializes in the next-generation of space habitation. NASA and other national space organizations spend their time building module space stations like the International Space Station. Bigelow Aerospace has developed a revolutionary new design for living in space that is both simpler and cheaper. They have created inflatable space stations that represent the next step in space technology. These structures have several advantages over previous technology. They take up less room and are considerably lighter, meaning that it is easier to send them into space. Their flexible outer shell are more durable than the rigid walls on other space stations, and do not shatter when they are punctured. Our first steps into colonizing space will be inside structures like these, but for a true self-sustaining colony, we will need to step it up.
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Living in Space
Many space enthusiasts believe that the next logical step in space exploration is colonizing Mars or the Moon. In fact, there are many disadvantages to living on either of these worlds. The most important obstacle is their locations at the bottom of a gravity well. Any kind of trade or travel would be crippled by the fuel required to reach escape velocity. On top of that, metals would be hard to find, if not impossible. Deposits exist, but are few and far between like on Earth. To fix these problems, most thought on space colonization revolves around building structures in space rather than on a planet or moon. The asteroid belt and other near Earth objects in space hold untold treasure in raw materials. Light, which is abundant in space, could supply power 24-hours a day.
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The Future of Space
While the Bigelow design is an important step, it is still quite a ways from an actual colony. The most realistic path to fully colonizing space involves the progression of a few different habitats. The first to be built is the Stanford Torus, which was designed in 1975 by NASA in conjunction with Stanford University. Its structure resembles a donut that is 1 mile across, spinning once every minute. People living inside this structure will experience what feels like normal Earth gravity thanks to the centrifugal force, like a pale of watter spinning in a circle. The Stanford Torus is capable of housing 10,000 people and would be replaced eventually by the O'neill Cylinder.
The O'neill Cylinder is the most efficient use of materials for housing people in space. It is a cylinder 20 miles long and 4 miles across, spinning to simulate gravity. It has a total livable surface area of 500 square miles and is capable of housing several million people.
All the technologies required for constructing large space habitats already exist. They're not much more complicated than big spinning geometric shapes. The only thing holding back their development is a lack of funding. Most governments don't even have a space program. When considering the utility of NASA. ask yourself what would have happened if Columbus was never given the money to cross the Atlantic?
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National Space Society
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