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Sunday, January 24, 2016

Space Suit

1952 Demonstrating the dexterity of a remote manipulator.
Space suits are a pain. There are only a couple of reasons to have them. One is if you need to go outside when you are in space. These days this is typically only done to make repairs. Another is to send images of a man in a spacesuit back home so the public can see that we actually have men in space. The last is in case of emergency and something goes wrong with your spaceship. Space suits are difficult to make, to put on, to work in. If there was any way to avoid using them we would.

Anathem Spacesuit
    Maybe there is. In Neal Stephenson's Anathem, our hero, along with his cohort, don some spacesuits that were designed 6,000 years ago. One of the features of these suits was they didn't have any gloves. The arms of the suits ended in a small sphere that room for your hand to flex. On the outside of this ball was mounted a mechanical hand and on the inside was a control for this hand. You manipulate the control on the inside and the mechanical hand on the outside echos your movements. No glove required.
    If you are going to use a remote manipulator, there is no reason to have it mounted adjacent to the control. Given the speed of electronic communication, anywhere within a thousand miles would be just fine. You get farther away than that and the delay due to lightspeed is going to be noticeable.

DARPA's BEBIONIC3 Prosthetic Hand
    The remote manipulator is key. I don't know if hands are really the best devices for manipulating other objects, but they are most versatile ones we have and we are certainly accustomed to them. Modeling remote manipulators on hands is probably our best bet. Arms are much easier and much simpler to build and control. From an amazed perspective, hands are wonderfully complex. From an engineering perspective, hands are horribly complex. The work being done with prosthetics is making the most progress. (There's even Lego versions out there.)

Weyland Yutani's shuttle failed to escape from LV-426 by Benoit Godde

Once you have a decent remote manipulator there is no reason to go outside your spaceship anymore, which got me to thinking that instead of individual space suits, maybe what we need is individual space ships. Space is a dangerous place. You are in constant danger of being struck by a deranged bit of matter that will poke a hole through you and your ship as if you were cheesecake. If you have a group of people, everyone having their own ship could increase the group's odds of surviving such a collision. An individual might be lost, but the group would survive.
    You would want an airlock on your personal ship so you could visit other people in your party, but you wouldn't want too many people to all be in one place at one time to the avoid the possibility of catastrophe. For a large group of people you would need an airlock hall so several people could dock their ships at the same time.

Spaceship art by Francis Tsai

    Originally I was envisioning these personal space ships to be like escape pods, maybe the size of a mini-van, just big enough for you to carry out daily chores without tying yourself in knots. Then I got to thinking that these are going to be for long term habitation, so they should be self sufficient, with power, lights, hydroponic gardens, recycling, reaction mass and engines. So now I'm thinking something along the size of a destroyer.

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