Semper Paratus Exteriores Spatium

We don’t usually think about the Coast Guard whenever we take a cruise, or get on a boat, but their infrastructure ensures that no matter where in the US we get on an ocean-going boat we are safe. Or safer than we would be. Maybe it is time to develop something like that in space. It certainly seems like more of a near-term need than a Starship Trooper-esque Space Force. Ariana is about to discover what a key task of this Space Guard would have to be. Let’s check in with her.

The Fun Part

She was amazing, Ariana thought. How had less than 100 people built something like this in less time than it took her to finish her graduate degree in Orbital Sociology? Ariana was looking at a replica of her new ship, the USS Endeavor, the first of a new class of space cutters while marveling at how real the 1/3rd earth gravity felt in the spinning central hub of the ship.

Ariana assumed command of the ship after her time at the Space Service Command and Staff College. The Endeavor, at nearly 175 meters long, was nearly three times the size of her space shuttle namesake. Endeavor’s central shaft hosted her storage, fuel, and shuttles, while the crew lived and worked almost exclusively in the nearly 100 meter rotating central hub. The fold-able solar arrays extended another several hundred meters in each direction, giving the ship, which had a nuclear reactor, the possibility of operating on solar power even when the ship was within the orbit of Pluto.

Ariana was snapped out of her revere at a chime on her desk computer. Answering it, she saw the face of her ruggedly handsome executive officer, “What’s up Brad?” she says, banishing any awkward thoughts. “Ma’am, we just received orders from HQ, we are to respond to a distress call from ERO 9”. Ariana quickly thought back to her briefing on the elevator ride skyward, ERO, or Easily Relocatable Objects were asteroids in heliocentric orbit which were fairly easy to move into lunar or earth orbits. ERO 9 was a Canadian claimed rock nearly 1 kilometer in diameter, and its rare minerals were worth between 1 and 3 trillion dollars.

“What could those Canadians gotten into?” She responds. Brad smiles ruefully, “Looks like their water recycler has been having problems for a few weeks, and they ‘forgot’ to order spare parts.” “Looks like a repeat of ERO 2 when the Chinese administrator was scared to report the problem, and the whole team died of dehydration.”

“Damn It Brad! That is the last fucking thing we need now. Is the Endeavor even ready to fly?” “Yes Ma’am, although best case we are six days out.” “Exactly Brad, now it is our fucking fault that we can’t save the stupid fuckers who couldn’t be bothered to keep up with their maintenance” “Looks like it is Ma’am…but isn’t that why they pay us the big bucks?  

“Brad, remind me again why I joined the Coast Guard equivalent? Don’t answer that you snarky asshole – I know it is better than flying a desk back at the Pentagon…let’s just get this done.”

The Real Deal

The US Space Guard

As early as 2000, researchers were conceptualizing a consolidation of all commercial launch-to-orbit-to-landing oversight and regulatory functions within the “prevention” arm of a new “Space Guard.” This narrative largely went unheeded after significant resistance from the Defense Department and NASA, both of whom saw the new entity as a threat to their role in space.

After nearly 20 years, a new space service has begun to ‘take off’, however much of the commentary on the creation of a Space Force presumed that it would be an Air Force version of the Marine Corps. Maybe, but is that really the best idea? Does a space “Coast Guard” make more sense? Depending on the core functions it performs, maybe Space Force should be a civilian agency.

Looking into the distant future, establishing the Space Force as a civilian agency would also future proof the organization against legal prohibitions on the establishment of military installations on celestial bodies. We may not need a space navy or starship troopers in any of our lifetimes. But we almost certainly will have permanent commercial facilities on the moon or various asteroids. This creates the need for a commensurate civil governmental presence. 

How Would the Space Guard Work?

Nearly every authority that the United States needs for effective maritime governance is vested within the Coast Guard and the service’s 11 statutory missions cover the full panoply of possible action within the entire maritime domain. This means that the Coast Guard is the lead U.S. federal agency for nearly every matter that takes place within the navigable waters of the United States or that pertains to U.S. vessels or vessels in which the United States may exert jurisdiction.

The agency also has wide ranging authority to coordinate and cooperate with other Federal and state agencies and foreign governments, conducts maritime mobility operations like ice-breaking and aid-to-navigation placement and maintenance. Its most well known mandate though is to “perform any and all acts necessary to rescue and aid persons and protect and save property on and under the high seas and on and under water over with the United States has jurisdiction”.

Applying this construct to a similarly organized and empowered Space Guard would concentrate space expertise within one agency, lowering regulatory cost burdens on the U.S. private space industry. It would also lower the risk for companies, and countries as they push further from near Earth orbit. Instead of having to assume all the security and safety risk, some of that can be outsourced to this new government entity.

The first problem this new Space Guard could work on as a ‘quick win’ would be space debris. There are currently tens of thousands of pieces of space debris, and no entity with the authority or capability to clean it. There are hundreds if not thousands of satellites beyond their expected life, just waiting to be de-orbited. The organization to manage the ‘cleaning’ of orbit would do more than just free up space for new satellites. It would create the framework for international cooperation in space.

A 3D representation of the location of all known space debris.
Water Recycling

I know it sounds weird that a water recycling system failing would constitute an emergency. Not so much that us needing water is weird, but more the thought that there wouldn’t be extra water handy. But as we get more and more comfortable in space, our ‘acceptable’ minimum amount of emergency water will likely decrease. This combined with the fact that water is heavy, and takes up a lot of space, means bringing it up to orbital installations isn’t ideal.

Recycling water onboard stations is already done at the International Space Station, and will likely be a fixture in future space stations. They will likely rely on semi-regular deliveries of water (maybe as little as once or twice a year) to replenish their systems. But otherwise they will be self sufficient.

There is an entire closed-loop system onboard the International Space Station dedicated to water. First, astronaut wastewater is captured, such as urine, sweat, or even the moisture from their breath. Then impurities and contaminants are filtered out of the water. The final product is potable water that can be used to re-hydrate food, bathe, or drink. Repeat. The system sounds disgusting, but recycled water on the ISS is cleaner than what most us Earthlings drink.

How this works is a little more complicated, and even the European Space Agency’s public affairs team needed two info-graphics to portray it all. You are welcome to try and trace all of the lines in the graphics below, but I didn’t have any luck. All I learned was there was about a score of places where a lack of maintenance could cause the whole system to break.

The International Space Station’s Water Recycling System part 1
The International Space Station’s Water Recycling System part 2

Next Time

Next on our journey through humanity’s second century in space we will explore the next frontier in environmental conservation…the moon, and will have a fun look at long distance communication. I know I didn’t address the 3D printing of the USS Endeavor , but I have a better story to explore that particular technology.

If you are just joining our journey and want to learn more, I would recommend you check out one of the potential ways we will get food to eat, what happens when we come back to Earth after a stay in outer space, and the view from a new class of vacation homes.

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