Eating (& breathing & crapping) in outer space

In between doing my job, helping in what ways I could with the True Diversity Dinner, reading Max Blumenthal’s book Republican Gomorrah around his visit to Anchorage last weekend, & the other stuff happening recently….

I’m also trying to get a short story written for submission to the LGBTQ issue of Crossed Genres.  (See my earlier post about it.)  It’s due by the end of the month.

That means by tomorrow. Still don’t know if I’ll make it.  And sure, I’ve thought of giving up — even thought of just tossing this post, which I started last week before I was interrupted by events.

But as I’ve said before, I had no intent in starting this blog to be a political blogger.  Politics is, for me, this nasty thing that comes down the pike & forces you to pay attention to it, because otherwise it’s other people messing with your very right to earn a living, have a home, be able to take care of yourself & your family & friends, or live your life according to your own purposes in life. So you do it, even when it takes you away from the life that you were trying to lead, because given a choice they’re not gonna let you live it anyway. (Think: James Dobson. Jerry Prevo. Sarah Palin.)

Still, my intent in starting this blog was: my writing. And right now, the politics has me burnt out.  So I’m taking time out from any political stuff that’s been weighing on me, & doing something the feeds my spirit.  Which is to write my stuff.  And so this lunchtime, finish this post.  And tonight: work the story.  Even if I don’t finish it on time.

[Update 10/3/09: Didn’t finish the planned story on time — so submitted something else instead, which was in fact accepted for publication in Closed Genres Issue #12 (the LGBTQ issue) due out in November.  Huzzah!]

Farmers in the sky

Turns out that I’ve had to do a bit of research for “Long Dark” — which is the working title of my story.  “Long Dark” has as its setting one of a small flotilla of starships — generation ships, as they’re often called in science fiction — that are setting out from our solar system on a multigenerational journey to colonize another star system, including to terraform at least one planet.  (The very same planet which is the setting of my November 2007 NaNoWriMo novel Cold.)

Farmer in the Sky by Robert Heinlein

Heinlein’s classic boy’s novel about farming on the Jovian moon Ganymede

One of my main characters for “Long Dark” is Jyoti, a woman who grew up in the asteroid belt & went on to become a farmer.  A farmer, that is, in outer space terms: someone whose entire occupation is directed towards the healthy sustenance of humans living in closed biospheres in various size ranges.  I doubt farmer is an occupational title used in the human spaceflight programs at NASA, the European Space Agency,  or other space agencies (though I must mention Robert Heinlein’s 1950 novel, Farmer in the Sky, which I’m sure I read as a kid).  But in my story I’m positing that humans have had permanent closed habitat settlements on the Moon, asteroids, space stations, etc. for a pretty long time (Mars, too, but according to my story, Mars has now been terraformed), & that they’ve adapted a lot of everyday terrestrial lingo to their everyday extraterrestrial lives, even if farming in a closed habitat among the asteroids will look very different from what my great-grandparents did in Missouri & Finland, or what anyone does nowadays whether they’re Farmer John or anyone using the products of (the truly evil) Monsanto.

I’m a big reader & watcher of science fiction, but most SF whose characters range around in spaceships, both in print & on screen (TV screen, movie screen, computer screen, whatever), tends to neglect looking very closely at how food is produced or even, for that matter, how a breathable atmosphere is maintained, or how waste is handled.  I’m not complaining about that — story is story, & writers need to move with it, even if it means assuming that certain problems have matter-of-factly been taken care of that are actually pretty damn complex & are far, at this point, from solution.  Nonetheless, the science geek part of my mind (which is a roommate of the prosody geek, religion geek, & various other geek parts of my mind) has often quietly winced when, for example, a Raptor from Battlestar Galactica opened up for extravehicular activities with no airlock to keep the Raptor’s air supply from being frittered away into vacuum. Same with the launch tubes when Vipers were sent out, aircraft-carrier style, for a battle against Cylon raiders, or were used to “airlock” collaborators or prisoners.  And food — the entire fleet could resupply their food stocks by mining a algae planet for a couple of weeks — but methinks that, to maintain health, a human population will need much more variety than what algae alone can supply, no matter how much you process it.

You’ve gotta know I love Battlestar Galactica.  Again, the writers & producers of that show had certain problems that they needed to solve for the purpose of the story that they were telling; other problems they had to pass by.  And that’s fair & necessary.  But my story has a different set of issues & problems.  Especially since Jyoti’s interest in the best practices to sustain a healthy human population across the Long Dark between stars — & then in the various closed biospheres that even those occupied with terraforming will need to live in until they can establish a health planetwide biosphere on a previously lifeless planet — turns out to be a central compelling feature of who she is as a person.

I don’t actually intend to write a hard science geek story — the human drama between Jyoti & my point-of-view character Esti, & the response each has not just to the prospect, but to the reality, of leaving humanity’s birthplace behind for the remainder of their lives, is most important to me.  Besides, while I’ve got that science geek portion of my mind, I’m not enough of a scientist to bring off a true hard science geek story. Nonetheless, I reckoned I needed to have a least a passing acquaintance with the  science that actually exists in our Real World to as background to writing whatever I must write about the discipline practiced by Jyoti in my story, & upon which everyone she knows depends.

Turns out most of my work last week — when I wasn’t being political — was in the area of research, just to have a basic understanding of what kind of science is out there about closed biospheres, which is the kind of habitat everyone in the story universe of Cold & “Long Dark” lives in for many generations from the moment they leave Earth (or any terraformed environment — again, I’m positing that by the beginning of “Long Dark,” Mars has already been terraformed) .

Honey buckets

I started with Wikipedia articles & went from there.  I’d heard of Biosphere 2,  a closed ecosystem experiment in Arizona that ran two missions in the early 1990s with mixed success, both in terms of ecological health & the health of the small human society living within in.  The second mission ended early because of funding issues or disagreement or something.  There have been other closed ecosystem experiments, notably BIOS-3 at the Institute of Biophysics in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, then part of the Soviet Union.  Wikipedia has a brief article on closed ecological systems that lists some other related experiments & articles.

One I find pretty interesting is a European Space Agency research project called Micro-Ecological Life Support Alternative (MELiSSA). Visiting MELiSSA’s website, one can learn about the four compartments — the Liquefying Compartment, the Photoheterotrophic Compartment, the Nitrifying Compartment, and the Higher Plant Compartment — which are intended to permit, in the website’s words, “the recovery of edible biomass from waste, carbon dioxide and minerals, using light as source of energy to promote biological photosynthesis.” The waste they’re talking about here includes human waste (faeces, urea) along with paper, the nonedible products of the higher plant compartment (straw, roots), and non-edible microbial biomass.  Putting it crassly: that means starting with crap & pee (& other nonedible biomass) to, ultimately, make food.

The crass part of my mind (lives across the hall from all the geeks) is delighted: it knows that melissa — which is, after all, my name — means bee or honeybee: so what better name for a project that makes food from what’s first dropped into a honey bucket?

But of course, the entire process researched in the MELiSSA project is simply a smaller-scale version of what happens in Earth’s biosphere to begin with.

MELiSSA loop: The four compartments of the cycle in the European Space Agencys Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative project

MELiSSA loop: The four compartments of the cycle in the European Space Agency's Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative project


There are a couple of similar terms (with accompanying acronyms) which are relevant — Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) and Controlled (or Closed) Ecological Life Support Systems (CELSS).  Best I can tell at this point, ECLSS most commonly addresses the life support systems already used in human space flight, but isn’t necessarily the true closed-system biosphere that would actually be required for long-term missions to Mars, the asteroid belt, or further out in the solar system, much less all the way out to the Oort Cloud or to another solar system.  In any case, it’s the literature on CELSS, of which MELiSSA would appear to be a specific case, that I’m finding most pertinent.

Not that I have time to read a lot of it at this point.  Just enough to at least get some lingo.

A couple of websites are currently proving helpful:

CELSS schematic from former CELSS research center at Purdue University

CELSS schematic from former CELSS research center at Purdue University

So.  Like I say, even the science geek in me isn’t going to be enough to get all the science right, but at least I’m getting sort of a background.  Jyoti, of course, will be well-versed in whatever’s the state of the art for her time, which is going to be far in advance of what we know now — but I don’t need to know all she knows to write her character.  Some of what I know interests her is the expansion of the variety & diversity & even wildness in the systems she takes part in designing, which are — as Esti (my POV character) states it — necessary not only for physical but also spiritual health.

I’m positing that the Asteroid Belt & Outer System people have developed their own Consensus-based government by this point (a governmental system which I already put a bit of thought to in writing what I’ve written so far of Cold).  They trade with the Inner System (Earth, Mars, etc.)  —importing biostuffs & financing its settlements as well as the extrasolar expedition Jyoti & Esti are on — through mining plus the considerable riches of helium-3 found in the atmospheres of the gas giants, which according to previous research I’ve done is a pretty darn swell energy source — making these Outer System settlements, as one of my source put it, a sort of “Persian Gulf in the sky.”

But as they leave System, they won’t have Earth or Mars to import varietal foodstuffs & other biological products from.  Which makes the development of  variety/diversity/wildness of extraspecial concern for the long trip across.

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