Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Marvelous Suburbs of Space!

You get a wonderful view of the stars in space. When the sun isn't blinding you to anything else, you can see stars by the tens of thousands, with no terrestrial light pollution to drown them out. And without the filtering effect of the atmosphere, you can see them in their true color; blazing reds and blues and greens. Dr. Ames lay contentedly gazing outwards.

"Twinkle twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are"

Idly, Dr. Ames smiled. Without an atmosphere to distort the light, the stars never twinkle. It's one of the disadvantages of being up above the world so high. Abruptly the view went black. There was another one.

The habitat had sensed an incoming burst of cosmic rays, and flashed it's field on. Dr Ames waited a moment to see if it'd be a short one, and regretfully started to climb down his tree. From his days in med school he knew that the risks of damage from cosmic rays were minuscule, but it's hard to convince people of that. Insurance this and precautionary that and you spoil the doctor's evening, but who cares about that?

Carefully, the garden level of the habitat rotates for precisely one gravity, and a fall out of this tree has just as much chance of breaking bones as your standard one on earth's surface. Well, you're less likely to hit a rock, no profit in importing rocks to your artificial garden. You want precisely one G of gravity for your cultivated bit of space; the plants are used to it and it's easier to engineer your habitat than engineer new plants.

Softly he touched down on the cold earth. Quietly he followed the path walking along the rim of the giant wheel. Expertly he put in his spacesuit, and cycled the airlock. He clicked his carabiner onto the nearby line and jumped. As his foot left the airlock, the field switched off and he could see the stars again. "Murphy is playing games with me tonight" he thought as he drifted down the line. "Ah well, I need some sleep anyway." He clicked off the line and onto another one, this one going around the wheel. He was circling through a residential district, the modular cabins stuck together with flexible tubes and connectors swaying gently in the wind.

Wind? Where did they get wind in space? Hard to figure. As near as Dr. Ames could guess, someone had dropped a couch or something, setting off a shock that was only partially absorbed by the tethers, setting off a wave of vibration throughout the district. As he went around, he watched it, and presently the swaying subsided, a casualty of friction in those tethers.

A short jump later and he was in his own airlock, cycling into his own domicile. Naturally, just as the light flashed green he got the call.

"Dr. Ames, you're needed in surgery. Dr. Ames, please report to surgery in LG." Grimly, he punched the airlock cycle button again. "Reporting." Sleep will have to wait. Murphy and his law are on the prowl tonight.

Back on the spoke line again, he jumped, harder now. Past the domiciles, into the industry section of the habitat. He pulls himself, hand over hand, increasing his speed. The quicker he gets to the low gravity operating room the better his patient's chances of survival. Just as his speed seems too much, that a second medical emergency seems the order of the night, he starts to drag his carabiner along the line, slowing him down. He lands hard, but upright. Into the hub.

The hub is relatively small in the center of the spinning habitat, and it opens onto the zero gravity sections. It's where they manufacture the batteries, and the other technological wonders of space, the stuff that makes these whole cities in the sky economically viable. It's also where the clinic is located. There are advantages to operating in zero g.

The hub proper is mostly an open area. Sure, it's got very low gravity, but it's also got things like the Coriolis effect to mess you up. Two doors open out of the hub, leading to the true zero g environments perpendicular to the wheel. They're as large as you please; plenty of room in space. Dr. Ames picked the leftward one, and went through it. The axle remains put with respect to the wheel, only to Dr. Ames it looked to him as if the axle was spinning and he was rightways. He goes in, rights himself, and looks back to where the hub is now definitely the one doing the spinning. The change in perspective always bothered him.

Shaking it off, he quickly made his way to surgery. As he scrubbed in he got the details. Old Mr. Tukerton's new heart gave out. Dr Ames smiled; Murphy again; he had just put that heart in last week. Those new artificials, they haven't gotten the bugs worked out yet.

Heart surgery hadn't changed much. He made an incision about the size of a quarter in the man's chest, and inserted the fiberoptic cable. Carefully he piloted the cable from a monitor towards the soft plastic organ, plugging it into the dataport. The autodiagnostic filled up the monitor.

Dr. Ames stepped back as the medical cryptologist examined the data. Idly, he watched Mr. Tukerton's blood ooze out of the incision, ball up and float off, to be dexterously sucked into a tube by the nurse. Blood is valuable.

"Well, it isn't good." The technician reported. "His heart was stopped completely, so I set it on manual. Other than that, I can tell you that the software's crashed something fierce. I reset it, deleted the cache files, reset it again, fiddled some more with it, and none of it is working."

You can never trust the first run of a product, thought Dr. Ames. Nothing like months of use by the general public to expose the bugs. Still, none of that changes the fact of a man lying there on the table. "Check with the manufacturer, see if they've got a software update."

"Sent in a query already. Let me see... Yup, known issue. Memory leak in the alpha models. Downloading update... Ok, that should be it."

Dr. Ames looked at the monitor, watching the heart activity return to normal. He sewed up Mr. Tuckerton, and gave his prescription.

"Ok, you should be good to go now. We're going to keep you under observation for a hour or so, until we're sure it isn't a recurring issue. You're going to have to take a couple days of home rest. Make sure you're emergency circuit is on and monitoring your heart. That said, you should be back to work by the end of the week. Any questions?"

There never are.

I got hung up at the end of that story, trying to make an interesting medical drama plot. Something about the heart exploding pacemakers. I then realized that I had very little knowledge of or interest in that sort of procedure, so I cut out the drama in favor of the ending you now have. Exciting, isn't it? Mostly I was going for description anyway.

This is how a space habitat works. Mostly it's the great big suburb in the sky. The company (or whoever is financing it) provides a wheel of gardens on the outside and the industry in the middle. Residents provide their own domicile. Rather than a large, rigid space station the housing comes in the form of modular units, with their own machinery, including standardized hookups into the station. Naturally, this is wasteful of material, but it provides several important benefits. Splitting the station into individual compartments lowers the risk from random meteor strieks; if one house is punctured, none of the others will lose pressure. If something larger and slower hits (like a drunken pilot), the flexible connections allows the station to absorb and distribute the blow, minimizing damage. And vacuum separating compartments does wonders to cancel the noise that would otherwise be ubiquitous.

More importantly, though, are the intangible benefits. First of all, it's a privately owned home. It's not a rented apartment, or a bunk in a barracks. It allows the spaceman time away from his fellows, space and security. It is, in a very important sense, his castle. Secondly, it guarantees his freedom. The whole space station setup is reminiscent of West Viginian coal towns, with a company industry, company store and so forth, with one major distinction. It's not a company house, you can get out whenever you want to by simply disconnecting and flying off on your own power.

These houses (and indeed most of the station) are constructed out of plastics and computer chips. Poetically speaking. Hydrogen, Carbon and Silicon are the most abundant elements already outside of Earth's gravity well, so it's orders of magnitude cheaper to use them than, say, steel. Plastics are mostly hydrocarbon chains, and while orbiting hydrocarbons are rare we can make them from water and space dust in a modified synthetic photosynthesis reaction. Most space debris is silicon, so naturally man has discovered numerous ingenious ways to make essential components out of it. Despite the thinness of the material the inhabitants don't suffer much from cosmic rays. Or perhaps because of it; a cosmic ray is likely to blow right past both walls and your body without stopping of affecting much of anything. Now if you encased yourself in a turtle's shell of steel it might get stopped in the steel, producing a barrage of X-rays to bounce around inside. Not healthy.

The habitats run on power beamed from Solar Station Alpha, and are protected by their own, weak Langston field. It's enough to stop the occasional cosmic ray burst, or solar flare activity, or flying debris. It's not going to be particularly effective against concentrated attack...

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