SSI Announces Plan for Private Orbital Research Facility

Artist conception of G-Lab. (Credit: SSI)

SSI PR — Today, the Space Studies Institute is announcing a new Great Enterprise Initiative and two special Projects that we hope will hasten the day when permanent space settlement arrives, fulfilling Professor Gerard K. O’Neill’s vision of forty years ago.

We are announcing two major Projects. The first is G-Lab, a space-based variable or partial gravity laboratory, described below in more detail. The second is E-Lab, a terrestrial “systems-of-systems” integration lab that will bring together promising closed environment life support technologies into a comprehensive life support solution for space settlement. We will describe the E-Lab effort in the near future. We plan to be meeting with potential donors an sponsors of both of these Projects in the near future.

The Great Enterprise Initiative is a road map outlining the technologies and capabilities necessary for settlement. It incorporates five major themes, from Transportation, Resources, Environmental technology to areas of Society and Economy. Progress in all these areas is required for us to accomplish our goal. We will be holding conferences and summer studies workshops during the next few years to flesh out road map details and to begin to address specific challenges.

My presentation given today at the Space Access 2012 Conference in Phoenix Arizona is available at We welcome your support of these endeavors.

Gary C Hudson, President

The G-Lab Project

In order to investigate the long-term effects of partial gravity on humans and other vertebrates, the Space Studies Institute proposes the private development of a co-orbital free-flyer laboratory, in trail ~10 km aft of and station-keeping with the International Space Station (ISS). After a half century of research and development, and perhaps as much as a trillion dollars of worldwide expenditure on national space programs, it is shocking to realize we simply have no evidence that humans can thrive, or even survive, on worlds beyond Earth.


National Space Policy (2010) calls for consideration of permanent human expansion into space:
“Fifty years after the creation of NASA, our goal is no longer just a destination to reach. Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn and operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are more sustainable and even indefinite.”

The Augustine Commission also concluded:
“…the ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path for human expansion into the solar system.”

Additionally, the The National Research Council’s Decadal Survey on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space 2011 reported:
“Finally, despite its awareness that the [NASA] large centrifuge program has little likelihood of being restarted, the …Panel would be remiss if it did not strongly recommend an animal centrifuge capable of accommodating rats/mice at variable gravity levels.”

In spite of these findings and policy, for the foreseeable future NASA interest remains fixed on brief “flags and footprints” style missions beyond low Earth orbit. This is fundamentally a redux of Apollo, and is likely to result in the same boom-bust outcome of four decades ago.

Steps to an Answer

Any attempt to answer the question will require long-term human presence in partial gravity, but such a step is likely beyond the financial reach of SSI and even very rich donors until the price of space transportation falls by an order of magnitude. In the interim, a feasible and useful approach will be to study smaller vertebrates (rats or mice) at partial gravity. This approach was the one recommended by the NRC Decadal Survey and a centrifuge was fabricated and scheduled for installation on the ISS. Budget pressures and the high potential for interference with other ISS experiments led to cancellation in 2005. While considerably less costly that a full-sized rotating station, this is still an expensive undertaking.

In 2011, SSI recognized that this NASA design effort might be repurposed into a private free-flyer facility at affordable cost. We have initiated the process of obtaining a Space Act Agreement with NASA Ames Reach Center in order to leverage this prior effort.

Our plan calls for a three phase program to plan, design and develop the facility that we have designated the “G-Lab.” The conclusion of these three phases would result in a flight-ready spacecraft that could be launched on one or more medium or heavy-lift launch vehicles in late 2016 or early 2017 provided funding is not an issue.

Close proximity to the ISS allows SSI to share access (crew and cargo “rides”) to the ISS, greatly reducing operating expenses. It also allows intermittent visitations of crews from one platform to the other. New visiting vehicles such as Dragon and Cygnus will be available to allow inter-station exchange.

The SSI Plan

Our SSI approach calls for these initial three phases to be funded exclusively by private contributions or sponsorships. Our reasoning is that a private effort will proceed with more dispatch – and can more easily incorporate innovative solutions to developmental problems – than if there was any major early government controlling interest. (A truism of aerospace engineering is that 85% of the life-cycle cost of a project or product is set by the requirements and design definition process in the first few months of a program.)

Once the spacecraft is ready for launch (and practically, beginning some years before) SSI will seek to broaden the funding participation from purely private to a public-private partnership. Our long experience in the aerospace and government funding world suggests to us that having a hangared spacecraft ready for flight will be an powerful inducement to several national space agencies and other funding sources to participate in the project. Participation can take the form of in-kind contributions, for example free or heavily discounted launches, crew visits, or re-supply missions. This philosophy was adopted by participants in the current ISS program with great effectiveness.

Our approach leverages early private funding to encourage future public funding sources; we think of this as a “multiplier effect” similar to the way prizes for technical accomplishment induce expenditures larger than the prize value itself. In the case of G-Lab we see the availability of the facility as the “prize” worth the further expenditure of public dollars for launch and operations.

Of course, some risk is inherent in this approach. To reach the end of Phase C, a substantial private donor commitment will be needed. To increase donor confidence in our ability to deliver a flight-ready spacecraft, we propose to divide the initial “private” phases into three milestones of increasing value. During Phase One, a relatively modest seed funding will be at risk, and in cooperation with Phase Two and Three donors SSI would face a “go/no-go” decision point. If the decision is “go” and funding for Phase Two and Three is secured, the project proceeds. If not, the effort may be terminated with minimal downside. Internal to the Phase Two and Three efforts, additional milestones would be crafted in cooperation with funding sources. See the table below plus the schedule at the end for future details.

Our hope is to raise the Phase One funding within the next three to six months.

 The Space Studies Institute

SSI has a long history and a solid legacy, based on the vision of Professor Gerard K. O’Neill and his colleagues. With over a dozen SSI conferences completed, along with research into a number of technologies important for space settlement, the Institute is well positioned to play an important role as a key primary international entity that will create the ways and means of true space settlement. This is an appropriate goal to honor Professor O’Neill’s vision.
The core SSI vision is to enable permanent independent space settlements beyond Earth, established by individuals and private organizations. Unlike advocacy organizations, SSI’s focus has always been on physical demonstrations that yield measurable steps towards establishing self-sufficient space settlements.

The Space Studies Institute G-Lab Project Team

SSI is in the process of recruiting a top notch scientific and technical team for the G-Lab Project. We are working closely with NASA Ames, which is the lead NASA center for space biology, to identify key scientific personnel and have begun interviewing possible team leaders. Meanwhile, we have begun to assemble an initial volunteer management team to see the project though Phase One.

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