SSI plans a “Great Enterprise” featuring an orbital lab module

SSI G-Lab concept

An illustration of SSI's proposed G-Lab module, along with the scientific question that it hopes to answer.

The Space Studies Institute (SSI) dates back about 35 years, founded by Gerard K. O’Neill in 1977 to support research on efforts to create a permanent human presence in space, such as through the space colonies that O’Neill, a Princeton University physics professor, first espoused in the early ’70s. SSI has had its up and downs since then, but started showing some signs of life a few years ago with a move of its offices from Princeton, New Jersey, to Mojave, California, a nexus of the entrepreneurial NewSpace industry, and restarting SSI’s series of Space Manufacturing conferences in late 2010. Last December Gary Hudson, a long-time space entrepreneur, took the position of president of SSI.

At the Space Access ’12 conference in Phoenix on Thursday afternoon, Hudson will announce a bold new initiative for SSI. At the conference Hudson will unveil what he calls a “rebranding” of the concept of “space settlement”, under the banner of “The Great Enterprise Initiative”. The initiative will be split into five areas, each addressing a key area of study needed to enable space settlement: transportation, environment, resources, society, and economy.

SSI plans to focus on the environment category initially, with one flagship project called G-Lab. G-Lab is designed to address a question yet unanswered after decades of space research: how much gravity is needed for the permanent human settlement of space? Clearly 1 g is sufficient, as demonstrated by life on Earth, while 0 g can have a variety of deleterious effects on humans, including bone and muscle loss. There is very little knowledge of the region between 0 and 1 g, though.

SSI plans to tackle this topic with G-Lab, an ambitious crewed lab module. The concept features a module that would fly in the same orbit as the ISS, trailing the station by about 10 kilometers through the use of electric propulsion. Tugs, like Orbital’s Cygnus and SpaceX’s Dragon, would transfer items between the lab module and ISS. Within the lab module would be dual centrifuges to create lunar and Martian gravity conditions for experiments on plants and small animals. The lab module is designed for launch on a single Falcon Heavy mission.

The plan, according to an SSI presentation, is to have operations begin as soon as early 2017. That requires significant—and, in the document, unstated—funding, with initial funding from donors planned for the fourth quarter of this year, after the signing of a Space Act Agreement with NASA this quarter.

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