Yes, we could build a real-world 'Elysium,' eventually

The film starring Matt Damon and a really, really big space station hits theaters this weekend. Crave's Eric Mack speaks to one of the folks behind humanity's biggest space station about how far off a real-world "Elysium" might be.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
Expertise Solar, solar storage, space, science, climate change, deregulated energy, DIY solar panels, DIY off-grid life projects. CNET's "Living off the Grid" series. https://www.cnet.com/feature/home/energy-and-utilities/living-off-the-grid/ Credentials
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Eric Mack
4 min read
Elysium, as seen in the film premiering this weekend. TriStar Pictures

This weekend, Matt Damon begins his run taking it to the 1 percenters on Elysium on behalf of the rest of us here on Earth -- a futuristic, poverty-ridden hellscape version of Earth, that is.

The film "Elysium" is the latest from "District 9" director Neill Blomkamp and opens Friday across the United States. If you haven't yet found yourself in the firing line of the barrage of promotional materials for the movie, the basic premise is that in the year 2154, humanity is divided between all the poor bastards stuck on an overpopulated, ruined Earth and the rich elite on a huge, halo-style space station where life resembles a stay at an all-inclusive resort.

If you're interested to see how Damon infiltrates Elysium and takes on the man to save his own hide, and perhaps the rest of the next century's 99 percenters, definitely check out the film. But I'm guessing that many Crave readers have already seen the trailers and are more interested in the technology in the film, particularly the giant Stanford Torus space station.

Dr. Wernher von Braun's 1952 space station concept was a predecessor to the halo that inspired Neill Blomkamp. (Click to enlarge) NASA/MSFC

I spoke to Mark Uhran, now retired director of NASA's International Space Station Division who oversaw the assembly of the ISS for seven years, about Elysium and space stations in general. He pointed out that the concept of a rotating, halo-shaped space station that generates its own gravity has been around for some time, and was first popularized by Dr. Wernher von Braun more than 60 years ago.

Uhran told me that NASA and the Russian Space Agency soon discovered through their missions on Skylab and the Mir Space Station, respectively, that creating artificial gravity was not a necessary component for shorter stays in space.

"You don't need to go to that expense if your stay time under microgravity conditions is six months to a year, 18 months. The human body can adapt to microgravity for those short-term durations. No one really knows the answer yet to whether or not a large, rotating structure with artificial gravity may or may not be necessary if humans are going to spend years" in space.

By the way, Uhran says an important key to floating around for a year or so in a space station is at least two hours of exercise per day. So all aspiring astronauts should be sure to hit the gym after seeing the movie.

But to live the life of space luxury as portrayed on Elysium, it would seem that gravity is a key component. After all, what fun is lounging by the pool when the deep end keeps floating away, one droplet at a time? So how close are we to being able construct a mini-metropolis in orbit, complete with induced gravity, pruned gardens, and everything else you expect in a nice neighborhood?

"Elysium is an incredibly large space station...I do believe that it is achievable in this millennium," Uhran hedged when I posed the question. He explained that while most of the technologies needed to build a real-world Elysium already exist on the International Space Station -- which already manages to recycle 80 percent of its water in a closed loop -- it's getting such a massive structure into space that's the real problem.

"There's one major breakthrough that would be necessary to build anything of that scale, and that's propulsion."

Uhran says that all of our rockets currently use chemical propulsion -- basically, burning solid or liquid fuels -- which limits the amount of stuff we can push beyond Earth's gravity well. For example, he says that the space shuttles were typically capable of carrying no more than 20 to 30 metric tons to low-Earth orbit. The International Space Station is about 500 metric tons, but he speculates that Elysium could weigh in at as much as a million metric tons.

"Even if you were to mine the raw materials on the moon or gather them from asteroids, you would still have to move an extremely large mass of material to a central location where you're going to construct this very large space station, so a new propulsion technology is absolutely necessary."

He believes many plausible concepts for nuclear-electric and nuclear-thermal propulsion systems are already out there and could become available at some point in the future.

But if we did manage to get the raw materials for an Elysium-like structure into position, everything else could fall into place. Uhran says the fact that the International Space Station is already quite efficient at recycling water at the start of the 21st century gives us reason to be optimistic about the possibility of not only scaling life support systems -- including growing food -- up to the scale of an orbiting city, but of eventually reaching 100 percent efficiency in a closed loop later in this millennium.

Achievable, but when?
Overall, Uhran believes the technology behind Elysium is totally achievable, although he "wouldn't lay a bet on whether it's in 50 or 500 years" because it depends on too many social and political factors. That, and his experience building the International Space Station, lead him to believe that a divided planet like the one portrayed in Elysium might have a hard time achieving such a massive technical feat.

"The most awesome achievement of the International Space Station was definitely to see an international team working on a common objective and then achieving that objective. I think this is unprecedented in human history."

That kind of species-wide teamwork certainly isn't what drives the storyline of Elysium. He thinks that if things on Earth ever got so bad that all or part of civilization had to abandon it, there probably would be no orbiting life raft for the rich.

"If humankind were foolish enough to have to abandon Earth, then that would probably also mean that humankind was not smart enough to live off the Earth."