NASA's Wet Workshop concept revived

NanoRacks out of Houston, Texas is leading a group that proposes to use spent second stage fuel tanks from rockets built by United Launch Alliance as space station habitat modules.

Back in the seventies, NASA considered two methods for constructing what eventually became Skylab. The immense second stage of the Saturn rocket would provide commodious living space for astronauts - the question was how to go about it. The 'wet workshop' concept involved two Saturn IB launches one crewed, one not. Once in orbit, the crew of the second launch would install life support equipment in the upper stage's hydrogen tank. Over time, the idea of the 'dry workshop' won out. NASA fitted out the second stage on the ground and launched it ready to go.

So now, this new venture plans to use spent Centaur second stages. The idea is compelling: a human-habitable space station is an insulated pressure vessel, a cryogenic hydrogen fuel tank is an insulated pressure vessel. There ought to be some way to make that work. If NanoRacks and company can start making workable space stations out of otherwise thrown-away centaur second stages, that's awesome.

If they make it work, it will shine an even harsher light of condemnation on NASA, though. Consider the following facts:

  • The Atlas Centaur is about ten feet in diameter, and forty feet long. The majority of that volume would be taken up by the hydrogen fuel tank.
  • The Space Shuttle External Tank was 150 feet long and thirty feet in diameter. The hydrogen fuel tank alone was 100 feet long.
  • There were north of 130 flights of the space shuttle
  • In each case, the shuttle sacrificed payload capacity to make the tank reenter the atmosphere and burn up

A hundred or more refitted space shuttle external tanks would have a bit more interior living space than the ISS.

credit: NASA

Now, imagine 12 of those wheels stacked like tires.

The Yawfle stares and stares and stares... at tech news, without the SJW shenanigans