Space Domes Over-rated? Science Fiction Authors Have Answers

I ran across this great reference from Winchell Chung; an excellent, detailed article by Casey Handmer titled Domes are very over-rated.

Handmer writes:

It is an unwritten rule of space journalism that any article about Moon or Mars bases needs to have a conceptual drawing of habitation domes. Little scintillating blisters of breathable air clustered between pointy antennas...

Domes feature compound curvature, which complicates manufacturing. If assembled from triangular panels, junctions contain multiple intersecting acute angled parts, which makes sealing a nightmare. In fact, even residential dome houses are notoriously difficult to insulate and seal! A rectangular room has 6 faces and 12 edges, which can be framed, sealed, and painted in a day or two. A dome room has a new wall every few feet, all with weird triangular faces and angles, and enormously increased labor overhead.

High tolerances, excessive weight, finicky foundations which are a single point of failure, major excavation, poor scaling, limited interior space, limited local production capability. At the end of the day, enormous effort will be expended to build a handful of rather limited structures with fundamental mechanical vulnerabilities, prohibitively high scaling costs, and no path to bigger future versions.

Golden Age science fiction writer Ray Cummings had one of the earliest descriptions of a dome on the moon in his 1930 classic Brigands of the Moon:

The Grantline camp stood midway up one of the inner cliff walls of the little crater. The broken, rock-strewn floor, two miles wide, lay five hundred feet below the camp. A broad level shelf hung midway up the cliff, and upon it Grantline had built his little group of glassite dome shelters…

…within the glassite shelter, a normal Earth pressure must be maintained. Rigidly braced double walls to withstand the explosive tendency, with no external pressure to counteract it…
(Read more about moon dome)

An amazing material - glassite - solves these problems! Admittedly, sfnal materials have a reputation for being unobtainium. But, new techniques in manufacture are creating new materials all the time. See Designer Materials Possible With Designer Electrons and 3D DNA-Directed Nanoassembly.

Handmer continues:

What we need is a method for pressurizing vast areas of the Martian surface with relatively little hassle, labor, and raw material. For a long time, I thought the key might be gigantic masonry vaults, but I’m increasingly convinced that tensile structures are inherently better due to much lower mass requirements...

A multilayer ETFE fabric incorporating Kevlar fibers is an ideal material for both performance yacht sails and transparent pressurized structures on Mars. This material can be thermally or chemically welded in the field for ease of integration, modification, and repair.

It turns out that Robert Heinlein had this idea all worked out in 1939. In his short story Misfit he describes a inflatable roofed valley on an asteroid:

The Captain selected a little bowl-shaped depression in the hills, some thousand feet long and half as broad, in which to establish a permanent camp. This was to be roofed over, sealed, and an atmosphere provided... Libby found himself assigned to the roofing detail. He helped a metalsmith struggle over the hill with a portable atomic heater, difficult to handle because of a mass of eight hundred pounds, but weighing here only sixteen pounds. The rest of the roofing detail were breaking out and preparing to move by hand the enormous translucent tent which was to be the "sky" of the little valley.

The metalsmith located a landmark on the inner slope of the valley, set up his heater, and commenced cutting a deep horizontal groove or step in the rock. He kept it always at the same level by following a chalk mark drawn along the rock wall. Libby enquired how the job had been surveyed so quickly.

"Easy," he was answered, "two of the quartermasters went ahead with a transit, leveled it just fifty feet above the valley floor, and clamped a searchlight to it. Then one of 'em ran like hell around the rim, making chalk marks at the height at which the beam struck."

"Is this roof going to be just fifty feet high?"

"No, it will average maybe a hundred. It bellies up in the middle from the air pressure."
(Read more about Heinlein's inflatable roofed valley)

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