(Alex Danchi pictured above working on other life support fuctions for the future space station)
The race to design the next generation of space stations is underway and a team of Air Force Academy cadets may have an early lead.
Cadets came up with Odyssey, a space station that has advantages the existing International Space Station does not possess - like gravity. But while building the hulking international station took years, the cadet proposal could be ready for orbital use in as little as two launches.
The key is a reliance on existing technology and a creative re-use of some used space hardware.
"It's built to be modular like the International Space Station using parts already on the ISS," explained junior cadet Jake Lutz, who is leading an 11-cadet team in a NASA competition for space station design.
The academy team made the semifinals, putting the cadets against peers from top engineering schools, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The cadet's secret weapon may be gravity. Getting gravity into outer space involves some basic physics, creative design and a lot of math.
The cadets hope to link station modules together in a circle that will spin, causing centrifugal force that would equate to the gravity on Mars - a third of that on Earth.
That would give astronauts the ability to fall down and a big leg-up in the health department, Lutz said.
Without gravity, novice astronauts often experience something like sea-sickness.
"It can take 24-72 hours for them to adjust," he said.
And life without gravity means astronauts need to spend hours exercising to keep their bodies from shutting down.
"Your heart is not doing any work," Lutz said.
Because it will have the same gravity as the Red Planet, the spinning station would also better prepare astronauts of the future headed for Mars and help space scientists ready gear for the trip.
Now, the team is working to design a bearing that would allow the gravity-giving spin. That's a tough problem, Lutz said, because the bearing must hold an airtight seal and withstand the rigors of spaceflight.
Keeping astronauts supplied with air and other life-support functions on the station is a worry for sophomore cadet Alex Danchi.
The cadet plan would tie the station's spinning habitat to the existing Tranquility module of the International Space Station, which now provides life support to astronauts in orbit.
It's envisioned that the station will be retired by then and could be parted out for other uses. Danchi is doing the math and studying specifications to determine if used space station parts will be good enough to keep astronauts alive a decade from now.
"I think it is just really cool," Danchi said, "One of my far-off dreams is to go to space."
For Danchi and Lutz, the station is more than classwork. They and their teammates have been finding precious minutes in their packed academy days to ponder their future in the stars.
"It mostly comes out of my sleep," Lutz said.
But the dreaming could pay off for Lutz. He wants to be an Air Force engineer and has higher goals, too.
"I'm gunning to be one of the first people on Mars," he said.