Help Wanted: Space Colonists Need To Be More Than Astronauts

Had trouble finding an electrician, a carpenter, a bricklayer, or any one of a number of other skilled craftspeople for that little project you just can't handle yourself? Probably.

We often read about the scarcity of those we used to call "trades people." (Well, we really used to call them "trades men," but that's neither proper nor accurate any more.) The trade unions were strong and had extensive apprentice programs so young people could learn the trade from the experts--people who usually had rough hands, sometimes used less than perfect grammar, but sure knew how to build and repair things. Their tools weren't computers and word processors, but they sure knew how to measure and cut, nail and solder, wire and paint. They knew about hammers and saws, pliers and wrenches, blowtorches and soldering irons.

What's that got to do with space?

Perhaps something we haven't thought enough about. You see, when we talk about going into space, we usually think about astronauts--pilots, mission specialists, scientists, and the like. Those who have had "the right stuff" have undergone rigorous selection processes and months, usually years of training to learn how to function in space and handle any kind of situation.

Someday soon, hopefully sooner than later, we humans are going to start building things in space--on the Moon--on Mars. We may have extensive transfer stations on orbit, and the plans are well underway for hotels and other recreational facilities "out there."

Who is going to build them? Maintain them? Repair them when they break?

The same folks who have always done it--the trades people. With just a little thought we can identify a whole host of trades we are going to need. To name a few: electricians, sheet metal workers, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning specialists, plumbers, carpenters, brick and stone masons, fuel handlers, pipe fitters, well, you get the idea.

The interesting thing is that these good people will not only have to do their work as they always have, perhaps using some of the same tools and techniques, but in a space suit in low or no gravity. Some of the first occupants of the various space stations such as Skylab and Mir found out that the usual tools are difficult to handle in the clumsy confines of a space suit, visibility is reduced or hampered by sunlight unfiltered by our atmosphere, and new tools had to be designed to work in a weightless environment.

When we get to the Moon we are going to want to build structures where we can take off that space suit and live comfortably. We are currently thinking about ways to use the lunar regolith as a primary building material. Naturally, we can't take everything we need with us, so we'll have to use what is there. Hopefully we will find usable water and other chemicals. Experiments using the samples of regolith to make bricks were very successful with little or no degradation over a period of fifteen or twenty years. Bottom line: It can be done!

But given how we started this discussion, where are we going to find the skilled trades and crafts people? Can we afford to wait until we get there to recruit and train those who have the skills critical to successful occupation of regions beyond Earth?

One suggestion is to start looking at the high school and community college programs for the trades. For example, in Hernando County, Florida, a new high school is in its third year of vocational and technical skills curricula. A new chapter of NSS is being considered by this school for those who might be interested in doing what they now do, but in space. Another suggestion is that the trade and crafts labor organizations be enlisted to research and develop apprenticeship programs for their members.

The best sales argument for these programs is simple--jobs. When we begin needing these skills and talents, those who have the training and the attitudes necessary for functioning out of Earth's gravity and atmosphere with specialized tools will be in great demand, and their pay should reflect it.

Now--are you ready to start encouraging these new inhabitants of space?

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