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Imagine that humans put a space station in orbit around something further than 0.5 AU from Earth. So: not Earth, not the Moon, none of our Lagrange points -- none of the "easy" spots.

The station is the site of some arbitrary project that requires the direct involvement of many people who are all engaged in the undertaking; I'm thinking it's basically a corporate office building in space. These people are not astronauts or military, they're essentially office workers (anything from CERN to SDNY).

For obvious reasons, the people who work there must also live there. Since living in space is a hardship, let's assume that each person is there on some contract that dictates a tour of duty of something like 8 years, and that the company rotates staff through the station as necessary to maintain the maximum population. Nobody is allowed to perform a second tour.

The company that owns it is outrageously wealthy, and so wants to place as many qualified people on-site as can be induced to go. It can easily acquire any (real) supplies needed by the station, and ship them without depending on anyone else for launch services.

Given the technology that's reasonably available by 2030, what's the maximum occupancy of that station? (I.e. assume we start building it in 2030, not that it must be constructed, in-place, and inhabited by 2030.)

Ignore budgetary and legal constraints completely. Assume everyone who goes does so willingly.

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    $\begingroup$ Given that the Earth has seven billion people, and is self-sustaining, does that give you a clue? $\endgroup$ May 14 at 3:26
  • $\begingroup$ "assume we start building it in 2030" - how long can we take building it? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    May 14 at 8:06
  • $\begingroup$ First, how large is the space station? At least, what are the total floor area, and outside surface area? $\endgroup$ May 15 at 22:02
  • $\begingroup$ Aside from bragging rights, why would anyone go to the trouble and expense of this? $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    May 18 at 3:08

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Building in 2030, you're unlikely to build anything significantly more complex than the ISS, so you might get 20 to 50 people. Maintenance requirements increase with the size of the system, probably more than linearly, so 5 of 50 would be janitors.

8 years means taking families, or you won't get the people you want, just those that are willing to go. Incentive would be difficult. I suggest a one year rotation, as you can "easily acquire supplies".

Given travel time, crew change would take the form of a shuttle service, as you can't suddenly have 100 people on board, it would be chaos.

Shuttles would arrive say every month with 6 replacement crew to provide continuity.

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  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking ~8 years based on the assumption that travel time could itself consume a couple of years. IIRC, travel to Mars was predicted to be ~3 years. (I forget if that's round-trip or one-way, but either rules out a 1-year contract.) $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    May 14 at 3:26
  • $\begingroup$ Hard to imagine anybody signing up. You'd be gone for 10 to 15 years. You'd probably never get married or have children, or see them. You can't give birth to kids up there, or they might suffer organ failure on their first trip to Earth's gravity. Tricky... $\endgroup$
    – wingnut
    May 14 at 3:33
  • $\begingroup$ Feasibly, you might need a faster ride. At a maximum of 20% of light speed, you could be there in hours if the forces didn't kill you. Would solve a lot of issues. You'd even be within the primary care window of 4 hours for remote operations for medical emergencies. But people on Earth would age a little faster :-) $\endgroup$
    – wingnut
    May 14 at 3:56
  • $\begingroup$ I doubt that you can afford bringing non-productive dependents (especially children) when occupancy is so limited. But there's nothing in this setup that requires your crew to be young. Stock up on childless post-menopausal women - far lower energy expenditure than young men, too, so less of your station needs to be allocated to growing food. I really don't think you'd struggle to find 80 such women who have had quite enough of Earth and are perfectly qualified for space CERN. $\endgroup$
    – Ottie
    May 14 at 10:14
  • $\begingroup$ The chances of building and occupying anything in a single year is zero. The maximum number of people is zero, regardless of budget. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    May 14 at 10:31
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Zero, at optimistically best 5.

Pessimistic answer because:

  • Building a colony/station in space is hard.
  • Building and maintaining a station away from LEO is harder.
  • Building things with minimal previous experience is hard.
  • Building a complex thing in space with minimal planning raises the risk factor greatly, 8 years for a large project is barely enough time to start planning and doing prototypes never mind placing a station that is non trivial.
  • Supplying a location that is not synchronized to earths orbit adds a level of additional complexity. Worst case there will be durations of not being further then 1 au from earth for more then a year.
  • Space has high risk why would a rational company place anyone there that can do their job on more efficiently on Earth?
  • Building a large station in LEO in that time frame would be a hasty expensive project.

A small station (~5 people) could be built in LEO and then moved in that time frame with huge support from SpaceX. We do not have the tech for constructing in situ. This would depend on ships able to supply it with supplies for an entire year. You would need volunteers to staff it, probably none of whom would be the companies regular employees.

More plausible:

If the target was Interesting, governments would give some support.

Interesting nearby locations:

  • Mars ~.5 AU away at closest.
  • Venus ~.3 AU away at closest.
  • L4,L5 1 AU away.
  • Moon ~ 1/389 AU away.

If time line was placement of station, intended to be inhabited by 2040 to 2050, that would be more plausible to me at this time. But depends on research being done and political will to see it happen.

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It isn't matter of time when, but matter of which space progress you have at hands. There are ways to have billions on that station living a good life, so as if nothing changes or no progress is made then no station at all, even as an attempt and no people there as the result.

So it 0 to billion range.

Assuming SpaceX like company, or rather 2-4x of it, but most importantly having goal set fanatically and resource abundance, it hard to tell what do you mean by "easy" but let assume starship capabilities - then how big it can become is matter of how much money they are willing to spend. A 100 people station in such case seems relatively "easy", a 1000 may be an option as well, a 10k I would say it is a limit but without crunching the numbers it can be not so meaningfull to say so.

Musk was expecting a million ppl on Mars, a colony of that size, but same way there is a Musk-time so is there Musk-colony-size, would not take this number too cloose to a heart, but I would say that a space station or a colony on Mars are not that much different in therms of amount of mass required to be delivered to make it to work. There are thing which are more diffcult on a planet but easier in space, so are there things which are harder on a sation than on a planet, what has to be delivered is different in some aspects but the same in many others - all in all benefits and problems cancel each other if we compare a station and a planet colony, which are build in the way - deliver stuf.

So most ambitious man on the planet, out of those who are well known to the public, sets your max limit, I guess - 1 million.

But all that is pointless without numbers and some undertanding of technologies involved, technologies which open a door for options to choose from.

And in a sense, making up which technologies are available will define reasonable size in realm of your story.

One can build iss like station, few times the size, with modules to grow some food in there, a module full of spare parts and repair kits, and kick the station in to the orbit you want - with a 100t to orbit capacities and reusability it does not look like something that much special - technologies are there or almost there. Expectations about the crew are a bit undreasonable, but it up to your story - who knows maybe they are saving humanity(or think so - it up to your evil copr(being able to squander money so easily - they sure are up to something) idealogy indoctrination department), not impossible - people can endure a lot.

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