Safety in Space Settlements

Travelling to Luna and Mars, and building and living in settlements there, will be dangerous. NASA and other space agencies have strict safety requirements for human-rated missions. However, when we are talking about a settlement to be populated by civilians, potentially even children, we need to approach safety from a different perspective.

Obviously, safety must be of paramount importance. Every method possible for preserving life and preventing injury within our settlements must be adopted. This is crucial, not only because we care about people, but also because any deaths on Luna or Mars, particularly civilian deaths, would seriously affect business. If customers are scared off by safety concerns then the businesses operating the settlements could fail, and thus so could the settlements themselves.

Astronauts are willing and able to take on a much higher level of risk than civilians. Whereas a NASA mission to Mars might carry a comparatively high risk of death (let’s say, in the range of 10-50%), which astronauts may be comfortable with because it’s their job, and to them the glory is worth it, for civilians we need to drive this risk down as close to 0% as we possibly can.

This is difficult to achieve in the beginning, because the only way we can prove that risk has been minimised is through large numbers of flights and long periods of operations. For example, we can now confidently say that air travel is low risk due to the large number of flights compared with the small number of casualties.

Mine safety

One approach we can take to safety within a settlement is to emulate the mining industry, and apply some of the safety standards and protocols as used in mine sites and other dangerous work environments on Earth to settlements in space.

Mine sites are the most dangerous work environments on Earth, and have consequently evolved the most stringent safety protocols. For example:

  1. In order to work at a mine site, or at any location on a mine site, the first step is an induction. This may take anywhere from an hour to several days, depending on the location, risks, and type of work. During an induction, the specific risks associated with the site are outlined, location and use of safety equipment is demonstrated (fire extinguishers, safety showers, eye-rinse stations, and so forth), personal protective equipment (PPE) necessary to work at the site is explained (hard hats, goggles, steel-capped boots, earplugs, overalls, etc.), and evacuation routes and assembly areas are identified.
  2. In addition, first aid processes such as CPR are reviewed if necessary, and a first aid certificate is often required.
  3. Before conducting any works at a location on a mine site, such as installation, repair, or removal of equipment, a JSA (Job Safety Analysis) is conducted. This will involve the people performing the work, and one or more of the forepersons or managers of that particular area, and potentially others such as experts and engineers. During a JSA, all potential hazards are identified, and various methods discussed as to how they can be eliminated, avoided, or mitigated. This process drives the preparation and work plan for the job.
  4. Safety is built into every piece of equipment. Railings are required for all stairways and walkways, for example. Metal guards are added to equipment in order to prevent people from coming in contact with spinning blades or molten metal. All equipment is clearly labelled with instructions and warning signs as appropriate (high voltage, biohazard, radiation, etc.). Only people who have been properly trained in the use of certain equipment may do so.
  5. Sites are designed in such a way as to minimise harm to people or the environment. For example, at a lead refinery, there will be only one road out of the site, which will have a wash bay, such that all departing vehicles are washed down before exiting the site. This prevents lead dust escaping the site. Similarly, workers exiting the refinery will walk through a shallow pool of water to remove dust containing lead from their boots, then into a change room where overalls, breathing masks, and other items of PPE are removed and left behind for cleaning, to avoid lead dust escaping the site.
  6. Health and safety are baked into the culture. Anyone commencing work at a mine site will be aware of this. Safety is an ever-present consideration, reinforced by signage and procedures.
  7. Workers at mine sites are restricted from working long hours, and must regularly undertake drug tests, to ensure that no-one who is drug-affected or excessively tired is operating dangerous machinery.
  8. Workers at mine sites are encouraged to constantly “watch their buddies”, to make sure they are wearing the correct PPE, using equipment correctly, are not overly tired, and so forth. This is an important part of the safety culture.

Zero Harm

When developing safety solutions for a mine site it’s necessary to have the goal of zero injuries or fatalities, even if this goal seems unrealistic. Some mines represent tens of thousands of people in dangerous environments. One attitude is to accept that, due to the danger of the environment, some people will certainly get injured and even possibly die, so you may as well just accept this outcome. However, for some safety officers this attitude is simply not tolerated. The goal is to design the system in such a way that there will be zero injuries or fatalities. This is also the attitude we have to take when designing space settlements. They must be as safe as houses, apartment buildings, or shopping centres. Even though there are many dangers around, as many controls as are necessary must be implemented to eliminate or mitigate risks to the maximum possible degree.

This policy is called “zero harm”. It is a practice of designing mine sites, factories, and other dangerous environments such that zero harm can come to people working there. In recent years, this concept has been extended to include zero harm to the environment.

Of course, in practice complete avoidance of harm is not possible, because people work when they are tired or hungover or upset, they make mistakes, or equipment is not designed correctly or it malfunctions or otherwise fails. However, despite the reality that some probability of injury and possibly even death will always remain, the intention is to design sites, buildings, and equipment such that this probability will be zero.

This is the attitude we must adopt with space settlement design, which will be the most dangerous work environments off Earth. In fact, safety is even more critical in space, where we may not have the medical facilities, equipment, or personnel to deal with certain types of injuries.

This explanation of the zero harm concept from the website for Independent Petroleum Laboratory is useful:

The zero harm concept is often described as operating a business/workplace without exposing any individual to injury. Through the implementation of safe work systems, businesses can help workers get through their working life without suffering an injury. In order to achieve a zero harm policy, the whole organisation must embrace the concept to succeed. Because each business or workplace has different work environments and tasks, the risks differ greatly from one organisation to another and even within each organisation. In short, there is no one single solution. The zero harm concept is therefore often linked to exceeding the regulations and ensuring all measures are taken to avoid/mitigate the risks.

Culture plays a big part in achieving zero harm, without a good health and safety culture employees won’t always be aware and focus on working safely. One of the key factor to improving health and safety culture is education. If employees have a better understanding of health and safety they are more likely to be proactive. Safety culture can be improved immensely with the implementation of an enhanced health and safety training programme for the wider management team and safety representatives.

Clearly, we need a culture of health and safety within a space settlement that not only incorporates NASA standards for human-rated missions, but is analogous to that of a dangerous workplace on Earth (such as a mine). This means:

  • All of our equipment must be designed for optimal safety.
  • All equipment must be clearly labelled in the official language of the settlement. (This highlights the relationship between language and safety. For example, if we assume that English will be the official language of a settlement, then for optimal safety we would require that everyone pass an English proficiency test, and can read and fully understand all labels and warnings.)
  • Anyone planning to work at a settlement on Luna or Mars must participate in one or more inductions relevant to the settlement and their particular work area. This should probably be conducted twice, once at analog facilities on Earth, as part of Earthside training, and again on arrival at the settlement.
  • A culture of safety, including not operating dangerous equipment when tired or under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, and always watching out for each other, must be baked into all space settlement training and operations.

Hierarchy of hazard control

The hierarchy of hazard control is a widely-used system of dealing with hazards in a dangerous work environment. We can also use this system in space settlements.

The first step in minimising risk is identifying the potential hazards associated with a work site or a job. These might be mechanical, chemical, biological, operational, or related to radiation, weather, or personnel, or some other type of hazard. All potential sources of hazards must be considered and evaluated.

The second step is thinking of ways to control the identified hazards. The hierarchy of hazard control gives a best-to-worst series of approaches that can be taken:

  1. Elimination. The best possible option is to remove the hazard. For example, if a landing zone has a boulder on it that could cause an accident, that boulder is a hazard, and the best way to deal with it is simply to remove it.
  2. Substitution. If a hazard cannot be eliminated, it may be possible to make a substitution. For example, if it is raining at a job site, then it will be safer to use a hand saw than a power saw.
  3. Engineering controls. This relates to physical solutions that prevent workers from being harmed. For example, putting up railings to prevent people from falling off a walkway or cliff, or placing high voltage equipment in a locked room.
  4. Administrative controls. If a hazard cannot be dealt with in any other way, then clear signage can reduce risk, in addition to training people working at the site how to use equipment correctly, and to be careful. For example, a power saw may constitute a potential hazard, but risk of injury can be mitigated by labelling the equipment clearly, ensuring that operators are correctly trained in its use, and preventing untrained people from using it.
  5. Personal protective equipment. As a final measure, workers must wear PPE to protect themselves from harm. For example, if carrying heavy tools or materials on site cannot be avoided, then the risk of injury will be reduced if workers are wearing steel-capped boots.


Amusement park safety

Another unique industry we can take ideas from is that of the amusement industry, including theme parks and activities such as laser tag, paintball, ATVs, go-kart racing, recreational zip-lines, and things of this nature.

To a degree, Serenity and Enterprise (these are the names of the settlements on Luna and Mars respectively that I am writing about in my new book) will function similarly to hotels. This will be much more the case in Serenity than Enterprise, where tourism will represent a much more significant aspect of the business model. Nonetheless, there may also be “guests” at Enterprise who may be staying temporarily (e.g. for one synod), for recreational purposes rather than for work, and therefore may be largely untrained. Settlements may also accommodate retirees (and what is a retirement home, but a hotel with a specific type of services).

Hotels, retirement homes, and amusement parks and related businesses, have two distinct, interacting populations: staff and guests. Although space settlements may incorporate hotels, in terms of safety they are perhaps more comparable to amusement parks, which are much more dangerous.

Comparing a settlement with an amusement park highlights the importance of safety with respect to business success. Injuries and fatalities in amusement parks are generally quite bad for business, as will be the case in space settlements.

In an amusement park:

  1. Staff have been trained in how to operate and maintain rides and other machinery, who instruct guests where to go and how to safely interact with rides and activities.
  2. Guests haven’t been trained before they arrive at the venue, and are required to follow instructions provided by staff and on signs.

Within an amusement park, we can see all levels of the hierarchy of hazard control at work. The most obvious safety controls are:

  1. Training of staff. They must be aware of all hazards associated with machinery, and they must be comfortable instructing guests to avoid machinery or explaining how they can interact with it safely, and providing guests with, and explaining the use of, PPE such as helmets, harnesses, etc., and checking that all PPE and other safety equipment is functioning properly and is being used correctly.
  2. Signage. Any potentially dangerous equipment or areas must be clearly marked to prevent potential harm. For example “Staff Only”, “Do not feed the crocodiles”, “You must be this tall to go on this ride”, and so forth.
  3. Railings and other barriers that separate guests from dangerous machinery, animals, and so forth, and that provide direction as to what paths to follow.

How can this be applied in a space settlement? An obvious example is ensuring the safety of people on EVA. Assuming that EVAs on the surface of Luna or Mars will be popular activities for guests and residents, dedicated staff will be required to ensure the correct operation of spacesuits and airlocks. A spacesuit is a form of PPE. When a someone wishes to go outside, these staff members will be responsible for checking things like:

  • the person has selected the right size spacesuit (unless they have their own)
  • the suit’s batteries are sufficiently charged, and its oxygen and water tanks are full
  • all seals are properly clamped and airtight
  • the suit’s gloves, visor, radio, etc. are all functioning correctly, and that the person knows how to use them
  • the airlock is working correctly, and is used correctly

During EVAs, these staff would be responsible for monitoring the radio for potential distress calls, and monitoring the EVA participants’ locations to ensure they’re not straying too far from the settlement. They would be in constant radio contact with the EVA participants, and able to instruct them to come back when required. In many cases, depending on the situation, an experienced staff member would accompany a group on EVA as a guide to ensure their safety.

When people re-enter the settlement after EVA, staff would again ensure correct use of the airlock. Participants would then leave their suits in a dedicated maintenance area inside, where staff would handle such tasks as refilling oxygen and water tanks, recharging batteries, checking suits thoroughly for potential faults, and repairing or maintaining them as required for maximum safety. This protocol is similar to what you would find at a go-kart track for maintenance of the karts.

Staff working in this area of the settlement may also offer regular classes (inductions) in the correct use of spacesuits and airlocks, and correct protocols for EVA to maximise safety.

Commercial spaceflight safety standards

The era of commercial passenger spaceflight is upon us, and although space settlements may be a few decades away, it won’t be long before regular folks are taking suborbital or orbital flights for recreational purposes, or simply as a more rapid means of intercontinental travel. With this in mind, industry groups have begun to communicate and formulate standards for the industry.

In October 2016 (just last month at the time of writing), the standards organisation ASTM International announced the formation of a committee to develop standards for commercial human spaceflight. Another initiative is the Commercial Spaceflight Safety Committee, formed by the International Astronautical Federation. This committee is mainly focused on facilitating communication between the major players in the commercial spaceflight industry regarding safety policy and regulations.

This is a very new area of research. Although these efforts will help to lay the foundation for safety standards for human spaceflight, safety standards within space settlements and hotels is a different ball game. We should expect to incorporate elements from NASA safety standards, standards developed by ASTM International, and the lessons we can learn from mine sites, theme parks, and other environments on Earth where people are exposed to danger.

Safety must be taken seriously for space settlement to be successful, and producing stringent safety standards, in addition to creating a safety culture, will be an important step towards ensuring both short and long term safety of all residents and guests of settlements.


I like to read, write, teach, travel, code, lift weights, play music, listen to music, make things out of wood, watch scifi movies, and play board games and computer games. My interests are broad, spanning science, engineering, architecture, technology, nutrition, environment, psychology, health, fitness, finance, business, and economics, but my main passions are spirituality, space settlement, and veganism. My ambition is to be a successful writer and speaker, and to create a company to produce awesome science fiction books, movies, and games that inspire people about the future. Eventually, I would also like to create vegan cafes and urban farms.

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