The Catacombs The Continuity Guide
Life Support Systems
by Martin Willey

8 Life Support Systems

The Alphans are dependent on fragile life support systems. The life support systems are very centralised and often threatened. Simmonds steals the power storage core in Earthbound, and the creature steals the life support core in The Beta Cloud. Cantar & Zova modify life support in The Exiles causing explosions, and the duplicate Alpha is de-pressurised from here in One Moment Of Humanity. Helena is able to anaesthetise the entire base in The Bringers Of Wonder part 2 from life support. Aliens often leave the Alphans on minimum life support (The Testament Of Arkadia, One Moment Of Humanity). The systems often need small quantities of very rare minerals: tiranium (Catacombs Of The Moon) and dylenide crystals (The Mark Of Archanon) are found in the catacombs under Alpha, but milgonite (All That Glisters) and titanium (The Metamorph) must be found on alien planets.

By Message From Moonbase Alpha the Moonbase life support systems are slowly decaying and are expected to fail, leading to the decision to abandon the base.

8.1 Artificial Gravity:

Black Sun

Artificial gravity is used inside Eagles and the Moonbase. In Black Sun Bergman introduces the gravity system: "These eight anti-gravity towers stabilise our gravity here inside Alpha". He creates a forcefield by "linking and cross-linking the screens in each of the towers". In Another Time, Another Place a check-list includes "artificial gravity". In War Games Kano states "Anti-gravity units in all areas are smashed beyond repair", while in Space Brain Bergman explains "we had to turn gravity control right down".

Black Sun Ring Around The Moon

Strangely, astronauts bounce as if in low gravity in the immediate vicinity of the towers, seen in Black Sun, Ring Around The Moon, Alpha Child and The Last Sunset. Even more strange is the tower seen on Earth in Another Time, Another Place. Nuclear Disposal Area One in Breakaway had an "artificial gravity system", now deactivated, although the modified anti-gravity towers can still be seen. The model towers are also seen in Earthbound, The Last Enemy (providing the forcefield), Brian The Brain and The Bringers Of Wonder part 1.

"Anti-gravity screens" are forcefields used by Eagles in Black Sun, Ring Around The Moon and War Games. These screens are also referred to in Space Brain & The Exiles. In War Games the Eagles have "Compensators at Earth gravity", while in Earthbound an Eagle extends its gravity to an alien spaceship, under control from Main Mission ("Activate gravity control").

8.2 Atmosphere

In Alpha Child, Paul Morrow states that the Alphans "breathe air of a kind." It seems that the internal atmosphere is similar to Earth i.e. a mixture of mainly nitrogen and oxygen. Possibly the pressure is lower, as it must be roughly the same as in the spacesuits because astronauts do not have to "pre-breath" with 100% oxygen (to get rid of any nitrogen left in the blood stream) before leave the airlock. The oxygen content in the atmosphere is regulated by the main computer system (Guardian of Piri). The space suit atmosphere is apparently pure oxygen (The Bringers Of Wonder part 2), but the Alphan atmosphere contains other gases too in order to reduce the fire hazard (in The Bringers Of Wonder part 1, some rooms are equipped with emergency oxygen supply bottles). (See fire procedures)

The Bringers Of Wonder part 2

In Year 2, the Alphan air conditioning system is controlled from the life support room (Catacombs of the Moon, The Bringers Of Wonder part 2). The base can be depressurised in its entirety (One Moment Of Humanity) or specific sections (End Of Eternity, airlocks and launch pad areas).

Explosive decompression is a risk (Breakaway, War Games, End Of Eternity, Space Warp, The Dorcons, the melting atmosphere seals in Matter Of Life And Death). In The Bringers Of Wonder part 1 we see an "Emergency Depressurisation Unit" oxygen supply, while War Games demonstrates how window cracks are sealed and The Seance Spectre shows a similar procedure in an Eagle using a plastic sheet and a hardening agent sprayed on it. The catacombs in The Mark Of Archanon have "Pressure Normal" warning signs. The launch bay in The Last Enemy has a "Pressure Difference" sign (the categories are "Low- Balanced- High") as does the airlock in The Last Sunset.

Airlocks are seen in Ring Around The Moon, The Last Sunset, Missing Link (Airlock West), End Of Eternity (Airlock E), Space Warp (Airlock 7 & a moonbuggy airlock) and The Dorcons (Airlock 2).

A vacuum chamber is shown in The Beta Cloud, as is the capacity to flood Hydroponics with a chlorine atmosphere. Luckily, ventilation ducts are not normally sealed, allowing Maya to use them in The Beta Cloud and The Bringers Of Wonder part 1. Ironically the base is inadequately sealed against external pressures, as in Space Brain when the foam bursts in, or The Seance Spectre where Tora's atmosphere could contaminate the recycling system.

Summary of main functions performed by the Alpha environmental control and life support system

Spacesuits supply oxygen through a wire from backpack to helmet (seen in The Bringers Of Wonder part 2), which according to War Games stores about 100 minutes of oxygen. In some episodes backpacks are not worn: they are replaced by EVA packs in Space Brain & The Exiles, and by fire extinguishers in The Bringers Of Wonder part 1 (fighting fire in vacuum is a rare experience). Eagles have to de-pressurise and re-pressurise the entire passenger module for EVAs, although Earthbound shows a vacuum chamber which can be separately de-pressurised. Eagles have an "oxygen recycling plant" (The Seance Spectre) which can normally support life for at least six months (Black Sun).

The Bringers Of Wonder part 1 The Bringers Of Wonder part 1

8.3 Recycling

The Moonbase also uses recycling. The "oxygen recycling system" is mentioned in Seed Of Destruction, and "recycled survival gases" in The Seance Spectre. The recycling plants may recycle air, water, food and waste together, perhaps using algae and higher plants. In War Games Sandra notes "The food production and recycling plants have been very badly damaged." Eva in The Seance Spectre reports a spurious medical emergency in "Recycling Plants One and Two." When power is cut in Force Of Life, Paul itemises the deterioration: "In twenty minutes, all our sick in the intensive Care Unit will die. Thirty minutes, our recycling plants will be damaged beyond repair. At forty our oxygen will give out." Alpha experiences these problems in Seed Of Destruction: "Water in the recycling plant is frozen. Hydroponics frozen. Protein production unit inoperative." Shortly after Alan reports "the oxygen units have failed." Helena also mentions life support systems 3 and 6, suggesting there are at least this many life support systems. The decay is more rapid when the life support cores are removed: thirty minutes in Earthbound, while there is an instant 5 degree temperature drop in The Beta Cloud.

The Maintenance and Service Sections are capable of performing routine refurbishment work on hardware but badly damaged equipment such as the items listed in the previous paragraph would have to be returned to Earth. The issue of closure is fundamental to designing a self-sufficient space colony such as Alpha. Can the systems manipulate lunar matter in all ways necessary for complete self-construction (matter closure), can the systems generate sufficient energy for the process (energy closure), and can the system command and control all processes required for self-construction (information closure)? Most studies to date have concluded that it would be most economical to import a few percent of the necessary components from Earth as "vitamin parts", e.g. microelectronics components, ball bearings, and precision instruments in general. These items would require enormous resources and manpower if the industrial capabilities have to be duplicated in space.

8.4 Food

Before the breakaway, the Alphans have access to foods from Earth. In Breakaway, Koenig's quarters have a dish with 5 green apples and another dish containing Edam and Emmental cheeses.

Hydroponics Units are seen in The Troubled Spirit, A Matter Of Balance, & The Beta Cloud (although the plants are shown growing in soil, not gravel), and hydroponics is mentioned in Dragon's Domain, The Mark Of Archanon, The Taybor & The Rules Of Luton. The wall map identifies two "Hydroponic Farm Areas". Plants grown on the base include soybean (for hamburgers The Mark Of Archanon), hops and barley (A Matter Of Balance), lemon (The Last Sunset), flowers (Dragon's Domain, The Rules Of Luton, the magnus solarium in A Matter Of Balance) and even a bonsai tree (The Taybor). The "manna" from The Last Sunset is "amazingly rich in second class protein and many of the essential vitamins. We can grow almost limitless crops, once we've removed all the hallucinogenic elements."

A Protein Store, containing seeds from Earth, is seen in The Testament Of Arkadia (door combination 40980428). Evidently this is only required for reseeding should the crops fail, and during normal recycling it is not used. It seems the store also contains six months of "survival rations" for over 300 people in case of massive power/life support failure; Luke and Anna need half of these supplies to survive alone on Arkadia for three years.

The only animals seem to be the doves in The Mark Of Archanon.

Many foods seem to be synthesised (hamburgers in The Mark Of Archanon, the imitation coffee in The Dorcons) although a good variety is available (including chocolates in The Beta Cloud). Bergman has a bottle of 60-year old brandy in Black Sun, Tony brews his own beer (The Taybor, Journey To Where, A Matter Of Balance- Verdeschi's brew number 29- , Catacombs Of The Moon, plus mentions in The Rules Of Luton, Dorzak), and punch is served at the party in Guardian Of Piri. Dining arrangements are rarely seen: a meal is shown in The Taybor in Koenig's dining room, and a camp meal in The Full Circle. The Recreation Centre in The Mark Of Archanon has mugs and cutlery, and Alan refers to "a little place just down the corridor", but we never see any restaurants, although four are indicated on the wall map.

8.5 Power

Force Of Life

The 300-crew lunar outpost requires tens of megawatts of electrical power. The main sources of power for Alpha are nuclear reactors, seen in Force Of Life (four Nuclear Generating Areas are mentioned), Alpha Child (the Generating Area), Earthbound (the Nuclear Power Station), Black Sun (the Main Power Unit, the same design as that in Earthbound), and the power rooms in The Exiles, One Moment Of Humanity & The Mark Of Archanon plus the life support centres in The Beta Cloud and The Bringers Of Wonder part 2. The Main Power Unit is also mentioned in Ring Around The Moon. Seed of Destruction features the Main Power Plant, which can transfer the bulk of the available power output into energy reflector units which seem to be giant microwave or laser beam transmitters. Individual areas also have separate "storage cell" batteries for storing energy (Force of Life).

The Alphan nuclear reactors are apparently considered highly reliable since they are located inside pressurised buildings within the main Alpha complex (real life moonbase plans usually assume a plutonium reactor that would be buried in lunar soil a few kilometres from the base). They are quite compact and mostly resemble modern nuclear submarine reactors, which typically use highly enriched fission fuel to enable them to deliver a large amount of power from a smaller reactor. Real-life civilian "Generation IV" reactor concepts currently being investigated for use in the 21st century would be 50-100 times as efficient as current nuclear power plants on a fuel consumption per MW output basis. Future fission reactors would be fuelled by reprocessed highly radioactive nuclear waste (a concept mentioned in Destination Moonbase Alpha only: "This existence is made possible by a specially developed nuclear support system fed by nuclear waste from Earth."). The waste could in principle be transmuted into uranium 238 and then reused as fuel (the existing French nuclear waste stockpile of 200,000 tonnes could in theory supply France with clean energy for the next 5000 years). However, such reactors produce large amounts of waste heat that would have to be radiated into space and away from the Moonbase.

The atomic fuel can cause a dangerous nuclear explosion by triggering the Moonbase Alpha nuclear waste silos and domes (The Bringers of Wonder); it would seem that the resulting physical damage to Alpha itself is not that great but the radiation pulse would kill humans. Hence the Moonbase must be evacuated in the Seance Spectre. The described behaviour is not very similar to that of ordinary nuclear waste, so it is possible that a significant part of the Alphan atomic waste consists of leftover nuclear warheads from the global war of 1987.

According to Breakaway, the Alpha sections operate on emergency systems in case all power is lost (The A B Chrysalis mentions "back-up power circuits"). Solar batteries are mentioned briefly as back up power sources in War Games (in the episode it is stated they store enough power for eight days in an emergency). The wall map identifies a "Sola Energy Plant" (sic).

Heating and lighting can be set in individual rooms (Force Of Life) within centrally controlled limits (The Testament Of Arkadia). Power cuts are frequent (Black Sun, Force Of Life, The Testament Of Arkadia, One Moment Of Humanity); the opposite situation occurs in Catacombs Of The Moon, temperatures reaching 40 degrees. Temperature gauges ("temperature centigrade", in 5 degree intervals from -5 to +50) are seen in Catacombs Of The Moon and The Beta Cloud. Power packs stripped from Eagles are used for power in Black Sun and One Moment Of Humanity; portable nuclear generators are featured in A Matter Of Balance & The Lambda Factor.

In The Testament of Arkadia it is stated that Alpha can survive, barely, with a 50% power loss rate. Power consumption is cut in a series of successive "phases", e.g. Phase 6 power reductions are introduced when the power generators have lost 50% of their output. Phase 6 leaves sufficient power for essential food and life support systems, but all Travel Tubes and experimental sections are closed down while lighting and heating are reduced to a bare minimum. In Black Sun, the central computer non-essential services are turned off to save power.

8.6 Radiation Protection

Alpha has "radiation screens" that draw power from the main generators. They can be set to "full power" or "medium power" (Collision Course), suggesting some sort of artificial magnetic field is used. The Nuclear Waste Domes seem to have similar radiation shields (The Bringers of Wonder part 2). Spacecraft crews entering Moonbase are checked for radiation in Collision Course. Astronaut crews also carry radiation dosimeters in Breakaway and All That Glisters.


Copyright Martin Willey