Starchitects: Designing for Outer Space

This October, NASA unveiled a proposal to carry people to Mars and leave them there. The project, called the Hundred-Year Starship, would fly four astronauts to the planet, resupply them with food and basic needs, and then let them adapt without the chance to go home. A NASA representative explained that the one-way trip would be more economical than going back and forth to Earth. Plus, by staying on the planet completely alone, the astronauts could thoroughly get to know its make-up. Mars is a rational first choice. It has water, it is near the sun, and it’s our closest neighbor—just a three-month trip away. If we’re going to settle the universe, it’s a good place to start.

The move constitutes one of the agency’s most pointed attempts at inhabiting new planets, and its boldest. Participants in the “Hundred Year Starship” would be denied most of the psychological amenities that mark usual NASA trips—return dates, accolades, the hope of seeing loved ones again. But Pete Worden, the Director of NASA’s Ames Center, defended the plan as a step forward for American space exploration. “The human space program is now really aimed at settling other worlds. Twenty years ago you had to whisper that in dark bars.” Now, he suggested, the agency pursues the idea headlong.

It isn’t far off to think of such a trip as a new form of colonial expedition. The proposal’s supporters speak of it with a sort of conquistador rashness, as if preparing to revive the Age of Exploration. In a paper about one way trips to Mars in the Journal of Cosmology, Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies—from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Washington State University and Arizona State University, respectively—describe the project thusly: “Explorers such as Columbus, Frobisher, Scott and Amundsen, while not embarking on their voyages with the intention of staying at their destination, nevertheless took huge personal risks to explore new lands, in the knowledge that there was a significant likelihood that they would perish in the attempt.” Only a bold project, they explain, could push space exploration forward in a time of scientific close-mindedness. Never mind the risks extreme weather poses on a planet where the temperature is often 100° Celsius below zero, or the possibility of radiation sickness, which an astronaut might acquire from the atmosphere without proper shielding: “The main impediment is the narrow vision and the culture of political caution that now pervades the space programs of most nations.”

The agency has begun to work on the project. According to the Daily Mail, Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, is one of its main sponsors.

 

Gumption and a spirit of adventure are all well and good, but the fact is, if you send a human into space, you’ll have to account for his well-being. Enter the space architect. Space architects oversee the design of the cramped living quarters of the International Space Station or the loud cabins of a space rover; they make sure that whatever is carrying humans through the dark void is equipped to do so. It is their job to make the complex systems of wings and motors built by engineers function as a whole. Dr. Larry Bell, a professor at the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture at the University of Houston, the country’s only space architecture degree program, explained it this way to me: “We are kind of like the general practitioners. We are not just looking at the toes or at boob jobs. We’re trying to understand what things are and how they connect together.”

Such supervision is necessary to ensure that all the engineering science is tailored toward human safety. “Being a licensed architect means that you are qualified to protect the health and safety of the public in the built environment,” says Marc Cohen, an architect who has worked for NASA. “Space is a much more unforgiving environment than Earth. If you’re not qualified to protect the health and safety of the public on Earth, how can you do it out there?” Or, as Bell puts it: If you’re going to explore extreme environments, you’ve got to take care of “the human factor.”

Most architects work with models and blueprints, but how do you design a structure when terrestrial experience is no guide? Space architects have to figure out how designs will function when moving in different gravity, or when attacked by incredibly fine dust, or when faced with radiation. A good deal of time is spent looking for the appropriate analogue on Earth. Guy Trotti, who works at MIT and helped found the Sasakawa Institute, rides on the “vomit comet”—a plane whose movements simulate zero gravity—and tries to use his designs under the shaky conditions. If he can’t open a bottle or turn a handle, he builds it again. “I also spend a lot of time underwater with mock-ups,” he says. Some lunar rovers he designed got tested in the desert. He also once participated in an effort to set up a NASA base in Antarctica—the cold weather and uneven surfaces are a good approximation of other planetary surfaces. Today, much of his work is done in labs at MIT, where harnesses and simulators can make you feel like you’re walking on the moon.

External environment isn’t the only challenge. Much of the trouble in building something like the International Space Station lies in making it fit for human life, especially in the case of long-term projects. When Constance Adams, a space architect who once worked for NASA and is now the president of a technical consulting firm, designed a habitation for Mars, she created a closed-loop system that would both provide nutrients and process human waste for the 425 day-long mission. The key involved miniaturized, adult versions of edible plants—culled from the George Washington Carver Institute—that would fit in the small space. Another design, “TransHab,” would expand into an inflatable shell as it was released from a space shuttle. In the crew galleys, there would be room for a small gym and a bit of socializing space—enough, according to an article about the project, to foster the necessary “interpersonal relationships” and keep the crew healthy during a confinement of over a year. The International Space Station, where six to eight astronauts live at all times, has crew quarters fitted with binding straps so that occupants can comfortably nap, check email, or read without floating away.

 

As the potential for human space exploration and colonization has grown, so has the field of space architecture. In 2002, to celebrate the advance of the discipline, a group of space architects led by Adams wrote their own “Millennium Charter Manifesto” outlining the methods and goals of the space architect’s job for the public. The manifesto recorded their motivation—“we are responding to the deep human drive to explore and inhabit new places”—and important ideas that each space architect should keep in mind, such as “Human Condition” and “Humility.” In so doing, these architects were placing themselves in a long line of visionary endeavors; architectural movements, like Futurism, have often marked their own importance with a manifesto.

This expansion is not just theoretical though. The Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture, which started in 1987, now trains a dozen polymaths each year to work for space agencies and private design companies. Space architecture has moved into the public eye as well. A few weeks ago, I attended the Moon Ball, a forum on whether humans would ever be living in space. Unfortunately, the event was also a big party, closed to those under twenty-one. I spent much of the panel on “How we will live on the moon” and the difficulties of low-gravity design arguing with a very real and very weighty bouncer. Nearby, a man dressed in an old astronaut costume was trying to drink water, but couldn’t fit the liter bottle over his round metal collar.

The announcement of large-scale programs and private investments in the space industry has helped kindle the hope that space exploration will expand in the next few decades, and space architecture with it. Many architects describe the field as poised on the edge of an explosive growth. The moment space is privatized, Guy Trotti tells me, space exploration “will be the largest business on earth. Like maritime exploration was three hundred years ago.” This may be an overly optimistic view. Adams says that she has worked on three separate programs to replace the space shuttle with a newer spacecraft, and none of the resulting designs have been built. With every announcement like the one about the Hundred-Year Starship, there are new budget cuts, indefinite holds due to lack of funding, attempts at downsizing.  “We’re going to retire the space shuttle with nothing to replace it,” Adams says. “We are hoping that Congress will put some serious funding into this program sooner rather than later, so that the U.S. gap in space access and the loss of essential intellectual capital may be kept to a minimum.”

While the development of the field is well underway, the question of who began the practice is still in dispute.  One architect told me that the field grew out of industrial design. Raymond Loewy, best known for his Studebaker designs and his new take on industrial sleek, helped NASA build the first American space station, Skylab, in the mid-70s. He drew the trays and tables, chose the color palette and fought for the inclusion of a window allowing astronauts to look out at the space they were flying through. NASA conceded a 24-inch hole. But who was the first practicing “space architect”? Marc Cohen says it was Maynard Dalton, another SkyLab contributor. When I asked Trotti, he responded, “You’re looking at it.” 

 

On a recent Wednesday night, the astronauts in the International Space Station were trying to watch a football game. I was listening in via NASA TV, a channel set up by the agency to connect the station with humans down below. The team that the astronauts really wanted to watch (Missouri, I think) wasn’t coming through the communications antenna, so they watched Texas Christian University instead. As they settled down to enjoy the game, their talk was interrupted by a loud voice: “There’s no wagering in sports.” After that, the astronauts seemed to have stopped conversing, and all I could hear was a high-pitched sighing sound as the station’s camera tracked its flight over an icy pole.

“It is unknown on year-long interplanetary missions, where there is no Earth to look at and no planet to walk on, what activities can mitigate the negative effects of boredom, confinement, and limited social interaction,” say the authors of Out of this World: The New Field of Space Architecture, a book on the discipline. Even when the engineering science is solid and the budgetary concerns are resolved, there’s one problem that remains to be ironed out: Human beings are not meant to live in space.

Many of the space architects I’ve talked to over the past few weeks have made references to the “craziness” of their work. For some, it is the continuation of a childhood fantasy. “I’ve always wanted to build spacecrafts, since I was very young, and now I get to do it for a living,” says Marc Cohen. “In the end isn’t space tourism the dream of the child inside each one of us?” asks Out of this World. The sentiment even shows up in some of the designs for future space tourism infrastructure. A blueprint for a space hotel based on the TransHab has candy-colored walls and furniture that could have come from a Fisher Price catalogue. The pieces of the hotel are made out of the most advanced material NASA knows to create, but, in the mock-up, they look like they are made of plastic.

In conversation, there’s the inevitable comparison of the work to science fiction. Cohen likes Ursula LeGuin and Ray Bradbury despite being “somewhat disillusioned” by the unrealistic portrayals of the civil servants who work in space agencies. “A thorough encyclopedic understanding of science fiction help one to judge ideas,” Constance Adams tells me about her designs. “An idea that has some game has been dealt with in science fiction.”

One of the most recent science fiction movies about lunar living is called “Moon,” and it was directed by Duncan Jones, David Bowie’s son. The premise is that in the near future, humans harvest energy from the moon’s surface; one man supervises the process for a three-year shift. The main character has a strict regimen to stay sane—morning exercise, talks with his wife and child, a countdown calendar. He cannot wait to get home, but he has trained himself not to fret. Just as you become engrossed in the psychology of the man you’ve gotten to know—he’s even friends with a robot!—it turns out that he’s actually a clone. The movie turns into more of a thriller after that, and the strict regimen is left behind. By that point, the film has already answered its own question. What real human would want to cut himself off from Earth?

 

When the Hundred-Year Starship was announced, I asked Adams if she thought anyone would sign up were the project actually put in place. The “Starship” is unlikely to happen, she said—while the engineering behind it is sound, NASA would never commit to such a controversial plan.

“But if we announced tomorrow that we were looking for volunteers for a one-way trip to Mars, eight hours later, we would have tens of thousands of exceedingly qualified names,” she added.

“The hard part’s getting them home. The people who would adapt to that kind of situation might not handle going home. Imagine: you’ve left whatever you care about on Earth, and you have few ties there anyway. You’ve done this big adventure. You’ll never see Mars again.

“If you’ve got a crew of six it only takes one wild card to cause a problem. Who knows what someone might pull.”