Designing the Final Frontier

Three months ago, Commander Chris Hadfield captured the attention of millions by recording a cover of David Bowie's Space Oddity - entirely on board the International Space Station. The video was the culmination of five months of social media efforts to raise awareness and interest in current space programs worldwide, and it certainly seems that Hadfield succeeded in piquing the interest of at least a few future astronauts.

But for architects, something else probably stands out in the video: the ISS seems an extremely clinical and uncomfortable environment to live in for five months. The reasons for this are obvious: it is a highly controlled engineered environment; sending luxuries into orbit is expensive; the astronauts are there to work, and after all they are trained to cope in stressful and uncomfortable environments. However, with proposals for longer missions, such as a manned trip to Mars, as well as the continued promise of commercial spaceflight on the horizon, the design of living spaces outside of our own planet may soon become an issue which architects must get involved in.

Read on to find out about the challenges of architecture in space, after the break.

Obviously, the most dramatic difference between architecture on Earth and architecture in space is a lack of gravity. Though it may seem like being weightless would make life much simpler, it in fact causes significant health problems for astronauts, such as muscle atrophy (since their body is not constantly working against gravity) and back pain (as their spine decompresses). One suggestion made by engineers has been to develop shuttles that spin to generate artificial gravity (think of it as a 20,000 km/h fairground ride).

In this scenario, even though there is gravity, the architectural notion of floors, walls and ceilings is completely void. Every surface can be occupied as a floor, as the 'gravity' simply goes outward from the centre of the ship. Bureau Spectacular, led by Jiminez Lai, explored this idea in 2008 in a contraption called the Phalanstery Module. This small rotating capsule contains non-specific items of furniture which can be interacted with in different ways depending on which floor you are using.

At the same time, the Phalanstery Module reveals just how ill-equipped architects are for thinking about a lack of gravity. The blurb by Bureau Spectacular describes how the idea arose not from the possibility of artificial gravity, but zero gravity: “in zero-gravity, one can rotate in architecture and treat all surfaces as plans.” This is a false conception of what it is like to be in space: in actual fact, in zero-gravity, it is difficult to treat any surface as a plan, as it is difficult to stay put at all.

© NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

The inclusion of furniture in the Phalanstery Module is also unsuitable for a zero-gravity simulation. Tables, chairs and beds are essentially all ways of coping with pesky gravity, and on the ISS pretty much the only 'furniture' they have is used to strap things down, such as the bars which astronauts hook their feet under when they want to stay still.

So, while Bureau Spectacular's designs could be useful for long distance journeys, such as a trip to Mars that uses artificial gravity, designing for commercial flight must work under different principles, building on the realities of living in zero-gravity.

As mentioned, there is little to consider in terms of furniture, so much of the architectural work will involve humanizing the feel of the walls of the space – effectively making it an exercise in material and formal experience. And once again, the realities of space travel mean that architects must think about this kind of exercise in a completely new way, as the enormous expense of sending things into space turns the normal way of thinking about manufacturing costs on its head.

© NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

Most cost estimates for NASA launches price this cost at around $10,000 per pound ($22,000 per kg). Let's say for example you are designing a component; one option weighs 10 pounds and costs $100 to manufacture, and the other option weighs 9 pounds and costs $9000 to manufacture. Under normal circumstances the first option would be the unquestionable winner, but in designing a spaceship the second option is actually the most frugal. Standardized parts are no longer the most effective way to reduce costs, but bespoke parts that prioritize material efficiency.

For some architects, being freed from the tyranny of standardized parts would be a welcome release. For others, the imperative to consider the weight of every component will introduce a new kind of tyranny. Either way, it will likely mean collaborating with engineers to find a balance between comforting materials and weight reduction (one suspects that the reason behind the cold design of the ISS is the notion of weight reduction taken to its most extreme).

Launch costs are an equally important consideration when it comes to building on other planets or moons. The expense of taking building materials to space means that once again, efficiency is key – which means that the cliché of a colony of geodesic domes on the Moon might actually have some truth to it, due to the structural efficiency of the design. Popularised by Buckminster Fuller these structures are so lightweight and strong, the designers of the Eden Project in the UK boast that the structure itself weighs less than the air inside it. These domes could be particularly impressive on the Moon or Mars (our nearest eligible neighbours), as the gravity on both is much weaker and would allow for larger domes than would ever be possible on Earth.

© Foster + Partners

In January, Foster + Partners released a design which went one better – a design for a lunar base which used 3D printing technology to build with the lunar soil that covers the surface of the moon. This design reduces the material involved in the launch to a minimal substructure for the building and the robot required to build with the soil.

However it seems that so far, Foster + Partners seem to be the only architectural firm taking design for space travel seriously (they were also the lead designers of the first commercial spaceport). Even NASA reaching out to architects for advice has not sparked wider discussion by architects. This is staggering considering that designing a place to live in space offers the kind of carte blanche that architects would usually relish.

Yet these days, ideas of how architecture could be employed in space remain solely the preserve of science fiction. Why isn't there more excitement and optimism among architects? Such a unique set of circumstances ought to cause architects to develop the kind of harebrained, outlandish, might-just-actually-work schemes not seen since the days of Archigram's designs for futuristic cities, where entirely new visions of society were proposed, and buildings were thought of in a completely different way. For architects, designing the Final Frontier could quite possibly be a marvelous beginning.

About this author
Cite: Rory Stott. "Designing the Final Frontier" 19 Aug 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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