Up until now, space architecture has been mainly focused on engineering, centered on projects like orbital space stations or Martian exploration convoys, commissioned by world space agencies such as ESA (Europe) or NASA (USA). But in recent years, an increasingly broader spectrum of professionals (e.g. architects, sociologists) as well as entrepreneurs and investors (not all well intentioned) have joined the challenge of designing extraterrestrial built environments, the new space race of the 21st century.
The fast development of technology, the increase of world population and the climate change crisis create the perfect setting to think about life outside of our planet, and as these trends continue to evolve and converge, new opportunities to explore options beyond our traditional limits appear (NEOM), as well as new organizations which support this research (like SATC, SICSA). Even though no one is currently on Mars, many ongoing projects and simulations (MARS-ONE, Mars City Science) are already exploring how we will design, build and inhabit the new realms of humanity in outer space.
At the Architecture of the Future conference held in Kyiv, we had the chance to talk to some of the world's leading architecture firms about their general thoughts and specific challenges on this topic. Perceived by many as an aberration, since we shouldn’t be thinking about starting new civilizations in outer space when we haven’t yet solved how to develop an efficient one on our own planet, there were also many others who see living in space as a big opportunity with the potential to push the industry into an improved future, which leads to new technologies and new ways of thinking for our current problems.
For those who are tackling these questions, there are 6 main challenges currently being faced when designing extraterrestrial architecture:
1. Water Efficiency
As Bjarke Ingels shares in his prototype Martian "city" in Dubai, on planet Earth we have 1.5 billion cubic meters of water, while on Mars we only have 5 million, so we have to be incredibly efficient with how we use water. There is no ready-to-use water, potable water will be created through the heating of ice in the local ground soil, where water will be condensed and dry soil returned to its origin. A portion of this produced water is stored while a portion is used to produce oxygen.
This forces us to re-think all water-related processes that we currently give for granted, from the very basic such as direct consumption, to more secondary ones, such as agriculture (which will also be challenged by a reduced amount of land surface), or cattle (animal based diet probably won’t be an option). The way in which we build should also be conceived without water as a main material, and the treatment of used water will be easier than the generation of new water.
2. Renewable Energy
On Mars you have no fossil fuels (since you have no fossils), so energy on Mars has to be renewable. Solar, wind and nuclear power are possible energy alternatives to fossil fuels. MARS-ONE life support unit is one of the projects which has already defined how to capitalize on available resources on Mars, and they propose electrical energy generated through the application of thin and flexible film solar photovoltaic panels, which can be rolled up for compact transportation to Mars.
3. Extreme environments: High Radiation, low pressure and low temperatures
Mars has a very extreme environment; it has no breathable air, very light gravity, no magnetic field and a very thin atmosphere, which results in very high levels of radiation.
From an architectural perspective, architects need to think about building special atmospheres where air can be sustained, as well as shells or structures that protect humans from radiation. Four main types of building structures appear to be the best solutions for a Martian base: rigid metal or plastic based structures, expandable structures, underground tunnels, and structures made of brick and rocks.
The building process itself can be very inefficient, and even dangerous. The surface of the Moon, for example, is covered in a fine layer of Moon dust made of sharp, microscopic grains which can slice into an astronaut’s lungs if breathed in too deeply. This moon dust can become electrostatically charged and cling to equipment and spacesuits, which makes building on the Moon like working on a construction site with super-charged asbestos. It is work better suited to robots than humans.
Years ago, Foster + Partners designed a four-person lunar base, which used 3D printing technology to print a protective layer of locally-sourced lunar soil over an inflatable dome. The shell, which had a hollow closed cellular structure inspired by natural biological systems, protects potential inhabitants from meteorites, gamma radiation and high temperature fluctuations. AI SpaceFactory’s technology uses lunar and Martian materials as the feedstock for robotically 3D printed buildings and infrastructure. The use of in-situ resources coupled with autonomous construction allows them to build layered structures, safely and efficiently. You can watch the full interview with one of the co-founders here.
4. Recycle everything (can’t afford waste)
Another huge challenge regarding space architecture and construction is to think smarter about how to use resources. Because of the amount of rocket fuel needed to move a kilogram of anything through space, there’s no space for overconsumption and waste. All configurations and structures need to be as efficient as possible. This means we need to think about all of the parts as an integrated ecosystem, whether we call it circular economy, sustainability, or circular life support systems, it has to be 100% waste free.
5. Cost Efficiency: Automate construction, in-situ materials and robotics
With extreme environments and not being able to afford waste, architects must use in-situ materials as well as robotics and artificial intelligence to optimize the construction process. At a cost of USD $100 million to land a 5-ton lunar payload, an average Earth home weighing 50-tons would cost one billion dollars and require 10 roundtrips to the Moon to deliver. For the same weight, we might land 50 robotic rovers and build a lunar outpost if we learn to harvest materials from the surface.
Mars Colonization by ZA Architects proposes solar-powered robots to excavate dwellings for humans on Mars before people ever arrive. Choosing areas where the basalt rock has formed into hexagonal columns, which can be easily removed to create cathedral-like spaces, the robots would then weave web-like structures from basalt fibers to create floors at various levels within the caves.
In testing for NASA, AI SpaceFactory validated the use of biopolymer and basalt composites as a super-strong construction material, these materials, which are in abundance on Earth and are more sustainable alternatives to concrete and steel, which generates 9% of global carbon emissions.
For more in depth information about concepts, structures, and typologies of extraterrestrial architecture configurations, you can review Joanna Kozicka’s PhD Thesis on the architectural problems of a Martian base design as a habitat in extreme conditions.
6. Human Centered Design (Habitability)
As Joanna Kozicka clearly states, socio-psychological problems occur in every isolated confined environment, this means physiological and psychological diseases, and ranges from headaches and sleep disorders to emotional breakdowns. Her scientific studies indicate that some architectural solutions have a great impact on people's wellbeing. The most important of them are a big, comfortable base, sunlight, landscape perspective, contact with nature, flexible and spacious interiors, as well as properly separating: loud from quiet, light from darkness, public from private, working from living areas.
Another firm working on this challenge is Spacecraft, which studies human centered issues (e.g micro-societies) to improve the quality of life and integrate technical systems with human interfaces. From interactive games for astronauts, to greenhouse design integration, or the Moon walker, a walking lunar-base designed under the premise that space and spatial elements are closely related to human behaviors. Luckily, we can already test many of the human centered design hypothesis before sending people to live in outer space, in several Earth analog environments which are closed ecological systems, such as the Antarctic, deserts, underground and underseas.
It seems that the exact same principles and the exact same systems that will allow us to live on Mars will be the very same that will allow us to be great custodians on Earth.
There are huge challenges to be addressed when facing extraterrestrial architecture, and even though it might seem like a completely irresponsible approach towards the problem of human overpopulation, all of the findings in the research of these new horizons are very much applicable to help us solve the current challenges we are facing on planet earth.