One of the first novels which talked about space travel was ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ by Jules Verne, written in 1865. Columbiad, the vehicle used to travel to space in the novel, is mostly the first ever to be referred to as a spaceship. Human expeditions to outer space have come a long way since then. We have walked on the moon, traveled to outer space, and lived in space stations. Now, space organizations all across the world are leaving no stones unturned to create liveable habitats on extraterrestrial planets. It wouldn’t be surprising if a couple of years later, Mars or Moon become a vacation hotspot!
Architecture and design have been, and will always remain an important part of these outer space endeavors. The past decade has especially seen an increased involvement of renowned architects and designers, important architectural institutions, and students from across the world participate in research and prototyping for building in space.
Essentially, space architecture involves designing human-friendly environments for the naturally uninhabitable extraterrestrial space. It may be a temporary orbital space station, an exploration spacecraft, or a Mars settlement intended to be permanent. Architects usually work in an extensive collaboration with engineers, space scientists, doctors, psychologists, infrastructure designers, etc, ensuring an informed blend of technical and experiential aspects. Just like on Earth, space architecture too, involves designing better flows of function, ensuring the wellness of the mental and physical health of the occupants, incorporating recreational activities, etc.
The extreme environment; however, adds a heavy layer of challenges. The basic taken-for-granted facilities like air, water, and food have to be artificially provided for; transportation of materials or habitats have to be curated; due to high expenditure and lack of proper resources, on-site prototyping and experimentation is limited too. Despite these challenges, many artificial environments have been successfully created inhabited in the past, while many advanced proposed concepts are being worked on.
The Architecture of Space Stations
Space Stations are research laboratories in space. Earlier stations had monolithic designs, such that the entire space station was constructed on Earth and then launched into outer space. The first station to be assembled in space was ‘Mir,’ operated by the Soviet Union and later by Russia. The core unit was launched first, and the secondary units were added subsequently.
As of today in 2020, there is only one habitable research station orbiting the Earth, the ‘International Space Station’. The first module of the station, Zarya, was launched in 1998.
The 34 pieces of the International Space Station (ISS) placed together to form an extraterrestrial habitable research laboratory, a rather extraordinary engineering marvel. At the same time, it’s important to recognize its architectural achievements too. In his book-‘International Space Station: Architecture Beyond Books’, David Nixon presents a detailed account of the role of architectural understanding and decisions in the design of the station.
He claims that the ISS exhibits all the good qualities of architecture and aesthetics; it perfectly befits Vitruvius’ theory of firmitas (strength), utilitas (functionality), and venustas (beauty). The aesthetic of its machinery and the importance given to human experience despite semiotic technicalities make ISS comparable to the buildings which dot our cities. The only difference is that the ISS is in space!
Many uninhabitable environments on Earth have been artificially habited with the help of technology. The depths of the ocean, the extremely cold Antarctica, the bunkers beneath the Earth’s surface, and many other such environments act as references to the extremities of the outer space context. Different analog environments provide various insights in terms of possible environmental influences, transportation modes, construction methods, emergency responses, logistical requirements, work schedules, etc.
These extreme environments are used for early experimentation and prototyping by space architects as they provide harsh restrictions; resulting in technological advancements, scientific developments, research of human psychology, and ways in which space can be inhabited in harmony, to name a few benefits. The Mars Desert Research Station is an example of a prototypical space station built in the Utah desert because of its similarity to Martian environments.
The Future of Space Architecture
Off late, the focus of research and development of space architecture has shifted to the colonization of Mars and the Moon. Ever since Elon Musk and SpaceX have publicly stated aspirations of sending a human on the planet by 2024, the subject has received a lot of attention too.
Many architects, institutions, university courses, including the likes of Norman Foster, Carnegie Mellon University, University of Houston, etc, have started investing resources and time for developing and researching the architectural aspects of a space colony. While the dream still seems distant and would involve multiple intangible factors like government involvement and agreement, finance and capital allocation, etc; the hopes of practicing architecture on Mars one day remain extremely high!