clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

DESIGNING HABITATS FOR SPACE IS BOUND TO ELEVATE ARCHITECTURE

"For the new century, back to the moon. Back to the future. And this time, back to stay. And then, a journey into tomorrow, a journey to another planet; a manned mission to Mars."

President Bush's words last July on the 20th anniversary of that exhilarating first step onto the moon, has given a new impetus to NASA and alerted the nation's aerospace contractors. Yet, unlike the extraordinary fever in the 1960s that drove the Apollo program, the 1990s are a time for a broader and more meaningful agenda for space exploration that intriguingly parallels developments on Earth. Missions to the moon and Mars will be international efforts, and nations will join together in populating planetary habitats.Recycling, waste management and efficient use of energy are program goals, and construction materials and techniques will be selected with at least a nod toward their applicability on Earth.

Appreciation and respect for architecture's role in benefiting space exploration and planetary missions' impact on the profession is also growing. Leading the way is Houston, site of NASA's Johnson Space Center, where architectural graduates are working on both lunar and Mars explorations and managing sub-systems engineering for NASA's latest program, Space Station Freedom.

The city is also home for two individuals with a passion for space, Larry Bell and Guillermo Trotti, who have crafted an unusual integration of architectural teaching, entrepreneurship and professional practice.

Three years ago, Larry Bell, University of Houston professor of architecture, established the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture (SICSA). Endowed by Rkyoichi Sasakawa of the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation, SICSA is housed in the University of Houston's new Philip Johnson-designed College of Architecture and staffed with consultants like Colonel Gerald Carr, former Skylab Astronaut-Commander.

Under director Bell's and associate director Trotti's leadership, the center's 15-plus graduate students from different disciplines (30 percent are from abroad) have worked on a variety of contracts for space habitat planning, lunar surface systems design and space and planetary simulations.

Taking courses in international aerospace law and planetary geology, students acquire a holistic approach to space study. Earth-based preconceptions are abandoned, design details are considered only in the broader context of the program and meaning is reduced to the basic purpose of a space mission. Students investigate future lunar technologies and in situ materials where glass manufactured outside an atmosphere containing moisture behaves like metal, and basalt can be transformed into building blocks.

SICSA has developed a high profile by displaying its sophisticated models at the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences. It is the first non-engineering college to be accepted and funded by the NASA/Universities Space Research Association's advanced design program.

Because NASA has traditionally been staffed by engineers, there was, until recently, few in-house who were qualified to evaluate architecture-driven proposals. Moreover, little value was placed on creating a supportive environment for the crew itself.

Consequently, from Mercury through Apollo, astronauts flew glorious, relatively brief missions and ignored discomfort. With longer trips, however, habitat became a crucial issue - particularly after astronauts complained following 80-plus-day stays aboard Skylab.

NASA responded by both hiring graduate architects at several levels and consolidating its human factors/design specialists into a single Man-Systems Division based at the Johnson Space Center. The next step is to elevate architecture to a higher position within the program.

Clearly, space architecture is for those who have the foresight and patience to wait decades before seeing their work fly; but it is also an irresistible pursuit for those in love with the unknown.

It is a specialty that will require new AIA rules regarding time spent in professional practice in order for practitioners to receive official recognition. But the value of space architecture as a discipline is indisputable, establishing parameters for designing habitats in other extreme environments such as polar regions and the oceans.

Perhaps more importantly, designing for space presents new ways of solving design problems right here on planet Earth. This becomes most meaningful as our demands on the Earth's resources and our understanding of her fragile nature continue to merge.

- Joseph Linton is an architect in Highland, Utah County. He welcomes other viewpoints.