Space, the comfy frontier

Architects tackle the problem of creating ‘home’ in a place where we’re the aliens

(John Ueland for The Boston Globe)
By Chris Wright
June 5, 2011

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The Central European Journal of Engineering may not be the most widely read publication in the world, but an essay published in it earlier this year contained the nugget of an idea that could very well alter the course of human history. The author’s name is Brent Sherwood, and his article — titled “Inhabiting the Solar System” — will have been heavy going for people unfamiliar with Whipple bumpers and solar proton events. Behind the arcane language, though, was a rallying cry every bit as ambitious as President John F. Kennedy’s famous 1962 Space Race speech, in which the president argued that we do not explore the universe because it is easy, but because it is hard.

Sherwood is a strategic planner for NASA, and his main point was that it’s time to reverse Kennedy’s formulation. Our long, heroically reckless journey to the stars, Sherwood proclaimed, is about to trundle into the arena of the everyday. “We should anticipate that in the second half of the 21st century, with large numbers of people traveling, living, and working in space,” he wrote, “the technically challenging issues that dominate design and operation of habitable space systems today will have been largely solved and reduced to practice. As a result...more atavistic needs will come to the fore.”

What he meant by this, Sherwood explained in an e-mail interview, is that people who are doing more than “camping” in space will want the same things they’ve always wanted. “A typical day would parallel typical days on Earth,” he says. “What do people in integrated societies do? They feed their families breakfast, send the kids to school, go to work, do errands, and reconvene in the evening for dinner and entertainment.”

In the rarefied world of people who think about human space travel, this remark would likely raise eyebrows, if not blood pressures. Since the beginning, space travel has been ruled by questions of safety and expediency, in which nearly any adaptation beyond survival was dismissed as an expensive, and potentially perilous, luxury. “Failure,” said NASA flight director Gene Kranz during the harrowing Apollo 13 mission, “is not an option.” You get the sense that he would have felt the same way about breakfast nooks.

Sherwood’s argument is that space travel of the not-too-distant future will have little in common with the white-knuckle drama of the Apollo era. Yes, he says, people living and working in space will require reliable airlocks. But they will also need something else: They’ll need potted plants and swimming pools, libraries, parks, and police stations. They will want to be photographed standing in front of grand municipal structures, and to sit on their space porches sipping a nice Moontini. These people will not just be emigrants: They will be aliens. And to survive — to thrive — they will need to create a home away from home, and it is time we started thinking seriously about how to build it.

“None of this is fanciful,” says Sherwood. “It is essential.”

Over the last 15 years or so, Sherwood and a handful of similarly qualified colleagues have quietly sought to change how we plan for space exploration. They call themselves space architects, and although their numbers are pretty thin — there are only a few dozen or so working within aerospace outfits and agencies around the world — they have big plans. Space architects aim to be at the forefront of the most ambitious colonization project in human history, shaping it around not just what people need to survive in hostile alien environments, but what will help them feel human when they get there.

You’d think that the aerospace industry would embrace the Frank Lloyd Wrights and Frank Gehrys who entered its midst — people who not only understand how to make things work, but to make them look good. But little in space travel has ever really made sense — you could reasonably argue that it doesn’t make sense that we’re even out there. The fact is, Sherwood and his colleagues aren’t butting heads with planning committees and preservation societies. They’re challenging the very philosophy that got us into space in the first place: Get them there and get them back, end of story.

Not long ago, space architects were a nebulous, loose-knit group of like-minded people, united by little more than academic histories that incorporated engineering and architectural studies. Today, they have their own umbrella organization — the Space Architecture Technical Committee, currently gearing up for its summer conference — and, in people like Sherwood, philosophical muscle. They work with NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Russian Space Federal Agency, while some run their own private enterprises.

Sherwood works out of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, and holds a master’s in science from the University of Maryland, with a concentration on planetary lasers. He also holds two architecture degrees from Yale. His bio states that he specializes in “space urbanism.” His lifelong dream, he says, has been to design cities on the moon. And he’s not talking about scattering a few giant, egg-shaped biscuit tins around, either.

“I personally would rather occupy an Italian-designed [space] module than an American-designed module,” he says. “Some cultures have a greater intrinsic appreciation for clever, noble, or fun design than others. Why wander around a strip mall if you could shop in a European town instead?”

Traditionally, the notion of “good design,” as it applies to space travel, has had an extremely narrow definition. Since day one, the aerospace industry has been governed in all of its aspects by a single, inviolable mandate: preventing people from being atomized — or, worse yet, stranded — a hundred thousand miles from home. This imperative has, in turn, influenced every aspect of design. In an environment where so much as a stray paint fleck can become a potentially lethal projectile, bare, gray utility has prevailed. From the early 1960s to the current age, all space systems have adhered to an aesthetic that is best described as Janitor’s Closet.

Expense comes into it, too — one estimate puts the cost of shipping a single kilogram of materials to Mars at $50,000. Never mind that an Italianate wall sconce could potentially work itself loose and knock someone’s block off — who’s going to pay for the shipping? (The answer to this question, eventually, is that we would have factories out there, constructing these sorts of incidentals using local materials.)

The form-versus-function debate has a long history in the space program. In 1968, when an industrial designer named Raymond Loewy suggested putting windows in the Skylab space station, the idea scandalized the engineers overseeing that project. But Loewy won the argument, and the result was that the astronauts in orbit were provided with a god’s-eye view of our blue planet — a decision now hailed as a triumph of imagination and invention. “Loewy, as a wise industrial engineer, anticipated how reality would play out,” Sherwood says, “and that ability to ‘look around the corner’ is one of the skills we value architects for in society.”

The need for such human touches, space architects argue, will only become more pronounced as we spend increasing amounts of time out there, and as we travel further and further away. “What happens when we will not be able to see the earth anymore, such as on a trip to Mars?” says Barbara Imhof, who cofounded an Austrian space design company called LIQUIFER Systems, and who has worked with NASA and the European Space Agency. “Will we be able to cope with being so far away and being completely on our own without going crazy? A comforting environment, a good and pleasant design, can help in mediating moods and feelings.”

Windows are very important, she continues, as are decent kitchens. She suggests applying a bit of thought to things like floor plans; it helps to vary colors, textures, and lighting. Make the furniture comfortable. As for questions of good design, Imhof believes this particular aspect will largely take care of itself. “Humankind,” she says, “will go nowhere without at least some style.”

When Sherwood thinks about the moon, he thinks of something very different from a dusty gray surface with the odd rover track. Lunar cities, he says when asked to provide a quick mental sketch, will be densely populated and hermetically sealed, with shops, schools, farms, and multiplex cinemas, along with “plants, bugs, rodents, feral pets, mold, weeds, and, of course, dirt.” The building materials used will be mostly stuff that you find on the moon: “sintered gray regolith, and black glass made from lunar basalt.” As for what shape these structures might take, Sherwood isn’t so sure, but he would expect at least some of them to be “noble and notable.”

Imhof, for her part, tends to focus more on Mars. “I once had this idea of designing a hotel there with an orbital petrol station,” she says. “Mars, in my vision, had become a way station, with a small motel and a barkeeper.” Today, her vision has rounded out to include a sprawl of red-stone houses (again, made from local materials) jutting from the sides of the planet’s towering canyons, and cable cars for people to get around. The reduced gravity in space might make throw pillows a bit of challenge, but according to Imhof it will have its upside: “To levitate, free of our physical and thus psycho-weight. This is probably the drug of the future.”

Even the most devout space architects, however, allow that we are a long, long way from Mars cable cars and microgravity junkies. As almost everyone in the industry agrees, we are nowhere near achieving the level of funding, ambition, or international cooperation that it will take to put people on distant planets. The last space shuttle is about to be retired; even President Obama’s recently stated intention to have astronauts on Mars by the 2030s is looking a bit rash. As for the idea that we may one day have grand municipal buildings out there — that promises to be a very distant prospect indeed.

Nonetheless, says Imhof, space architecture has become an increasingly “fashionable” discipline in recent years, particularly among young people. “It feels strange for people like me, who have been establishing the field and fighting for it for nearly 15 years, that suddenly it seems to be so cool to do this,” she says. But this cool factor may actually feed into a bias against the field: That it has more in common with Stanley Kubrick than Stephen Hawking. As Imhof puts it, “in the real space world,” she and her colleagues very often find themselves on the sidelines, reduced to producing “nice images.”

This fact, in turn, has led to a concerted effort among space architects to be taken seriously. Certainly, none of them would suggest that they see themselves as the aesthetes of the aerospace industry. “A key thing to remember is that architecture is not equal to art,” says Lynn Baroff, a systems engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center and a prominent space architect. “We are very practical and design for productivity and survival.” Baroff, it’s worth noting, specializes in what he calls human factors engineering, a branch of space design that aims to promote the psychological health of astronauts as well as their physical well-being — an aim that necessarily involves the creation of pleasant living arrangements.

Sherwood, too, is quick to point out that he is sensitive to the concerns of the old guard, particularly when it comes to safety. “Lots of people, some space architects included, like the idea of fantasizing about space habitation because it appears liberating conceptually,” he says. “But the realities of space flight should be sobering, as evidenced by Challenger and Columbia.” And while Sherwood is open to discussions about how one might go about designing microgravity discos, he can also speak at length about things like the consistency of lunar dust. He has even applied his analytical skills to calculating the minimum headroom clearance required for doorways in low-gravity environments like the moon (2.5 meters, to allow for high-bouncing steps).

This is actually a telling detail. The fact is, Sherwood and his colleagues spend almost all of their time introducing minor systematic improvements to space exploration — dual-chamber hybrid inflatable suit locks and pressurized excursion modules — and almost none formulating big-picture plans. And the reason for this is very simple: Nobody knows what a Mars-based shopping mall will look like until we are ready to build it.

In 2009, Sherwood coedited a book — “Out of This World: The New Field of Space Architecture” — which inadvertently made this point clear. The book — part manifesto, part color catalog — outlines some of the more ambitious projects that space architects have in the pipeline. There are plenty of pods, domes, and multiform exploration vehicles. And while there’s the odd stab at addressing the challenges of long-term space habitation, the overriding sense is that these are little exploratory pokes. It’s a book of maybes.

That said, the burgeoning commercial space industry has given the space architecture field a much-needed boost — Virgin Galactic is now accepting bookings (at $200,000 a whack) for its inaugural suborbital pleasure flight, which the company is planning for next year. Space hotels will surely not be far behind, and guests at these resorts will not tolerate the exposed piping and aluminum decor of the International Space Station.

Sherwood, like Imhof, believes the form-function issue will ultimately work itself out — with a few qualified people to nudge things in the right direction. “An interesting philosophical view to consider is that you cannot design a space system so that it looks good,” he says, “but if you design it and it doesn’t look good, you will know something is wrong.”

When asked whether there will one day be a distinct architectural style for Mars and the moon, as immediately recognizable as a Spanish villa or New York high-rise, Sherwood says that yes, he surely believes this. As for whether he might help shape what these distant cities will look like: “I have modified what I once envisioned as my personal role,” he says. “When I was in graduate school the first time, I thought I might be able to do in my working lifetime what I wanted to do when I was 10: design cities on the moon.” Today, he’s not so sure. “The pace of reality,” he says, “is slower than I had hoped.”

Chris Wright is a writer living in Spain.