We’ve had starchitects. Now we’ve got space architects. Oliver Wainwright meets the people measuring up the red planet for inflatable homes and farms made of moondust concrete.
Fifty years from now, says Brent Sherwood, there will be a different kind of honeymoon on offer. “Imagine a hotel with a view that’s changing all the time,” says the Nasa space architect, “where there are 18 sunrises and sunsets every day, where food floats effortlessly into your mouth – and where you can have zero-gravity sex. Who wouldn’t sign up for that?”
Born the same year as Nasa, 1958, Sherwood trained as an architect and aerospace engineer. Having spent the past 25 years working on plans for everything from orbital cities to planetary settlements, he is convinced it’s only a matter of time before space travel becomes a regular holiday option and we’re living and working on the moon. There’s only one drawback. “Nobody knows how to cook in space,” he says. “Until you can mix a martini or make an omelette, you can’t have a space hotel. No one is going to pay $1m a night and put up with microwave meals.”
As civilian space travel inches closer, from Richard Branson’s troubled but persistent Virgin Galactic ambitions to the plucky Dutch attempt to take reality-TV contestants to Mars by 2024, architects are becoming increasingly important. Until now, says Sherwood, space habitats have been about the bare essentials: “What’s the research we have to do, what’s the equipment we have to carry, and what’s the most cost-effective thing we can stick it all in?” But as more people travel to space for increasingly long periods of time, their physical environment and its psychological effects are becoming more important.
Surprisingly, the US space station, Skylab, which orbited the Earth from 1973-79, remains by far the most generous habitat ever launched. It was palatial compared with the current International Space Station (ISS), but only because it wasn’t purpose-built: it was recycled out of the fuel tank of a huge Saturn V rocket. Thanks to the insistence of designer Raymond Loewy, a tiny porthole was added – which became the most popular feature with the astronauts, who were otherwise trapped inside a grim tin can.
“That was the biggest volume we’ve ever had in space,” says Sherwood. “Since then, the entire US space programme has had to be squeezed through a 14ft hole. And we still don’t know how to make big windows.” The diameter of the rocket’s payload bay limits what can go into space, in the same way that many of the dimensions of buildings on Earth are defined by what can fit on the back of a lorry. And, while a terrestrial building site can have as many deliveries as it likes, space is a different matter: it would cost $500,000 (£330,000) to send a single brick to the moon.
As a result, the challenge has always been to develop lightweight materials and kits, a kind of astro-Ikea approach, hopefully without the missing screw. But attention is now shifting towards inflatable structures, allowing entire habitats to be folded up and packed on board. Las Vegas-based aerospace company Bigelow, founded in 1998 by a budget hotel tycoon, now has an $18m contract with Nasa to install the first inflatable on the ISS this year.
It might look like a flimsy tinfoil balloon, but the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module is made of one of the most advanced fabrics ever developed: it boasts a layer of bulletproof Vectran, a “liquid crystal polyacrylate superfibre” that’s twice as strong as Kevlar and able to withstand micrometeoroids that would penetrate the aluminium shell of the ISS. The company has bigger modules in development and is also making plans for a space hotel – though sadly not in the same price range as its Budget Suites of America.
Inflatables have come a long a way since the 1960s, when Nasa commissioned tyre company Goodyear to design an enormous galactic inner tube. The 9m-wide rubber doughnut never made it into space, but it proved to be a huge inspiration to others – including Guillermo Trotti, then an enthusiastic architecture student in search of a thesis project, who designed a seminal proposal for an inflatable habitat on the moon in 1974. His Counterpoint lunar colony, a model of which now resides in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, envisaged a network of inflated domes and structures moulded from lunar basalt to house a community of 200 people, sustained by an ecosystem of soybean plants, trout, catfish, 200 chickens and 50 miniature goats.
“It was a wild dream at the time,” he says. “But it caught the eye of [architect] Buckminster Fuller and I won a Nasa research grant to develop it. Now, 40 years on, it doesn’t seem such a crazy idea.” Trotti went on to co-found the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture, which offers what is still the world’s only space architecture masters programme. Every year, its students’ projects push Nasa scientists to dream a little bit further, with provocative visions for Mars landers lowered from hovering “skycranes” and spacecraft propelled on long tethers to create artificial gravity.
“If you look at the history of the industry, what we do in space is really a mirror for our contemporary values on earth,” says Neil Leach, who edited a recent issue of Architectural Design devoted to space architecture. “The Apollo mission was part of the cold war, the ISS was a defining moment of international collaboration, and now we’re seeing private entrepreneurs really leading the way, with companies like SpaceX [founded by PayPal billionaire Elon Musk] and Blue Origin [founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos]. Reflecting our earthly priorities, environmental sustainability is now top of the space agenda.”
The current buzzword in Nasa circles is ISRU, or in-situ resource utilisation, the space equivalent of using locally available materials. Only we’re not talking rammed-earth and thatch, but moondust and meteorites. “The lunar surface is an open mine of potential building materials,” says Madhu Thangavelu, space architect at the University of Southern California (USC) and co-author of The Moon: Resources, Future Development and Settlement. “It is full of readily accessible minerals and compounds that could be used to produce metals, bricks, glass and paints. The moon is also riddled with ‘lava tubes’, great cavernous volumes under the surface that could be made habitable, offering protection from radiation and solar storms.”
So might a local lunar vernacular end up being more Flintstones than Elysium? It may happen in caves, but it certainly won’t be low-tech. Thangavelu has been working with Leach and others at USC to develop a method of moon-based 3D-printing, extruding moondust concrete, bound with sulphur, through a computer-guided nozzle without the need for moulds. Their version of the technique, known as contour-crafting, leads to a kind of gothic structural logic, using steeply pitched vaults and a layering of parts. Across the Atlantic, Norman Foster’s office has also been developing a technique for 3D-printing for the European Space Agency, based on building up a moondust shell over a network of inflatable domes, forming clusters of little molehills near the Shackleton crater.
“Moon architecture might not have the futuristic materials and characteristics you’d expect,” says Sherwood, who has also worked on plans for lunar settlements. “We find reduced iron on the moon in a readily accessible form, so we might be looking back to the times we made buildings out of rocks and iron.” Forget blobs and pods: outer space might see the next gothic revival.
But for now, US priorities are directed much further afield – as a result of a political shift more than anything else. “The Republicans had set their eyes on the moon with George W Bush’s Constellation Program,” says Marc Cohen, a space architect who worked at Nasa for 26 years before founding Astrotecture in 2010. “So the Democrats have now proposed to go out and capture an asteroid. This ridiculous politicising of celestial bodies is skewing any rational way of looking at it.”
While political divisions plague Nasa, another one-party state is surging ahead: many think China will be the next country to put a craft on the moon, after it unveiled plans for a robotic moon-lander last year. Back in the US, both moon and asteroid camps have reaching Mars as their ultimate long-term goal – it’s just a case of which stepping stone to use. Buzz Aldrin has been there, done that, when it comes to the moon, and he has little interest in going back. “To restart that engine is to rerun a race that we won,” he writes in his latest book, Mission to Mars. “Do not put Nasa astronauts on the moon. They have other places to go.”
To put boots on the red planet, which is on average 225m km away, is likely to cost $100bn, spread over several decades. “Mars is the new world,” says Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, who thinks we will have all the technology we need for the first piloted mission to Mars much sooner, and will eventually see millions of people living there, adopting a “travel light and live off the land” approach. He imagines a world of inflatable greenhouses protected by UV-resistant plastic domes, initially transported from Earth, but later manufactured on Mars using indigenous materials, “opening up the surface of the planet to both shirt-sleeve human habitation and agriculture”. It is a plan the society has illustrated with scenes of people in spacesuits watering plants and holding hands among radiant red rocks.
Trotti is optimistic about life on Mars, arguing that deep-space exploration will be the largest industry in the world over the next 100 years, as well as the biggest challenge for budding space architects. “The question is how to build an environment in which you can happily live for three years in a confined space with the same people,” he says. “We can’t stick with this world war two submarine approach. Virtual reality could be an answer, allowing people to escape mentally, to go back and visit their hometown, or study remotely. You could take the Library of Congress or the Louvre up there with you and come back with a PhD.”
Attracting a flood of investment from the world’s super-wealthy, will these brave “astropreneurs” be riding the astronomical equivalent of the dotcom boom? Not according to the industry saying: “The way you become a space millionaire is by starting off as a billionaire.”