Architecture Meets Astrophysics

Mars Dessert Research Station

Mars Desert Research Station

We all have hobbies and interests ranging from sailing to chess to underwater basket weaving. Hobbies in a way give us a chance to disconnect with certain realities of life and emerge refreshed and ready to face those realities from a different perspective. It just so happens that my hobby is “nerding out,” at least according to my closest friends. Truth be told, I really enjoy anything related to physical cosmology (do NOT confuse with cosmetology!) and astrophysics. Humble attempts at understanding these topics give rise to redefined perspectives on life, and it’s that constant scratching of the head that makes it a worthy addiction. But, from time to time, these attempts also give rise to certain pragmatisms that relate to the everyday (dare I say mundane!).

One such pragmatism brings into light a true-to-life, an I-kid-you-not, extension of our discipline of architecture, space architecture, which bridges our understandings of outer space and the dream of human habitation beyond the confines of planet Earth. (This conversation is not moving in the direction of science fiction, so stay focused!).

The discipline of space architecture is relatively new and only recently officially defined. The definition of space architecture (which reads also as a mission of sorts) as set forth by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Space Architecture Technical Committee (SATC), is:

“broadly to encompass architectural design of living and working environments in space-related facilities, habitats, and vehicles. These environments include, but are not limited to: space vehicles, stations, habitats and lunar and planetary bases; and earth-based control, experiment, launch, logistics, payload, simulation and test facilities. Earth analogs to space applications may include Antarctic, airborne, desert, high altitude, underground, undersea environments and closed ecological systems. Designing these forms of architecture presents a particular challenge: to ensure and support safety, habitability, human reliability, and crew productivity in the context of extreme and unforgiving environments.”

The discipline of space architecture even has its own blog, “Out of this World,” which is young with only a few posts so far but promises to inspire our imaginations as it begins to grow, whether we are seriously interested in the implications of designing in and for celestial environments, or if we are simply looking for a reason to daydream.

I say let your imagination run wild. Start with the ‘what if’s.’ For instance, one of my favorites is, ‘what if’ we were able to terraform Mars into a habitable planet? What types of structures would need to be designed to foster human habitation within that process, from the onset of atmospheric change to the final result of a breathable planet. For example, the Martian magnetic field is weak, and would do less to protect inhabitants from solar flare radiation than that of Earth. On top of that, early on in this scenario the atmosphere would be thin, also providing little protection.  How would you design for this? And what about the issue of the gravity of Mars being 38% the gravity of Earth? After dreaming of the effects lower gravity would have on the flora and fauna of this terraformed Mars, consider the possibilities of structure as it relates to material limits relative to the so familiar earth based possibilities.

Take as another ‘what if’: what if we could inhabit a moon orbiting one of our gas giants, such as Saturn’s moon Titan? Would we need to design for Saturn’s radiation? What would our earthly notion of a solar diagram look like taken from the perspective of a moon (Titan) orbiting a body (Saturn) which in turn is orbiting a star (the Sun)?  I think it’d be pretty wild, and no doubt beautiful.

And this is just planetary surface architecture. What about orbital space architecture, for example the International Space Station? I imagine it would be like designing in a world where Escher drawings actually begin to make sense. Now you have to design for the acceleration effects of orbit which alter human perceptions of gravity, or the actual potential to move in three dimensions in a zero gravity environment, while at the same time having to design against issues of cosmic radiation and perhaps even space debris. It would seem that space throws at us innumerable design variables and demands that must be reconciled; luckily as designers, we appreciate such challenges (in theory of course!). Space is complex and unforgiving, which I think translates to a steroidal view of form follows function.

The Columbus Module (ISS)

So that’s our Monday daydream. If your curiosity is sparked, check out the newly published book on this emerging discipline: Out of This World: The New Field of Space Architecture. Admittedly, I haven’t gotten my hands on it yet, so I can’t give a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down,’ but looks to be right up (at the very least) my alley.

  1. October 12th, 2009 - 10:01 pm

    Hey Blake – fun post! As a fellow (former) architect (turned architectural photographer) who is often accused of “nerding out” in the realms of physical cosmology (NOT cosmetology!) and astrophysics, I really enjoyed the connections you made here! Fun to think of what your proposed “steroidal view of form follows function” could yield… I have to admit my mind wanderings in cosmology and particle physics have never entered the human based ideas of architecture … and I’m kinda surprised! Thanks for the trip!

  2. October 14th, 2009 - 10:06 am
    Ross Tisdale said:

    Hello Blake,

    Great post. The new book you mentioned is truly a milestone – the first textbook of Space Architecture (Out of This World: The New Field of Space Architecture). I may be biased as I co-authored chapter 18 with Dr. Marc Cohen. As mentioned in HOK Planning Group’s Landscapes the Futurity Issue, Space Architecture is the new frontier. …


  3. October 14th, 2009 - 1:25 pm

    Ross – after I get my hands on the book and make it through chapter 18, I look forward to picking your brain a bit. It’s great to run into fellow HOK’ers also interested in this topic. For the benefit of others, here’s the link to the Futurity issue you mentioned:

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