What Does it Mean to Be a Space Architect?

Here on Earth, the concept of architecture (and those who specialize in it), is pretty clear and straightforward. But in space, human beings have comparatively little experience living and working in habitats. For the past sixty years, multiple space stations have been sent to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), which include the now-defunct Salyut stations, Skylab, and Mir, as well as the present-day International Space Station (ISS).

But in the near the future, we hope to build stations and commercial habitats in LEO, on the surface of the Moon, and Mars. In addition to needing a steady supply of food, water, and other necessities, measures will need to be taken to ensure the psychological well-being of their crews. In a recent article, Stellar Amenities founder and CEO (a space architect herself!) Anastasia Prosina explored how space architecture can meet these needs.

In this article, which is available on Stellar Amenities’ website, Prosina indicates how space architecture borrows from multiple forms of niche architecture to accomplish the task of ensuring human beings can live and work in space. These include the kinds of design elements one finds in “tiny housing, small living apartments/houses, vehicle design, capsule hotels, and more.”

Prosina summarized the similarities between Earth-bound and space architecture to Universe Today via email:

“No matter what kind of architecture it is, it pursues the mission of enhancing the human experience… This is the exact same mission [when it comes] to the small architecture of tiny houses, small apartments, Arctic, or any other remote area stations and capsule hotels.”

However, as one ventures beyond the realm of principle and gets into the actual process, some very notable differences become clear. In regular architecture, the architect’s vision comes first, and it is then the responsibility of the engineer to realize this vision. In space architecture, the opposite is the case, where the engineers build and the architects follow.

For the engineers, this means designing and assembling the physical structure in space and incorporating all the essential systems – like life support, power systems, water recycling, storage, waste disposal, food, etc. The architect follows, bringing the design elements that make a habitat in space feel worth living in. As Prosina describes the architect’s role:

“The mission of space architecture is to break the monotony of small space habitat and ensure the design helps mitigate risks associated with isolation,” said Prosina. “A space architect comes afterwards to help design for the human needs in the confined environment.”

Stanford Torus cutaway view. The rotation of the torus provides Earth-normal gravity on the inside. Credit: Rick Guidice/NASA

Herein lies another key difference, which is the level of flexibility Earth-based architects have compared to their space counterparts. In short, the spaceflight industry does not enjoy the same level of creative freedom since their structures need to be functional more than anything. But perhaps the biggest constraint, says Prosina, arises from the fact that space architects need to launch their designs to space:

“Architects on Earth are able to create almost everything that comes to their mind. In contrast, space architects have to follow the constraints of a prefabricated structure, a shell of spacecraft. Moreover, the current cost of launching something to space is about $2,700 per kg. Space architects should be creative in choosing the right materials and structures that are lightweight, [durable], and don’t emit gasses on the confined environment.”

This is not to say that the cost of sending payloads and people into space hasn’t improved drastically in recent years. In 2000, NASA estimated that the cost of sending payloads to LEO was over $22,000 per kg ($10,000 per lbs). Naturally, this was something they hoped to reduce by two orders of magnitude in the next four decades – to $1,000 per kg (~$450 per lbs) by 2025, and $100 per kg (~$45 per lbs) by 2040.

At present, SpaceX is able to send payloads to LEO for $1,410 per kg ($640 per lbs) using their Falcon Heavy rocket, a further improvement on what the Falcon 9 can do – $2,719 per kg ($1,233 per lbs). Nevertheless, sending habitats to space is still a multi-multi-million dollar venture that requires multiple heavy launch systems. On top of that, the components of a space habitat need to be designed to be launched into space prior to assembly.

Interior view of an O’Neill Cylinder. There are alternating strips of livable surface and “windows” to let light in. Credit: Rick Guidice, NASA Ames Research Center

As Prosina explained, this raises another important constraint, which is the issue of transportation:

“A habitat should perfectly fit into a transportation system and make the most efficient use of it in terms of volume, mass and multifunctionality. It decreases the price of going far away which allows to do more things per funding unit, thus fostering exploration

In recent years, the prospect of building habitats in space has moved beyond the realm of scientific proposals and science fiction to become a real possibility. Much of this is the result of the commercial space industry (aka. NewSpace), which has led the way in reducing the associated costs of individual launches and the move towards “commercializing LEO.”

In addition to allowing greater access to space (for companies, universities, research institutes, and individuals), the NewSpace industry has also focused attention on how going to space can be adventurous and even luxurious. This is where ideas like space tourism, space hotels, and commercial space stations in LEO and on other celestial bodies come into play.

In the coming years, Richard Branson (founder and CEO of Virgin Galactic) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon and Blue Origin founder and CEO) hope to offer flights to suborbit with their spaceplanes and rockets (respectively). Other companies, like SpaceX and Space Adventures, are looking to go even farther, offering flights to the Moon and even Mars.

A view of the interior of the New Shepard crew capsule from Blue Origin. Credit: Blue Origin.

In all of these cases, the challenges go far beyond engineering concerns. In NewSpace, says Prosina, companies need to offer more than just safety and access to space. They also need to offer a variety of experiences, leisure, and comfort to make the services appealing. This way, and only this way, will they be able to stay competitive against rival companies.

As Prosina indicated, this has also had an effect on the job description of the space architect:

“Traditionally, space architect was equal to a systems engineer. Currently, here is a transition happening, and now if you want to work as a space architect at NASA, you should combine both disciplines, aerospace and architecture. Private sector is picking up faster. For example, Blue Origin and SpaceX are recognizing that design is as important as safety because design supports wellbeing which is critical in long missions.”

In the coming years, Prosina anticipates that space architecture will become a fast-growing industry, and its professionals will be in high demand. In the next decade, a number of scientific and technological advances are expected that will enable architects to come up with increasingly sophisticated solutions to the challenges of living in space.

“Since space habitats are extremely tiny, we, space architects, make sure that people inside of it don’t feel confined, stressed,” Prosina added. “The users have a pretty close up view to their habitats so it is essential to pay attention to using color psychology and tactile experience to make the space feel bigger and diversify the experiences in a small environment.”

Artist’s concept of a space habitat built using the ARMADAS system. Credit: NASA

Similar to what Marschitect Vera Mulyani (aka. Vera Mars), the founder and CEO of Mars City Design, and other space enthusiasts are proposing, the overall aim here is to find ways in which human beings can thrive in space, not just survive. This is essential if people are going to live beyond Earth in the near future, and it’s also necessary to make the prospect appealing. Said Prosina:

“Vera and I are colleagues pursuing the common vision since this is how architecture is serving humanity. Architecture helps us thrive on Earth so we should apply it in other places wherever humanity goes! As for today, a total of 566 people from 41 countries have gone into space. Of those, only around 7 have been an orbit tourist whereas 56 thousand people can afford to do so. However, it takes more than wealth to go to space and to buy a ticket, it takes people to really want to go to space.”

The way we make going to space affordable, concludes Prosina, is to get people to want to go to space. So not only do we need to reduce the associated costs and be creative with our interior designs, we also need an accompanying shift in perspective. However, it’s fair to say at this point that space tourism, commercializing space, and the idea of space being the “new frontier” are already popular.

One thing is clear, though. Humanity has the potential to build a very bright future that involves living in space. The benefits and opportunities, properly realized, are limitless and extend back to Earth.

Further Reading: Stellar Amenities

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is the Curator of Universe Today's Guide to Space. He is also a freelance writer, a science fiction author and a Taekwon-Do instructor. He lives with his family on Vancouver Island in beautiful British Columbia.

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