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‘What does living in space herald for the future of architecture?’


Architects and engineers are seriously beginning to design space stations. Does this herald a new type of architecture? Is it, perhaps, post-architecture?

Originally published in July 1984, this piece was republished online in January 2017

On 25 January 1984, in his State of the Union message, President Ronald Reagan committed the United States to building a permanently-manned space station within a decade.

This historic decision effectively ended years of delay, frustration and disagreement about what NASA’s next major space horizon was going to be following the Apollo and Shuttle milestones, and marks the turning point at which space exploration evolves into space industrialisation.

It also marks the point at which designers-be they architects, interior, or product designers-can reach out to new horizons and get involved in designing for space.

It may come as a surprise to realise that this involvement has been gradually under way for some time. Aerospace companies which performed space station feasibility studies for NASA in recent years brought in architects to develop the designs. Raymond Loewy was heavily involved in Skylab and early space station designs in the 1960s and 1970s.

Princeton physicist Gerald O’Neill, in his visionary book The High Frontier, advocates giant revolving space colonies shaped like ring doughnuts in which thousands would live and work in village-like communities in vast, man-made landscapes. This concept was studied seriously by NASA and architects were involved in planning and designing the interior communities.

Living in space2

Living in space2

Two extensive space station designs (left) conceived by General Dynamics. They both include substantial manufacturing facilities and appear to be based on utilising modified Shuttle fuselages to provide the basic building blocks of the designs. Right: Raymond Loewy, first conceptual study of earth recuberable shuttle, 1972

As Fritz Runge, Advanced Space Programme Manager for McDonnell Douglas Astronautics states: ‘Architects make good space station designers’.

There is a strong possibility that as future decades unfold, opportunities for architects and designers to get involved in space design will increase as designs for space stations evolve in size and complexity, as large space platforms and three-dimensional orbiting structures are developed, as we begin to deploy permanent bases on the moon, and as large vessels for long-duration trips to Mars and beyond are assembled. In short, we are about to be liberated from designing environments anchored to the ground, the standard by which we have done things for the last few thousand years.

Space stations are not new ideas either in fact or fantasy. The first American space station of sorts, Skylab, was launched in 1973, and was occupied on three successive missions for a total of 171 days. The Russians have progressed with an extensive and ambitious mission programme during recent years centred around their Salyut space station family. A recent United States Congressional report on Russian space objectives states that Russia intends to have a permanent presence in low earth-orbit from now on, to be followed by permanent settlements on the moon and eventually on Mars. The Soviets, apparently, take seriously the prospect that they will one day have a large population living in space. In 1978, Leonid Brezhnev commented that ‘Mankind will not forever remain on earth, but in the pursuit of light and space will first timidly emerge from the bounds of the atmosphere, and then advance until he has conquered the whole of circumsolar space. We believe that permanently manned space stations with interchangeable crews will be mankind’s pathway into the universe’.

The Soviets have not only logged a vast amount of occupation time and experience with the Salyut series, they can legitimately claim they first thought of the idea-a Russian, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, first dreamt of orbiting space stations as far back as 1911. In the United States, space station development has had a very patchy history. First considered as a viable concept by NASA in 1960, serious discussion was halted in 1961 when President Kennedy announced that America should ‘go to the moon’. In 1966, NASA turned its attention back to a space station with a new study which formed the basis of a $100 million request for development funds which was promptly rejected by the Budget Bureau.

Living in space3

Living in space3

This design by Boeing (top) shows the interior of a living module. Boeing’s studies for a space greenhouse (bottom) show a rotating drum for artificial gravity with germinator trays and storage boxes. Fruits and vegetables would be periodically harvested with the growing trays repalced or replanted

The success of Skylab in 1973 provided fresh impetus. This time, NASA considered an orbiting scientific research laboratory, but the emphasis then shifted to the idea of constructing a much larger complex complete with assembly, maintenance, launch, retrieval and various mission management capabilities. Again, the programme was rejected by the Budget people as well as by the outgoing (Ford) and incoming (Carter) administrations. NASA was firmly told to ‘forget it’ until the Shuttle proved successful. By 1980, more studies were under way for an orbiting ‘Space Operations Center’. There was also a growing realisation that the space station must have commercial and investment appeal in order to circumvent endless budgeting and funding headaches. In 1982, NASA commissioned eight commercial aerospace companies to explore different design configurations. When 1984 arrived and the Shuttle started to prove so successful, the scene was set for the final showdown. Reagan gave NASA the green light. NASA probably has the Russians to thank for this, for the same Congressional report that talked about Soviet intentions in space concluded that the United States must get on with a space station quickly or lose its lead in space to the Russians.

One of the major hurdles in promoting the space station programme over the years has been the difficulty of clearly defining its role. Exactly what is it for, and what is it going to achieve? Who are its customers, and who will benefit? Even now, the answers are far from clear. The consensus is that it will serve many longduration missions such as manufacturing exotic products including high-cost pharmaceuticals for return to earth, conducting scientific and astronomical research, constructing large orbiting payloads, acting as a ‘half-way hotel’ for people involved in the long-term construction programme of a lunar base, and ultimately the in-orbit building of a ship that will take a crew to Mars. To help spread the cost, NASA is actively courting the involvement and investment of other countries including Canada, France, Britain, West Germany and Japan; they are being invited to participate with their own modules and/ or other pieces of hardware, in much the same manner as Spacelab was built by the European Space Agency after NASA failed to get the funding to build it in the USA.

The lack of clearly defined functions is reflected in the delay of a commitment to one particular design configuration or even size. By late 1984, NASA must issue a comprehensive brief on the design to selected aerospace companies who will conduct feasibility studies. In 1985, two semi-final designs will probably proceed in detail, and in 1986, the final proposal will be chosen. Construction contracts will be awarded in 1987, and deployment will start in 1992.

Living in space4

Living in space4

Three stages in the evolution of a space station

Major design issues

To architects the saga of delay, disagreement and indecision sounds curiously familiar . .. ‘Is the client going to build the head office or not? …’ ‘Why is he still looking at sites when we have filed the planning application?’ .. . ‘What is this talk of postponement until after the election?’ .. . ‘Why is he thinking of a 50-storey high-rise instead of the three-storey campus he asked for last week?’ At least we are well equipped to cope with these endless problems though, oddly enough, the design of the ‘head office’ can be a disaster yet not necessarily affect the function of the building, whereas in the space station, the success of the design is absolutely critical. There is no room, either figuratively or literally, for mistakes. Every component down to the tiniest nut and bolt must be specified, designed, developed, engineered, calculated, prototyped, costed, tested, analysed and eventually manufactured to the most exacting standards. There may be several hundred thousand individual pieces of hardware in the overall design, each one of which must go through this process, in some cases several times.

Amongst the myriad physical, technical and human considerations involved in the design of a habitat like a space station, the following distillation gives an overview of major design issues:

1 Structural and mechanical factors and flight dynamics;

2 Overall size, accommodation and configuration;

3 Human physical and psychological factors;

4 Air, power and water supply or generation;

5 Food provision and waste disposal methods;

6 Solar and cosmic radiation and micrometeroids;

7 Payload experiments, communications and data management.

The first three are of major interest to us, because they deal with spatial and constructional design. The next two are concerned with specialised supply or disposal systems and the last two are strictly scientific or engineering issues. We will look at the first three:

Structural and mechanical factors and flight dynamics

Down here on earth, we are accustomed to designing and calculating building structures at a constant gravitational force of 1g. Most structural building problems involve only static live and dead load analysis with dynamic stresses caused by wind velocity and load occurring in special building types or sizes, and seismic loads in earthquake-prone areas.

In space hardware design, however, there is no such thing as a constant load or stress condition . At launch, space station payload parts riding in the Shuttle cargo bay will experience a maximum acceleration force of 3g. Once in orbit at 200 miles up, they become weightless. Anything that is returned to Earth is subject to a 1 · 5 g re-entry deceleration. Going up or coming down is a rough ride and everything must be carefully protected against damage by vibration; the act of docking one module with another produces sudden shear forces. Once the station is operational, it will regularly change attitudes in orbit for station-keeping and experiment orientation. Changes are effected by small thrusters that impose a myriad of bending and torsional stresses on the entire configuration. All these different forces are acting on a complex that will involve several modules linked together like a molecule with interiors under air pressure, exteriors in a vacuum, and the whole assemblage experiencing surface temperatures ranging from + 130 degrees centigrade in the sun to - 100 degrees centigrade in the shade.

Overall size, accommodation and configuration

It is here that architects and designers can start to provide input. The key thing to realise is that any design concept is wholly governed by the payload limitations of the Shuttle cargo bay, since everything must be ferried up into orbit by the space shuttle. The maximum dimensions of a single module cannot exceed 18 min length or 4· 5 min diameter, and the maximum weight is 29 500 kg at launch. If you imagine a large cylinder about four times the volume of a standard 12 m shipping container, you are close to visualising the maximum possible size of any one module.

Several different versions of a space station have been developed. Though they look different, they generally utilise a similar kit of parts, or family of modules. To help minimise the initial programme cost, NASA will probably opt for an ‘evolutionary’ concept where a small but complete nucleus of modules is gradually extended and enlarged by the addition of extra modules over a number of years … rather like a child given a starter Mecca no or Erector set and adding extra bits and pieces as pocket money becomes available (in this case, the pocket money is reluctant government funding thinned out over as many fiscal years as possible).

There are fiive different types of module that are likely to be incorporated in the first phase of the space station:

1 The habitation module is the module for crew living. It is likely to be the largest in size since it will be used not only for sleeping, eating, hygiene, relaxation and communications, but also for station control and some payload experiments. The design of this module is crucial to the well-being, safety and comfort of the crew.

2 The logistics module contains all the environmental resources and supply systems necessary to support human habitation. This may initially include up to 180-day supplies of air, water and food which are periodically replenished by visiting Shuttles.

3 The payload module is designed specifically for scientific experiments in the early stages with a gradual transition to a manufacturing and industrial role as commercial applications evolve.

4 The central module is the node module by which all the other modules are linked together. It provides passage between modules and the exterior, and a ‘safe haven’ in case of emergencies.

5 The exterior operations modules are individual equipment packages for exterior apparatus such as solar telescopes, robot manipulator arms, communications antennae and sensing experiments.

As well as these modules, a large radiator panel will be required to dump internally-generated heat, and extending photovoltaic solar panels will be needed to generate power of up to about 70 kW.

With an evolutionary, expanding design, the assembly sequence becomes critical and modularity becomes essential to ensure flexibility or plug-in positions, changes in module technology and sharing of support facilities and systems. A multiple docking adaptor will be developed so that all module hatches are mutually compatible and different manufacturers, space agencies and nations can eventually contribute their own commercial or experimental modules.

Human physical and psychological factors

As a living environment, the space station will be similar to remote or extreme terrestrial situations like underwater research facilities, ocean oil platforms or Antarctic research communities, all of which are reached only by some form of vehicle, whether submarine, helicopter or ship. In Antarctic research stations, occupants are cut off from the outside world for six months during the long, dark winter. Oil-rig platforms in the North Sea are often isolated for long periods because of bad weather. So it is with the space station, which will rely on the Shuttle as lifeline to Earth. Initially, crews of two to four will occupy the station for up to 120 days at a time. There is now a substantial body of knowledge on the long-term physiological effects of a space environment on the human body, drawn principally from America’s experience with Skylab and Russia’s extensive experience with the Salyut series.

Lack of gravity causes deterioration in bone structure and blood circulation unless regular physical exercise to stress bones and muscles and raise heartbeat is undertaken. Of equal importance is the psychological impact of living in a confined environment for an extended period. As far as Skylab was concerned, however, no such problems emerged. Former astronaut Russell Schweickart, who spent 10 days on Apollo 9, offers an explanation. ‘You would think if you were locked up in a Volkswagen for 10 days you would go berserk. Well, you never have a sense of claustrophobia, and I think it’s because you had total three-dimensional freedom. The space seemed much more spacious than it would have in an environment where you’ve go to be on the bottom of something -where there’s a down and you’re always on it’. Schweickart considers that freedom of design is greater in space. ‘Walls hold up ceilings in a gravity environment. But in a weightless environment, there is no need for that same mentality. It just isn’t there. You have the opvportunity for total freedom in terms of various surfaces. You end up with a much greater variety in a space environment when you go to weightlessness’.

Living in space5

Living in space5

Diagram of station growth

Schweickart feels strongly that the single most important feature, from a psychological point of view, is windows-something avoided as far as possible by the engineers- because of the structural and thermal complications they can cause. Raymond Loewy was, in fact, instrumental in persuading NASA to put an observation window in Skylab-something for which subsequent astronaut crews were very grateful.

That differences of opinion arise over such obvious necessities as windows perhaps illustrates how important architects and designers might be in helping to identify priorities and explore opportunities. Clearly, the most fascinating aspect of space station design is that nearly all the internal space can be put to good use. For us, this would be a major challenge. Our familiar world of two-dimensional plans, sections and elevations would be largely useless. We would need to think threedimensionally from the first sketch onwards. It would be true 3-D design. Conversely, size limitations of the Shuttle cargo bay impose as much of a constraint on design as the absence of gravity expands it. Perhaps this merely adds to the challenge.

There are many areas with considerable spin-off potential, too. One of these is the development of closed-cycle environments and life support systems.

To save money, the space station will contain air, water and food supplies which are neither recovered nor recycled, but merely replenished by regular Shuttle deliveries. Boeing Aerospace has been studying the concept of a ‘space greenhouse’ where crews will grow their own food, recycle used water and obtain oxygen from plants. Boeing has found that though the initial cost of transporting a greenhouse module into orbit would be high, it would be cost-effective in the longterm. After six months, it would be cheaper to grow 50 per cent of the food in space and after eight years, 97 per cent. Since the space station will be in operation for many years, it makes sense to plan for the space greenhouse from the outset. This means that a space complex designed initially to store large quantities of air, water and pre-packaged food will eventually metamorphose into a complete closed-loop environmental system.

Living in space6

Living in space6

9, 10: this version of a Space Station design developed by Lockheed Missiles & Space Co is also based on evolutionary growth. A single cylindrical module would first be placed in orbit with attached solar arrays, thermal radiatory and communications antennae. Subsequent launches would add passages, further living modules, payload modules and a spacecraft dock. 11: the first American space station, Skylab. 12: this concept of a space colony orbiting between Earth and the moon was sugessted by Professor Gerard K. O’Neill of Princeton University

Terrestrial implications

The terrestrial implications could be profound. We are increasingly faced with the results of our environmental irresponsibility- wasteful consumption of scarce water in arid desert areas, widespread pollution caused by antiquated treatment methods of human waste, soil erosion and degradation due to over-intensive cultivation of agricultural land. The knowledge gained from learning how to design and operate closed-loop systems in space could offer great help in solving some of these self-inflicted problems, and the potential for incorporating these systems in architecture is very exciting.

The habitation module may also undergo a metamorphosis. Conceived and operated as a ‘multipurpose’ module for all types of living and working activity, it may ultimately evolve into purely a sleeping, eating and relaxation centre for the entire space station complex as subsequent modules take over most of the scientific and operational duties. The incremental size of every item used to equip the inside of this module must be small enough to pass through the narrow, circular airlock hatches at each end. This might tell us a great deal about how we could improve the design of utility areas like kitchens and bathrooms in, for example, the modernisation of old buildings.

There is also the question of prototyping. The space station, like all other space hardware, has much in common with aviation, automotive and machine industries where prototype development and testing is an essential part of the design process. Somehow, this has eluded the construction industry, and the results are sadly obvious-several decades of appalling design and construction of low-cost housing in many countries is the result. If a tiny fraction of the development costs of a car like the Ford Sierra were used to develop a prototype of an average British council flat, the resulting benefits could be enormous and many design and construction mistakes could be avoided. Much can be learned from observing design and development procedures in other industries in terms of spin-off expertise.

The whole issue of spin-off technology and expertise is one that NASA is keenly aware of. During the past few years, it has set up a series of information offices across the USA. Called ‘Industrial Applications Centers’ whose purpose is to supply industry at large with references on any advanced technology topic of interest. This material is held in a series of databases accessible to visitors. NASA also gives substantial attention and publicity to any spin-off productions or applications that have found commercial market acceptability. By 1984, there were several hundred examples of these in existence, many dealing with building construction and design.

What does all this herald for the future of architecture? Is it architecture, or is it perhaps postarchitecture?

Designing for space environments may not be everyone’s idea of the future of architecture, but it could certainly widen our perception of our ability to design earth-bound objects. It is also a challenge to which we must respond. Architects must learn to address new design opportunities as they arise.


Britain’s contribution towards space exploration in general, and the space station programme in particular is, so far, virtually non-existent. France is successfully marketing Ariane (albeit under the umbrella of the European Space Agency). West Germany and Italy are busy developing their own space station proposal with Project Columbus. Russia’s Salyut programme is proving very successful. America’s Shuttle is breaking new ground with every mission. Japan and China each have their own space projects under way. Both France and India have had astronauts on Russian missions, and the first ESA Spacelab mission with the Shuttle took place last year. None of these achievements involved any significant British input. Britain, it seems, is living up to expectations with it’s backside firmly embedded in an armchair while everyone else who matters is off and running ….