A/D/O by MINI | Out of this World: Design for Extraterrestrial Living

Out of this World: Design for Extraterrestrial Living

Fifty years since man first set foot on the moon, how much closer are we to living beyond our home planet?

Lethal levels of radiation, erratic temperatures, up to one-third of the gravity on Earth, no oxygen, and no sign of life. These are the conditions anyone trying to travel to space must contend with. Fifty years ago, the slow-motion footsteps of Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon were broadcast internationally, filling a generation with wonder and possibility. Despite the public interest and momentum, these were the first and still some of the only footsteps the human species have placed on land beyond Earth. While there have been huge leaps made in spaceflight and discovery – amongst them, the collaborative International Space Station filled with astronauts orbiting our planet, images capturing a black hole, the landing of space rover Sojourner on Mars – we have still not managed to crack interplanetary living. There are no vacations to the Moon, or houses on Mars, but there is there is a lot of hype surrounding those dreams.

Huge amounts of private capital, alongside innovations in design and engineering, are being dedicated to spaceflight by private companies such as Tesla founder Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. These companies have been able to innovate extremely quickly and accomplished the previously impossible, such as successfully launching and landing a previously-used space vessel. While these and other private companies are surpassing government-funded projects in some categories, there is also revived interest coming from governments internationally. The Space Policy Directive 1 issued by the United States Government last year laid out a plan to invest in lunar settlements, and to set the foundations for humans to reach Mars. We are in another wave of interplanetary excitement that extends beyond the aerospace industry.

The International Space Station accommodates three to six astronauts during six-month "expeditions"

Projects such as Mars One, an open call for applications to live on Mars, have sensationalized the experience and made it feel plausible, like Real World: Space Edition come to life.  Competitions held by NASA inviting architects and designers to problem-solve for life in space frames interplanetary living as an inevitability. There is a growing familiarity with the idea of interplanetary living and a series of projects that make it a less daunting proposition.

Located in the sandy red Utah landscape, the Mars Desert Research Station simulates life on the red planet. With spacesuits, tight living quarters, and packaged space meals, the station is designed as a research center to host and train teams. After having worked there for 20 years, Dr Shannon Rupert, the director of the Mars Desert Research Station, has seen a real shift in the way that people think of space travel. “The change that we're seeing is now people are envisioning themselves, or their children actually going to Mars,” she told The Journal. Rupert has hosted countless trainings, from groups with a biological research focus to IKEA design teams. She always tells them, “You want your life on Mars to be boring. Boring is safe [...] if nothing's happening, that's a good thing.” 

Mars Desert Research Center in Utah simulates life on the red planet. Photograph by The Mars Society

While Rupert is emphatic about the risks of living on Mars, she believes we should already be there. Shooting someone into space in a metal container, into an environment they cannot breathe in, where Earth is 40 days away, is inherently risky. “You can make the risk reduce, but you can't make it go away,” Rupert said. “So you might as well just do it.” Many people involved in the pursuit of interplanetary life are confident that this will be achieved in the next couple of decades. “My greatest fear, as an ecologist, is that we [will] terraform Mars the same way we terraformed the Earth, and we take whatever we want.” Rupert cautioned “My hope [is] that we go and we see without destroying. Do I think that that's possible? We are people. You take us to Mars, and we're still Earthlings. Humans are humans.”

Preempting the way settlers on Mars might alter the planet is one of the considerations in designing for habitation. Traditionally the paradigm for space travel and architecture has been for astronauts to travel with or in the architecture that they will inhabit. Due to high levels of radiation from the sun and galactic cosmic rays, materials are restricted. Living structures conceived for Mars and the moon have been designed in a range of materials, like aluminum, as inflatable structures either to be placed underground – as part of lunar lava-tube caves using highly engineered chemicals – or built on the surface using regolith. Rather than transporting more materials, and potentially waste, into space, one popular concept is to build dwellings referred to as In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) using resources found on Mars. Melodie Yashar, designer and co-founder of architecture studio SEArch+, asked: “Why would you travel six months to live underground? Or to live in a cave or to live somewhere where you have no connection to the planet?”

Recognizing previous oversights in Martian architecture proposals – which have focused on efficiency, risk reduction, and safety, but overlooked more human factors – SEArch+ designs with wellbeing and sustainability in mind. A winner of NASA's 3D-Printed Habitat Competition and NASA’s Centennial ChallengeSEArch+’s radically transparent Mars X House and Mars Ice House propose building windows from ice found on Mars. Ice would simultaneously shield inhabitants from radiation while letting them create a connection with the surrounding landscape. On a planet with 18 sunrises and sunsets a day, the experience would undoubtedly be spectacular. 

SEArch+ won NASA's 3D-Printed Habitat Competition with its Mars X House proposal (also main image)

SEArch+ is part of a legacy of designers intervening in aerospace to advocate for the values of “inhabitability”. The concept was introduced 50 years ago by Raymond Lowey, designer of, among other things, the Coke bottle and Airforce One livery, and a Habitability Consultant for NASA. Lowey advocated for various additions to be made to the space station, including a porthole for astronauts to view the universe outside. As civilian space habitation becomes  more sought-after, features that improve quality of life have also increasingly become the focus of design. 

Although Yashar is dedicated to establishing a good quality of life for space dwellers, she has also expressed concerns about the type of mentality promoted by firms like SpaceX that frame the settlement of Mars as a way for humans to survive Earth’s demise. “I don't think that space exploration is about colonizing other planets or visiting other planets so that we can guarantee or sustain the survival of our unique species,” she said. “It's really about knowledge and exploration [...] It's about going and learning about the origins of our solar system of our universe. It's about learning about the planetary geology is about exploring new things, and understanding if there's life.” While many of the proposals for space are still in a state of speculation, and estimates of when these missions will be deployed vary wildly, there are benefits to imagining, modeling, and studying life above.

The Mars X House would be printed using materials found on the planet's surface

Scientist Emmanuel Urquieta, of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health noted that “most technologies designed for space missions (both research and development of technologies) have Earth applications,“ and that in the field of space medicine, “the mission to Mars has several similarities to isolated populations that also require healthcare.” As these technologies are established, Urquieta expects them to be deployed in areas with minimal or no access to healthcare. Designing for scarcity, sustainability, and human wellbeing, the closed-loop systems in space can be a sexier way of indirectly designing for issues we face on Earth. As more resources are directed towards the development of these major missions, a balance must be struck between mitigating risk and moving swiftly to experience the benefits. 

Most of us have imagined what it might be like to travel to space, to see the oceans, continents and clouds reduced to marblelike abstraction, to feel the uncanny lack of gravity, and eat dinner out of a pouch. It is what we cannot imagine, the things that are yet to be discovered, that makes it such a compelling challenge to design for.

Text by Lily Saporta Tagiuri.