Dr. Marc M. Cohen is a licensed architect who has devoted his career to developing the new field of Space Architecture. Marc worked at NASA Ames Research Center for 26 years, then at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems for 4.5 years. At NASA Ames, Marc began as a facilities architect designing aircraft support facilities, life science labs, and wind tunnels. At the beginning of the Space Station Program (1983), Marc was appointed to the Space Station Concept Development Group at NASA HQ where he served as a “commuting member” for a year.
At Ames, Marc became a founding member of the Space Human Factors Office where he led the design of the Space Station Proximity Operations Simulator and invented the Suitport EVA Access Facility in parallel with the AX-5 Space Suit program. Marc also patented the nodes and cupola on the Space Station. In 1991, he joined the Advanced Space Technology Office on the Center Director’s staff to develop the Human Exploration Demonstration Project. In 1995, he went to the Space Projects Division to serve as the Human Engineering lead for SOFIA. There he worked also on Humans to Mars and the Habot Mobile Lunar Base.
At Northrop Grumman, Marc’s major focus was the Constellation Program’s Altair Lunar Lander. Marc is now developing his own private practice of Space Architecture. The goal is to provide this expertise to the new emerging entrepreneurial space companies, while continuing to lend support to NASA and the mainstream aerospace industry.
The interview was conducted by SATC vice chair David Wong.
The Orbit: When did you start to be interested in space and architecture?
Cohen: You may be surprised that I can give you a precise date. It happened on October 21 & 22, 1959 when my mother, Harriet, took me to attend the opening of Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. I was just six years old; I thought it was like a spaceship that had landed in the city. We went the first day, but the crowds were enormous; all the blocks surrounding the Guggenheim were closed to traffic and mobbed. So we went back early the next morning and were the second party to enter on the first “normal” day.
NASA was only a year old, but soon started the Mercury and Gemini programs. I switched from building model airplanes and bought all the human spacecraft model kits I could find and built them.
The Orbit: Who would you consider as your key influence in your pursuit of space architecture?
Cohen: “Bucky” (Buckminster Fuller) is number one, of course. During my misspent youth, I attended all of his lectures that I could in the New York/Connecticut/New Jersey area. I also listened to tape recordings that Alan Lubow made of Bucky’s Cooper Union lectures. Bucky’s book Nine Chains to the Moon (1938) suggests that he was thinking about space travel decades before the “Space Age.” Also, I talked to him about it after one of his New York Town Hall series of lectures in 1971. Fuller’s concepts are central to modern systems thinking in architecture.
Robert Machol, the founder of System Engineering in the 1950s was another influence. I was privileged to meet him at the Space Station Concept Development Group at NASA HQ. When he served several terms as a consultant to the Aerospace Human Factors Research Division at NASA Ames, I came to know Robert and his wife Florence very well. Later, he became the Chief Scientist of the Federal Aviation Administration. He was responsible for such revelatory studies as the one that determined that if parents with small babies were required to buy an extra seat on a plane for a baby seat, most of those families would drive in cars instead. So, there would be a significant increase in baby deaths in highway accidents, far exceeding baby deaths in aircraft mishaps. The FAA decided to allow parents to keep small children on their laps and not to require an extra seat. Machol taught me a different but equally holistic way to view how a system behaves and how to think about its consequences – intended or unintended.
I see Space Architecture as part of a continuum with the history of terrestrial architecture (see my 2012 AIAA paper Continuum of Space Architecture), not as a discontinuity, where everything is a new departure as some people do. Thus, I also draw from key historical systematic approaches. Notable among these are Vitruvius’ Ten Books of Architecture, Alberti’s L’Archettura, and Palladio’s Five Books of Architecture. The early Modernists are also very important to me – Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Louis Khan, Alvaar Alto, Richard Neutra to name a few. I suppose you could label me as a “Paleo-Modernist.”
The Orbit: The first International Space Architecture Symposium was a key milestone for the development of space architecture as a discipline, and is still considered a very high benchmark with regards to the scale and lasting impact of the event. As one of the main organisers for the Symposium, what are the most memorable things you can recall from the now decade-old event?
Cohen: What I remember most vividly is how remarkable it was to bring together such a diverse and accomplished international group of aspiring space architects. In the field of aerospace engineering, which is so heavily male-dominated, it was exceptional to have so many outstanding women professionals participating equally and making superb presentations.
Now, as we try to organize the third ISAS in Vienna at the 2016 International Conference on Environmental Systems, I remember what a huge battle we waged for over almost two years to hold the first Space Architecture Symposium at the 2nd World Space Congress (WSC) in Houston, October, 2002. The International Astronautical Federation (IAF) was incredibly difficult as a negotiating partner. The IAF eventually agreed to let us hold the ISAS as an “Associated Event,” but only with a number of restrictions. The IAF required that the ISAS not appear in any of the 2nd WSC program materials, that there would be no coordination of schedules, that we could not put up posters advertising our Symposium (we did anyway), and that our attendees pay the full WSC registration fee.
The decennial World Space Congress collapsed a decade later.
The Orbit: As part of the team busy organising the third International Space Architecture Symposium (ISAS) – what would you hope to achieve with the event this time?
Cohen: We hope to hold the third ISAS outside the USA for the first time, in conjunction with the 45th International Conference on Environmental Systems (ICES). The ICES is the leading design and engineering conference for humans in space. The venue is in Vienna, Austria. By holding it in Mittel Europa, we hope to attract a new group of people to attend and participate as authors.
The Orbit: In recent years, there seems to be an increasingly polarised view of how space explorations (with human spaceflights in particular) could benefit the general public. What is your view on this topic?
Cohen: I can speak only to the US space program. This question is the tough one that has bedevilled the human spaceflight program from its inception. Its premise is fundamentally unfair. “Benefit to the public” or its flip-side “public support” is meaningless in isolation. It would be meaningful only in relation to the perceived public benefit of all the other federal government programs. I mean comparing human spaceflight against, say, the Department of Veterans Affairs (with a budget several times larger) and all its scandals, the Internal Revenue Service’s Oil Depletion Allowance Program, or the Bureau of Land Management’s mining license programs on and under public lands, etc. What is the public support for these other federal programs?
At the level of practical politics, it is ironic to look back and recognize that the most recent Presidents to support human spaceflight in a meaningful way were Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Reagan started the Space Station Freedom program, which then floundered under George H. W. Bush. Bill Clinton initiated the US engagement in the Shuttle-Mir program and that led to the International Space Station. Then Clinton ensured that ISS retained its funding in the face of a sceptical Congress. Ultimately, we built the ISS. In contrast, George W. Bush announced initial support for the ill-fated Constellation (Lunar) Program, but never proposed any dedicated budget to support it, assuming instead that NASA would simply cannibalize all its other programs to build the Crew Exploration Vehicle/Orion. Constellation was an empty financial shell with a lot of smoke and mirrors in the form of all the NASA-CXP requirements, specifications, and program documents (e.g., no sooner did the team finish the CXP Human System Integration Requirements but the Orion Program requested and obtained a waiver from all of it).
When President Obama came into office, January 20, 2009 — almost five years after the start of Constellation — he discovered that to build Orion and the Altair Lunar Lander, plus the necessary launch vehicles, and to operate them on lunar missions, it would take $7 to 10 billion more annually in the NASA budget. This fact came to light soon after the economic collapse of 2008. So, in March of 2010, the President cancelled Constellation, a decision with which I agree in principle. However, it was not good for my own self-interest since I had been working on Altair at Northrop Grumman; I was part of the Human Spaceflight Engineering Team in El Segundo California that was laid off as a result. With the cancellation, the White House announced as a replacement alternative the “Flexible Path,” which has since shrivelled to the “Plucky Option B” Asteroid Redirect Mission.
I believe that President Obama would have done better to continue funding human spaceflight R&D for lunar and eventual Mars missions. The problem was that without a big human mission in view, it is very difficult for NASA to fund research for human spaceflight at a level that truly moves the state of the art forward substantially.
The Orbit: Do you think human spaceflights (and more specifically, development in space architecture) could add values to the ordinary life of humankind on Earth?
Cohen: I’m not sure I know what you mean by “ordinary life of humankind.” I don’t mean Tang, or Velcro, or Foster Grant sunglasses, or digital computers as the iconic commercial spinoffs of NASA-funded space technology. I imagine it is possible for architectural innovations to descend from space applications to Earth applications. However, I have long ago given up on trying to seek extrinsic justifications or valuations for my work in space architecture. It is my craft. I do it. The clichéd justifications for human spaceflight seem as absurd as arguing that a shoemaker should inspire youth to study math.
The Orbit: I would beg to differ. To carry on with the analogy of shoes – while the general public could appreciate the value of a shoemaker’s craft with relatively ease (one could touch, feel and see, and more importantly, wear them to go walk around and fulfil its all intended purposes), it is not the case with human spaceflights. In my opinion human spaceflight shares many similar attributes to the field of particle physics, of which both fields are fairly remote from the typical experience of the general public, and both require substantial funding and resources in order to progress. However while the latter as a profession has become increasingly adept at explaining why building massive, skyscraper-size machines and digging hundreds of kilometres worth of tunnels underground in order to smash some minuscule particles is not as absurd as it may sound (and receiving the much needed public support in return), the human spaceflight profession should take a leaf or two from them on how to promote its values to the general public.
The Orbit: As a founder of a professional practice that is dedicated to space architecture research and development (Astrotecture), What is your view regarding the increasingly commercial driven setting for human spaceflight development?
Cohen: I just wish these self-styled entrepreneurs would start hiring Space Architects to help design and develop their concepts and projects. With the notable exception of Bigelow Aerospace, the other players have yet to show enough of an interest in a high quality of habitation or architectural design to engage a space architect as either consultant or an employee.
The Orbit: What is your realistic vision for space architecture in 20-50 years?
Cohen: You think my visions are “realistic?” Actually, any “vision” by definition is not “realistic.” I can do vision or I can do realism, but not both at once. How is this for “realistic?”
a) Most space architecture innovations take decades to implement. For example, I first drew the concepts for my Space Station Architecture patent in 1983, which included the nodes, cupola, and parametric assembly process, all of which found their way into the ISS nearly 20 years later. As for the Suitport patent, I drew it first in 1985, and received the patent in 1989. NASA decided after five years of a 17-year patent life not to pay the maintenance fees because “no one would ever use it.” Soon after they abandoned the patent, the Life Support Branch at Ames built two prototypes into the Ames HazMat vehicle. Subsequently, the astronaut Mike Gernhardt led the project to build two Suitports into the JSC Lunar Electric Rover, which drove as the NASA float in President Obama’s first inaugural parade (2009). The University of North Dakota built two Suitports into their ND Rover (2013-2014). The Mars Institute built one into their modified Hummer/snowtread vehicle, which they have been testing in the Arctic on Devon Island. 30 years on, the Suitport is still very much alive at the prototype/field test level of technology development (TRL4 in NASA-speak), but it could be another 30 years before it flies in space. By these measures, I do not expect to live long enough to see much of my current work implemented.
b) The costs and liabilities are immense to send humans to Mars. Despite the aspirations of the NewSpace start-ups, it may turn out that only a self-indemnifying entity like a government that has the power to tax can make the attempt and sustain it. The same constraint applies to 10,000 person “Space-Settlements” at L5 and all such thought experiments.
c) A government will only take on the challenge and risks of pioneering space exploration when it is in a forward-looking, progressive frame of mind. The United States and all of humanity were blessed to have President Kennedy as an once-in-a-lifetime figure step up to that challenge. By the same token–despite his shoe banging–we were blessed that the Soviet Union had Nikita Khrushchev as its First Secretary. In his own way, he was visionary too. Also, both Kennedy and Khrushchev were instrumental in negotiating the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the first step back from the abyss of mutual annihilation.
d) To succeed in Space Architecture, it is necessary for the architect to master not only her or his own profession, but to achieve a high level of comprehension in the sciences, particularly biology and physics. The space architect must learn to speak persuasively to engineers of every ilk. That means to define specific metrics for performance that improves in some measurable and provable way over the status quo or the conventional way of thinking.
A Space Architect must become a critical consumer of research, being able to delve deeply into the data to find relationships, trends, and other insights we can use to support our arguments. That means Space Architects must learn statistics and know how to deploy them and how to recognize falsehood in everybody else’s statistics.
e) Space architecture is not primarily about aesthetics. The moment an architect makes an engineer think that there is something worthwhile at which to look in a spacecraft, the engineer will suspect the architect of “gold-plating” it. However, if the architect never mentions what anything looks like, the engineer will let the architect do whatever she wants.
f) I take the long view – the very long view. We have urgency to develop concepts and accomplish tasks today, but we cannot expect to achieve the future worlds of science fiction in any immediate sense. Thus, it may be unrealistic to expect a human mission to Mars in our lifetime. That does not mean we should give up and do something else, nor should we use it as an argument the way the Moon and Mars constituencies do: “if we try to go to Mars, we’ll fail to ever go back to the Moon in our lifetime,” versus “If we stop to go to the Moon, we’ll never go to Mars in our lifetime.”
We all need to take the very long view and try to work together to create the system that sustainably makes humans a true space-faring species. We may not complete the effort in our lifetime, but neither are we free to desist from it.
A. Scott Howe is a licensed architect and robotics engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He earned PhDs in industrial and manufacturing systems engineering from Hong Kong University and in architecture from University of Michigan. Dr. Howe spent 13 years of practice in Tokyo, Japan, and taught for 6 years at Hong Kong University. He specializes in robotic construction and currently is on the NASA development team building long-duration human habitats for deep space and permanent outposts for the moon and Mars. Dr. Howe is also a member of the JPL All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer (ATHLETE) robotic mobility system development team, Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) capture mechanism team, and Mars Sample Return (MSR) Orbiter design team.
The interview was conducted by SATC vice chair David Wong.
The Orbit: When did you start to be interested in space and architecture?
Howe: I remembered I was nine years old when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first walked on the moon – for a nine year-old boy watching that on TV it was quite impressive and inspiring. Something I have never forgot, and got me interested in reading science fictions and things like that from that age. Later on, I began working in Japan very early on in my career right after school. I went to work for Kajima Corporation, and the Japanese company required all its employees to be involved in some research project, and so right away, I am very much interested in “kits-of-parts”, and the engineering side of the architecture, I got involved in robotic construction, and that got me interested in idea of remote construction, being able to build something remotely by robotic means.
I had thought that I was just going to have a career in architecture as I was doing robotic construction. And then through the recommendation of my university instructor of the time, I got in touch with Ted Hall and Marc Cohen, who were both alumni of the University of Michigan.
When I first submitted papers in the late 90s, I found out there were many pioneers in space architecture already, such as Brand Griffin, Kriss Kennedy, David Nixon, Marc Cohen, Ted Hall, and Constance Adams. I joined those who were already working together as a space architecture working group, one of many inside the AIAA Design and Engineering Technical Committee (DETC). Over the following decade, the space architecture community has since then grown from a small working group into the Space Architecture Technical Committee, a fully fledged TC within the AIAA organisation back in 2007.
The Orbit: Who or what would you consider as your key influence in your pursuit of advanced modular & “kits-of-parts” applications for space architecture
Howe: Back in my school days I was very impressed with the early 60s and 70s design such as Archigram, and Metabolist movement, architects of the Hi-tech architecture movement such as Norman Foster, Richard Roger, Renzo Piano, and architects of the Metabolist movement in Japan were also very influential to me. I was always impressed by Renzo Piano of how he would build physical models of many of his architectural details to study how they worked.
The Orbit: Space Architecture has been considered by many as a niche subject, was it much difference back then?
Howe: One of my favourite architects of the time that had worked on many interesting works related to space architecture was Future Systems – co-founded by SATC member David Nixon. His works were inspirational and are still exciting to this day. I also believe his work had influenced his contemporaries in the Hi-Tech group, even though they may not be directly involved in space architecture in particular.
Back in the late 20th century, there was a giggle factor with space. Many successful designers who were interested in Space Architecture would only look at it from a distance. Today, the giggle factor still has not quite gone away, but people are taking the idea a lot more seriously now I believe.
The Orbit: so how does space architecture influence you in terms of your own career working in a space agency?
Howe:The highly intensive engineering environment in the space industry means that it is not as free or flexible in terms of what many consider design, and so a lot of what we can contribute as space architect is in modularity, deployable systems, etc., and in particular, to provide a holistic view to a project with considerations to all involving member’s specialist domains – this kind of system engineering thinking is, in my experience, somewhat lacking from the mainstream engineering training.
I would like to establish the space architect as a critical member to any team who is building a serious space habitat or outpost. Once we have established the architect as a critical team member, then there will be opportunities for architect to get more and more involved with the increasing numbers of space habitability projects.
Besides my training as an architect, I am also trained as a mechanical engineer. As a result I have always been more interested in the practical aspects of space architecture. While I do not see my work in robotics and architectural design as particularly visionary on its own, and that the characteristics of kits-of-parts and modular structure could be perceived as quite restrictive and certainly are not considered as exciting by many. However I hope what I am working on today would act as a bridge or foundation for other designers to be able to be a lot more creative and to realise their visions on what is currently not possible with existing systems.
The Orbit: With the advance in researches such as artificial intelligence and autonomous robotics, these emerging technologies are getting close to shift from theoretical to practical applications, how would they affect the development of space architecture in the future?
Howe: There are a lot of constraints to consider when designing for space environments. As Space Architects we have to consider the whole process of design including the construction methods, the costs, transportation and how to fit all necessary components for construction within the very limited capacity provided by a rocket fairing. It would be too expensive to send human crew to carry out construction, because we would have to maintain a pressurised environment, which is often the most expensive part of the space exploration. With the advance in robotics and artificial intelligence, it would soon be possible to construct everything completely autonomously in advance. So that when the human crew arrives they could focus on tasks such as analytical thinking and observations, rather than labouring for construction.
Another aspect is that the current human spaceflight operations have been taking great advantages of existing infrastructure back on Earth to source materials, manufacture and transport parts, and to manage the labour for construction operations. This would not be possible for building operations on the Moon, Mars or beyond. To build on these remote locations it would probably require some means of in-situ resource utilisation, an autonomous construction operation that would combine local materials with the most critical components that are brought from Earth and to complete the parts manufacture and assembly process at the designated location. I believe this would be the future of space architecture , or at least where it would be in the near future.
Further into the future, perhaps 100 years or so from now, we would see genetic and nanotechnologies play a more crucial role in the development of space architecture. The field of biotechnologies will I believe merge with nanotechnologies when they are advanced to the point where distinctions between a cell and a nano-machine would cease to exist. By harnessing their self-replicating capabilities it would be possible to grow any products organically simply by coding the DNA of the cell/nano-machine. So 100 years from now I believe it would be possible to have an engineered seed that could grow into a house. The characteristics of the house could be customised from the onset simply by programming the DNA of the seed accordingly.
It is interesting to note that the notion of utilising natural processes for construction or production is far from novel in nature. In fact many living organisms have incorporated these technologically complex processes (such as metal deposition, jet engine-like propulsion, etc.) as part of its natural living operations. Once we acquire the understanding of DNA for these processes to occur in living organisms, we could create tailor-made organisms that would be especially useful for terraforming operations in a target environment. I believe these would be part of the roles space architecture could play in the distant future.
The Orbit: In recent years, there seems to be an increase number of people who hold a critical view of how space explorations (with human spaceflights in particular) could benefit the general public. What is your view on this topic? Do you think human spaceflights (and more specifically, development in space architecture) could add values to the ordinary life of humankind on Earth?
Howe: From my observation I believe that the people who are critical of space just do not have the vision to see the danger or they do not understand what the issues are. It reminds me of the expression that an ostrich would put its head in the sand when it is dangerous. Some people may say “hey it’s sunny outside, why do I have to worry about space?” What they do not realise is that 99% of the universe is out there to kill us. Working at JPL, I often have the opportunities to see the asteroid reports, and from that one could see asteroids, one after another, each capable of causing major or catastrophic disasters, come fly by Earth regularly and to barely miss it by the wire. If any one of these asteroids hit on, it would certainly be “Game Over” for humankind as we know it, and there would be very little we could do about it. As a species we are currently far too fragile to ignore this kind of existential threat. We have to actively figure out a way for some kind of planetary protection. A one-planet species is too fragile. By sending human out beyond Earth and eventually settling down on another planet, it could help reduce the risk of total annihilation of humankind.
Another issue that has become more apparent is that, while the vast majority of population simply assumes space exploration could be done and would continue to be possible to do so in the following hundreds of years, if not forever. And with this mindset, many wonders why not leave space explorations for the future generations to worry about, while spending today’s resources on today’s pressing problems instead? However, such assumption that humankind would continue to be capable of carrying out human spaceflight indefinitely in the future is far from certain, and that as a species we may only have a short window of time to establish ourselves as a multi-planet species. I believe this window of opportunities may only last for another 50 years. If we do not take advantage of this window of opportunities, humankind may never again have an easy opportunity to establish themselves beyond Earth and could condemn ourselves to the dangers of a one-planet species.
I am currently writing a paper on this topic and I am going to present it at the upcoming AIAA Space 2015 conference. In brief, I believe one of the biggest reasons for this limited window of time for space exploration is due to “peak oil”, the inevitable point in time when the maximum rate of extraction of petroleum is reached, after which the rate of production is expected to enter terminal decline. Many assume that once the fossil fuel is depleted it could simply be replaced by alternatives such as renewable energy sources. However, currently renewable energy sources do not have a storage solution that could deliver both high energy efficiency and high energetic outputs. For instance, hydrogen-based power requires complex, expensive cryogenic storage technologies, while methane-based power also is not as easy compared to petroleum based energy sources. Other renewable energies such as solar and wind energies, limited by the capacity of batteries, does not generate high enough storable energy for a heavily industrial society that would give us enough slack to turn our attention to space development.
Perhaps we can make the transition. But my concerns are that if humankind is to become a truly space faring species, it must first be able create a sustainable space-based economy within those 50 years. Such ability is on the critical path of our development as a space faring species, and currently we are not at that stage. We would have to get to that stage before the “peak oil”. We do not have time to wait until we have solved the Earth’s problems before we head out to the stars. We have to work on becoming a space faring species while solving Earth’s problems along the way. Otherwise we would miss the window of opportunities.
The Orbit: So you would consider the development of space exploration and space architecture as a mean to provide insurance to the survival of mankind as a whole, and that it is more about adding values to the future rather than to the present?
Howe: It is not as applicable today as it is in the future. Once humankind has reached the point of “peak oil”, I believe our civilisation would be so distracted by its impact and would lose momentum of going into space. It would be very hard if not impossible to regain that momentum once we lose it.
The Orbit: So am I correct to assume you would have a keen interest on private human spaceflight project such as Mars One, which have a similar vision of trying to get humankind to settle on another planet as soon as possible?
Howe: I am sceptical about Mars One. They are quite optimistic and I do not believe they could achieve what they set out to do as how they proposed or as quickly as they proposed.
However, the good thing about groups like Mars One is that they are bringing awareness to the general public, and make people realise that hey, now we can actually live on another planet and it is not in the realm of science fiction any more. As to whether the group can really pull it off is besides the point. However it is possible that the Mars One project could fail badly and thus enhance the “giggle factor” mentioned before.
The Orbit: Besides of working on real space projects, you are also an established author of science fictions. How does your passion for writing Sci-Fi stories influence your research works, or does it go the other way round?
Howe: Science fiction of course have influence my work. In particular those that discusses how people can live and how they travel in confined environments for long period of time in remote places or in pioneering outposts. One of my favourite that has directly influenced me is the Code of the Lifemaker by the late James Hogan. In that, some alien race creates space factories that would fly autonomously and search for to asteroids and moons, self replicate, and create more space factories like single-celled organisms multiplying. As a concept it has been quite a common theme in science fiction, but it is a very real project for us now. What used to be science fiction is now being seriously discussed. At work I am receiving funding to carry out research on how to realise some of these concepts. Obviously we are still far away from achieving such technical capability, the point is though however, science fiction came first and inspired us and now we are working on making the science fiction ideas a reality.
For my own science fiction they are typically set about 50 to 100 years ahead of us, a time that I can see on my horizon, to create story scenarios based on some of the things I am working on now. It is a hobby that I would certainly keep doing it for as long as I can.
The Orbit: What is your realistic vision for space architecture in 20-50 years?
Howe:This falls right within the 50-years window that I mentioned earlier. While I could not predict what could happen, I could give you what I know has to happen – and if it does not happen then it might be, “game over human race”.
As mentioned earlier we have to come up with some kind of sustainable, viable space economy or there must be some kind of sustainable activity that must be done in space that requires the presence of humans in space that Earth cannot do without. I do not know what that is quite yet, I can imagine all kind of possibilities such as solar beamed power, asteroid mining, mining of rare Earth elements and/or helium 3, etc. Another possible theme could be entertainment – the world is spending so much money on entertainment and speculative sports such as football and racing etc. I could imagine a scenario that the entertainment sector would invest in space and invent some kind of new sports that could get people really interested. Ideas such as zero-G dodge ball, or even Quidditch as depicted in the Harry Potter novel series could all be feasible and compatible with the entertainment sector business model. These could enable us to continue enjoying our entertainment while channelling the invested resources into helping humankind to establish our space faring capabilities. So in the end the problem is not about money, it is about how to persuade the people who have the money to see the vision and importance of human going into space.
Theodore W. Hall is well known to the Space Architecture community as a long-time leader of the SATC and specialist in modeling of artificial gravity environments. He is one of the developers of the University of Michigan virtual reality environment MIDEN (Michigan Immersive Digital Experience Nexus) where he integrates digital models and custom codes and the interactivity of the environment. His roots are connected with development of early tools for Computer Aided Design (CAD) and Building Information Modeling (BIM) systems development as well as visualization.
He was the AIAA DETC Aerospace Architecture Subcommittee Chair from 2006 till 2008, SATC Vice-chair from 2008 till 2010 and SATC Chair from 2010 till 2014. He also co-chaired the 1st Space Architecture Symposium in 2002 (with Marc Cohen and Scott Howe), and chaired the space architecture sessions at the International Conference on Environmental Systems (ICES) in 2007-2010 and 2013-2014. He managed to transform and lead the SATC into a fully sustainable body providing a unique networking and collaborative platform for the next generations of space architects.
The interview was conducted by SATC current chair Ondrej Doule.
Orbit: When have you started to be interested in architecture or space architecture?
Hall: My favorite toys as far back as I can remember were building kits like Lego and Erector Set. As a teenager, after outgrowing Lego, I built a scale model of our family house from balsa wood, paper, wire, and whatever else I could find that fit the scale, including details like the furnace in the basement and all of the connecting ductwork.
But I also remember way back, that on a basement wall next to a world map was a map of the solar system. We also had a school lunch box with astronautics artwork on the lid, and my older brother had a stack of Topps “Target Moon” bubble gum trading cards. Growing up in the US during the Space Race, we saw many of the early manned launches on live television. My elementary school would interrupt class and wheel a television into the classroom.
So, building and space were two ideas I grew up with.
Orbit: Who or what influenced you the most in pursuing the artificial-gravity space-architecture topic during your studies or work?
Hall: It was a progression of interests. I took my first computer-programming course (n FORTRAN) as a junior in high school in 1973-74, but I’d already made up my mind to study architecture. So, after high school I entered the pre-architecture program at Grand Rapids Junior College in 1975, and transferred into the College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1977. I finished the B.S. in Architecture in 1979 and the M.Arch. in 1981. In those days, a semester of computer programming (again in FORTRAN) was a required course in the undergraduate architecture program. That one semester course went deeper than the entire year in high school. In the M.Arch. program, I took a further elective course in computer graphics programming. I and two classmates also wrote a computer graphic program as our final project for a class in advanced lighting design, and I continued working on that for two semesters of independent study.
In the spring of 1980, the professor in the computer graphics class announced that the Architecture and Planning Research Lab had a job opening for a student programmer. I’d planned to return to my draftsman job in a small architectural office in Grand Rapids where I’d worked the previous two summers. But Michigan was in a building slump and when I got back to the office I found that he had no work. So, I called the professor to confirm that the programming job was still available and moved back to Ann Arbor. I worked full-time during the summer and continued part-time during my final year in the M.Arch. program. I graduated from architecture school “with distinction” as a professional computer programmer. The Lab hired me as a Systems Research Programmer.
My job funding was dependent on “soft money” from external sponsors. When the funding ended in 1986, so did my job. I pondered whether to go back to pencil and paper and try to restart my architectural career after 5 years away from the drafting board, or whether to stick with research. In 1986, AutoCAD was just starting to make its way into architectural practice, and the systems I had been working on were conceptually way beyond what AutoCAD was doing.
In the Lab I’d gotten to know some doctoral students and what they were doing for their dissertations, and considered that was something I could do. But not just for another degree; it would have to be for a research topic that I loved. I enjoyed my Lab work, but it was mostly about implementing other people’s dissertations. I took a long walk one day and decided to apply to the Doctoral Program in Architecture. But for my Statement of Purpose, instead of writing about computer-aided design or building information modeling, I wrote about artificial gravity in space colonies. I had read books by Thomas Heppenheimer and Gerard O’Neill and was fascinated but somehow unconvinced by the imagery of the Stanford Torus and similar concepts. I decided not to pull any punches. I opened my statement with:
“I was born the same year as Sputnik, and like many members of my generation, I want to be a spaceman when I grow up.”
I was 29 years old at the time. I resolved that if they accepted my application, I would be a doctoral student and research artificial gravity in space colony design. If not, then I’d try to restart my terrestrial architectural career, or maybe a career in commercial CAD system development.
The admissions committee accepted my application, though I heard through the grapevine that one of them said it was the most bizarre statement he’d ever read.
Orbit: Space architecture is a very divergent field. It is tightly bound with physics but also with ethics and real human needs that are not always considered priorities. It may be difficult to find balance between objective and subjective design criteria. How do you perceive it?
Hall: When I’m surrounded by engineers I sometimes feel the need to defend architecture. I point out that architectural education includes required coursework in structures, thermal systems, lighting systems, acoustics, and other aspects of building technology, as well as “design.” And while one may become a registered professional engineer with only a four-year bachelor’s degree, professional architectural registration requires at least a five-year bachelor’s, or more typically a six-year master’s degree.
But when I am surrounded by architects, especially design academics, I am frequently struck by the apparent disregard for anything other than artistic form. It irks me to see architectural “design” divorced from technical realities of function, environment, material, and load. I have spoken to aerospace faculty who have told me they have tried to collaborate in space habitat design with their architecture colleagues, but the architects have seemed disinterested in solving the actual problem. Architectural designers who are ignorant or defiant of the laws of physics discredit the whole profession. And as Vitruvius wrote two millennia ago: “If our designs for private houses are to be correct, we must at the outset take note of the countries and climates in which they are built.”
Orbit: Artificial gravity – Why do you think there is no centrifuge on orbit yet. A centrifuge could certainly provide a solution to major health problems.
Hall: Most early space-station concepts, from Tsiolkovky in the 1880s until Skylab in the 1970s, featured artificial gravity as the principal determinant of form. There was a lot of uncertainty as to whether people could survive in microgravity, or for how long. Space stations were conceived as observational outposts for earth science, astronomy, or national defense, or as refueling stations for interplanetary missions. Microgravity was seen as an inconvenient curiosity and potential danger, but not a goal.
As manned space missions got longer without killing anybody, mission planners gained confidence that crews could survive microgravity for indefinite periods. Ultimately, the Salyut and Skylab missions included microgravity itself as a research interest, and artificial gravity was seen as an unnecessary complication. We now have ample experience with astronaut rehabilitation to Earth gravity after six months of microgravity in low-Earth orbit.
It’s a little ironic that the same missions that have shown that humans can survive microgravity for several months have also shown how dangerous it is over the long run.
A Centrifuge Accommodation Module was built and was supposed to fly to the ISS in 2006, but it was cancelled in 2005 due to scheduling and cost problems. It would have supported artificial gravity research on small animals, but not on humans.
Orbit: Why has architecture been introduced in the space sector? Can’t its purpose be served by system engineering or mission architecture? Why should the space sector care about having a more traditional architectural approach?
Hall: Engineers tend to distill the human organism into a system of systems that behave predictably according to physical laws. Humans have mass and occupy volume; they turn carbohydrate and oxygen into carbon dioxide and water; they turn water into urine and non-digestible stuff into feces; they turn calories into heat and work; and that’s about it. The non-rational aspects of humans that can’t be expressed in mathematical functions have no place in hardcore engineering design. Non-rationality is seen as irrational; the crew just shouldn’t behave that way.
The battle to include an actual window in Skylab, and the “crew strike” during the Skylab 4 mission, I think were eye-openers for space mission planners.
Orbit: What is your realistic vision for space architecture in 20-50 years?
Hall: The first application of artificial gravity might be in crewed missions to Mars. Planners are divided. Some see that the one-way transit time is comparable to current typical Earth-orbital missions and conclude that artificial gravity is an unnecessary complication. Others consider that astronauts to Mars will have to arrive there in good physical condition, ready for strenuous work in a rough environment, with no manicured terrain, welcoming ground crew, or time for rehabilitation. And after weeks or months in partial gravity, they’ll need to make another multi-month transit and return to Earth in some kind of rehabilitatable condition.
But the biggest health hazard in Mars transit – more than microgravity – might be radiation. Unfortunately, the best way we know to protect the crew from radiation is with mass, and the mass of radiation protection further complicates artificial gravity. If the whole vehicle is spun up, then that mass has to be accelerated with some kind of energy input. And once it’s spun up, it acquires weight that has to be supported by additional structural mass, which also has to be spun up, and so on.
Rather than spin the entire transit vehicle, there’ve been several proposals for short-arm centrifuges to fit inside the vehicle for periodic doses of artificial gravity. Those have their own complications in terms of crew scheduling, mass balance, and momentum isolation. It would be tricky to rotate a human-sized centrifuge with a 2-meter or so radius without imparting some equal and opposite angular momentum to the rest of the vehicle, but a few concepts have been published.
Ultimately, if we’re ever going to become a spacefaring civilization, I think artificial gravity is inevitable. If not for Mars, then for the main belt asteroids, or the moons of Jupiter, or permanent colonies of the kind that Gerard O’Neill popularized. It’s still not clear how those colonies would support themselves economically. The only economic rationale that the 1970s studies could foresee was construction and maintenance of space solar power satellites.
But who could foresee the economy of North America when the first Europeans arrived? The original economic incentives were commodities like gold, fur, and timber. Now our chief exports are things that the original European colonists could never have imagined.
I can hardly begin to predict what the next 50 years will bring.