The Orbit Interview – A. Scott Howe
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.