The Orbit Interview – Marc M. Cohen
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.