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Designing the space station

At home in space

The International Space Station is the greatest example of architecture beyond Earth – but would you want to live in it?

The International Space Station is the greatest example of architecture beyond Earth – but would you want to live in it?

Jason Palmer | April 6th 2016

If you live at a latitude below about 50 degrees, you can occasionally catch the International Space Station (ISS) passing overhead. Its vast solar panels reflect sunlight, making for a pinprick in the sky brighter than any star and moving faster than any plane. Try it. You might reasonably have wondered at some point if there is anyone out there, and then there they are: between three and six people, 400km above the Earth, moving at 8km a second, living and working, experimenting and exercising, watching the sun rise and set every 45 minutes. Know this: they’re probably looking at you too.

The ISS inspires lots of debate. For some, it is an astonishing example of international cooperation, a scientific outpost serving as a training ground for missions beyond Earth’s orbit, and an inspiration to the schoolchildren who talk to the astronauts within. For others, it is a scandalous boondoggle, a sink into which billions are still poured with incommensurate scientific benefit. But one thing cannot be argued: it is a triumph of engineering and, in the words of David Nixon, the first example of great architecture beyond Earth. 

Out-of-this-world: American astronaut Rex Walheim tinkers with the exterior of a module

Nixon was one of the architects consulted during the station’s long gestation. His new book “International Space Station: Architecture Beyond Earth” is a chronicle of both the space-station idea, from NASA’s earliest days onward, and its realisation. It walks a line between perceptive high-concept ideas about space travel – that backyard wonderment stuff – and a precise account of how the station was designed (during the 1970s and 80s) and then assembled (from 1998 on). This, despite the fact that every stage of the project was fraught with difficulty, subject as it was to the whims of different US administrations and of NASA itself, funding shortfalls, and tragic accidents including two catastrophic space-shuttle failures.

Space builder: an astronaut removes a keel pin

Sometimes Nixon comes across as more of an engineer than an architect. The book is packed with details that should delight impassioned ISS fans: systems diagrams, launch-site diagrams, ascent-phase diagrams. It could almost be a new edition of Haynes’s “ISS Owners’ Workshop Manual”. But it is more than that, a visually stunning book which is as comfortable zooming in on some eye-watering detail about the shape of a given component, as it is describing the broader political landscape in which the ISS came into being. The reader is launched on the same ride, one with flabbergasting, full-colour views of and from the station, the Earth always perched in the background.

On first blush, then, this book’s subject isn’t really architecture. But it only seems that way because, as Nixon makes clear, this is a fundamentally different kind of architecture, one that must consider not the shape of a plot of land but that of a space-shuttle payload bay, one that must ask not where the sun rises, but how some external part might be repaired by besuited space-walkers. Space architecture has to work under a different and punishing set of economic and physical constraints. For that reason, aesthetic considerations seem like afterthoughts: once the problems of utility, safety and economy have been addressed, there isn’t much room to accommodate “human factors”. This is the paradox of architecture beyond Earth: in space, it’s hard to make enough space, even for such banal things as changing clothes. 

Room with a view: the Cupola

But these human factors are, in the end, the only factors that really matter. Sure, the book touts the 1,500 or so experiments that have been carried out on the station, from testing materials’ space-worthiness to finding out how well microgravity-exposed tomato seeds grow back on Earth. But most of this could be done by cheaper, unmanned missions. What matters is how the people are faring, not the tomatoes. Can humans make it to Mars? Beyond? What are the long-term effects of space travel? Results from the recent “twins study” – in which the astronaut Scott Kelly spent a year at the station, in order to be compared to his twin brother Mark, who stayed behind – will shed some light on this. But what is certain is that it is easier to endure the isolation of life in space when your habitat is made habitable. After all, for Kelly, the space station wasn’t just a machine for living; it was also a home away from home. 

Kelly had the benefit of the Cupola, an add-on to an Earth-facing module composed of nothing but windows. Most of the space station’s rooms are fluorescent-lit boxes. This is a room with a view – of the Earth, from one horizon to the other. While the ISS may represent architecture beyond Earth, here at last, in the Cupola, is an architecture most Earthlings would recognise: a space designed with, yes, a specific function in mind – scientific observation – but which also considers how people will behave and feel in it. “Some weekend mornings,” Kelly has said, “I float to the Cupola with my coffee and listen [to music] as I reflect on this journey, looking down at our beautiful world on which most of us live.” Yet the Cupola wasn’t installed until 2010. Full-page spreads of astronauts dreamily looking down on Earth make the reader wonder how such a window on home was not part of the plan from the start. 

Suited up: Scott Kelly prepares for a spacewalk

This week, a new kind of module will be added to the ISS. BEAM is made of fabric rather than aluminium, and will be inflated at the station rather than assembled on Earth. It’s not as crazy an idea as it sounds, nor is it a new one; the first prototype inflatable space habitat was made in 1961. If it works, it should permit a lot more flexibility in both the size and the shape of future space dwellings. For now, the ISS remains a stunning if idiosyncratic early attempt, a mishmash of designs and colours (salmon, from the early days, because planners thought it calming, and now mostly a plain white) that only barely made it past the bean-counters. Architects still have much to learn about designing for space, but the least a bold astronaut should expect is a good view. 

International Space Station: Architecture Beyond Earth CIRCA Press, out now

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