Picture space architecture and you might be minded to recall the technically dizzying research stations that orbit the planet above our heads; or the gracefully engineered Apollo Lunar Module that housed the first humans on the lunar surface; or you might look ahead and envision geodesic domes, blooming with hydroponics, pocketing a dusty Martian landscape. While these constructions are so clear in our collective imaginations, the historical design drivers, and even the real-world benefits, are often less well known. And yet, back on Earth, there is a critical network of advanced, experimental and environmentally extreme Earth-based architectures that support human space exploration. These simulations are known as 'space analogues.'
Employed by the space industry in preparation for voyages beyond our planet, these prototypes and simulations replicate certain facets of space missions. Whether isolated in locations that bear physical similarities to an extra-terrestrial environment, or designed with an operational aspect resembling that of an actual mission, space analogues are how scientists, engineers and, increasingly, designers bring outer space to Earth, without ever leaving the ground.
The European Astronaut Centre (EAC), a subdivision of the European Space Agency (ESA), employs space analogues as it oversees three main facets of human space exploration: astronaut selection and training; space medicine and astronaut health; and communications with the International Space Station (ISS). EAC has a number of full-scale analogue spacecraft in its training hall, which include mock-ups of the ISS’s Columbus module, a Soyuz spacecraft simulator, a Neutral Buoyancy Facility, and the planned ‘Luna’ analogue facility. Luna – a replica lunar surface dome supported by a prototype habitat – will be used to train crew and test technology for future exploration missions to the moon.
Space analogues, like Luna, are invaluable instruments that retain the potential not only to fine-tune our future extra-terrestrial experiences but also our present and future terrestrial ones. ESA’s plans for Luna to become accessible to European research partners look set to expedite this trend and usher in the democratisation of space analogue research.
The value of innovation is evident when faced with challenging problems, such as designing for extreme climates or for exceptional events like the Covid-19 pandemic. The experiences, research and advancements employed across the diverse space analogues programme will have positive, tangible benefits at home and across architecture and the built environment industries.
Inspired by this cross-pollination of research between space exploration, earth-based technologies and human experience, this article will explore design ideas around self-sufficiency, flexibility and human health and wellbeing, to show what our planet seeks to gain from looking to the stars. In doing so, it will trace connections between innovative space analogues, their resultant extra-terrestrial constructions, and the past, present and future architecture, research and sustainable practices produced by Foster + Partners.
The space industry is, for good reason, typically monopolised by engineers and scientists. However, architects and designers have a history of contributing game-changing solutions to one of the greatest creative challenges: the desire to journey beyond our planet. One need only look at famed French-American industrial designer Raymond Loewy’s human-centric vision for Skylab, NASA’s first space station launched in 1973. Loewy and his team are associated with the term habitability and strengthening the belief that ‘habitat design matters’ when designing ‘human friendly’ spacecraft.
Now, almost fifty years later, with the dawn of the ‘New Space Race’, the space industry has begun to bring those who possess an expansive knowledge of the Earth’s built environment back into the fold as we lay the foundations of humankind’s potential multi-planetary future.
Much like the Age of Discovery centuries prior, defined by a resolve to venture into unknown territories, so too will this epoch of extra-planetary exploration continue to inspire innovation. This is already evidenced by pioneering architectural projects such as Foster + Partners’ Spaceport America (2014); the first building of its kind on Earth.
Commissioned by Virgin Galactic and built in the New Mexico desert, Spaceport America’s architectural innovation stemmed from advances in space flight and its design is directly informed by, and attuned to, the form and dimensions of spacecraft. As the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport, it was designed to serve as a sustainable model for prospective buildings of the same function.
While the latest race represents the first foray into space flight for many private enterprises, government-funded bodies continue to build on experiences from past missions; Foster + Partners has worked with both ESA and NASA on the design of extra-planetary habitations.
Whether state-backed, privately funded, or both, it’s fair to say that the next fifty years could bring us the world’s first habitable extra-terrestrial structure and such a feat will not be achieved without the design lessons learned from space analogues.
Being packed on board a spacecraft and launched into orbit is about as extreme an exercise in cutting the proverbial cord as one could conceive. As such, the need to design for self-sufficiency is implicit within space architecture. Almost entirely untethered from the Earth – with the exception of communications – extra-planetary exploration invariably implies a departure from the abundance of home-world resources to which we have grown accustomed during our 200–300,000-year occupancy of the planet.
In response to these self-sufficiency specifications, the space industry utilises an array of analogue environments and simulations to garner more information on the autonomy of both on and off board procedures.
The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) habitat, located beside Mauna Loa – the world’s largest active volcano on the island of Hawaii – is an ideal site to experience the crater-ridden landscape of Mars. Currently operated by the International MoonBase Alliance, it has previously been used for studies by NASA’s Human Research Program.
This analogue is used to examine crew behaviour, cohesion and performance, as well as track resource use, including power, supplies, food and water. For instance, one study investigated how rapidly it takes finite resources to deplete for a crew of six people – a vital measure of self-sufficiency. Data collected from such analogue experiments can often go on to inform innovative research and development initiatives, such as how we might cultivate food resources beyond planet Earth.
One example of this is the German Aerospace Centre’s (DLR) C.R.O.P.® Project (Combined Regenerative Organic food Production), carried out in partnerships with its Institute of Aerospace Medicine and ESA’s Spaceship EAC R&D team. The C.R.O.P initiative is focused on creating a soilless hydroponic plant cultivation system that combines organic waste and an artificial substrate – removing the need for traditional soil in crop cultivation.
Experiments like these hope to harness the sustainable power of hydroponics to grow food, recycle water (and reduce its overconsumption) and ultimately create a closed-loop system similar to that of Earth’s biosphere. While this research is evidently invaluable for space exploration it’s also critical for our home planet. As the Earth’s population continues to grow, a myriad of logistical problems, including resource distribution and depletion, mean that the need for self-sufficiency also influences design decisions here on Earth.
As a forward-looking practice, Foster + Partners has pioneered sustainably self-sufficient design for decades. Back in the early 1980s, the studio collaborated with late American architect Buckminster Fuller on one such project: the aptly named Autonomous House.
The resulting research, which was paused due to Fuller’s death, furthered the studio’s ongoing investigations into experimental technologies that enable dwellings to achieve full autonomy in terms of water, sanitation, food and energy production. The House’s microclimate and a double skin – the inner leaf of which moved in relation to the sun, providing shade in summer and drawing in light in winter, was developed further in the practice’s design for the Reichstag’s new cupola. Currently, the Norman Foster Foundation is revisiting Autonomous House’s potential applications for a house at Château La Coste, France.
Other examples of self-sufficient design within space analogues include potential plans for the Luna analogue facility to integrate hydrogen fuel cells, combined with photovoltaics, to generate and store power. Additionally, it is envisioned to serve as a testbed to further develop the process of in-situ resource utilisation (ISRU) – using native lunar materials for construction.
An ISRU approach was taken with Foster + Partners’ 2015 winning design for a NASA Centennial Challenge to create a Mars Habitat. The design incorporated a robust 3D-printed habitat, built using Martian soil, or regolith, which was designed to be constructed by semi-autonomous robots prior to the arrival of astronauts. ISRU for construction removes the launch-load barriers that prevent escape from Earth’s gravity due to heavy payloads, such as building materials and machinery. This very concept raises the question of sustainability and how we construct our buildings on Earth and where we source our materials from.
Another example of self-sufficiency within space exploration design, this time related to the reliance on communications with ground-based mission control centres, is Spaceship EAC’s research into the use of Augmented Reality (AR) technology.
On board the ISS today, astronauts follow a strict set of procedures on how to operate machinery, payloads and experiments, which are often outlined in detailed manuals and via verbal direction from Earth.
The concept of using AR would involve projecting instructions onto an area to guide tasks. If successfully incorporated into future missions, not only would it allow astronauts further autonomy, but it would also provide an alternative means of accessing crucial information or, in layman’s terms, a back-up plan, should communications fail.
Similarly, Foster + Partners’ Applied Research and Development group have developed a number of AR/VR tools that act as virtual analogues for designs before they are built, and that bolster the practice’s ability to keep working, collaborating and thriving even in times of crisis or isolation.
Even with advanced AR tools, or a voice through the earpiece from Mission Control, it is hard, if not impossible, to provide for every scenario an astronaut might encounter in space; there are numerous known and unknown variables at play – infinitely more so than on Earth. This suggests a substantial amount of forethought is involved to ensure all systems operate successfully, regardless of circumstance. To achieve this elusive peace of mind, space industries continually re-evaluate the design of spacecraft using analogues and environmental testing simulations as a conduit. To this end, failsafes and redundancies are built into mission design.
In Luna’s case, at the time of the initial design concept, mission requirements were in development for future lunar expeditions but were not yet fully known. The design of a habitation module to connect to the Luna dome therefore required internal flexibility to allow for reconfiguration at will; flexibility being self-sufficiency’s insurance policy. And so, the Future Lunar Exploration Habitat, or FLEXHab, was born.
The FLEXHab concept was envisioned as a flexible working habitat capable of simulating the typical systems and amenities housed in a regular space habitat – without requiring the capability of spaceflight or ever having to leave the ground – rendering it an invaluable conceptual tool for training crew and testing technology. Consequently, as a developing prototype, its initial concept was designed as a shell whose interior core can be updated and outfitted as EAC continues to explore lunar operational scenarios.
A moveable payload rack system – FLEXRack – was designed in conjunction with FLEXHab to further facilitate the required internal flexibility. Conceived as working in a Tetris-style manner, FLEXRacks expand the internal usable area of the habitat using lateral sliding rails, depending on the desired function.
Likewise, Foster + Partners adopted a similarly flexible approach for the workstations at its Bloomberg headquarters in London (2017). The bespoke desk design is configured to bring people together in organic clusters, while also being entirely customisable. The integration of a flexible desking system enhances the sense of collaboration and community while simultaneously respecting users’ personal needs and preferences should clusters call to be reconfigured for more privacy.
Returning to Buckminster Fuller and the inspirations drawn from the Autonomous House, and other collaborative projects, the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, Norwich (1978), is a single 135-metre-long light-weight enclosure consisting of a simple steel lattice structure. All the building’s functions are contained within the long and uncluttered space; a welcome departure from conventional gallery compositions in favour of an altogether more centralised and flexible programme. This, in turn, increases the chances of adaptive re-use should circumstances necessitate a change of function in the future.
Materially distinct from the Sainsbury Centre’s steel-and-glass space frame, Foster + Partners’ recent museum of antiquities in Narbonne – the Narbo Via (2021) – shares an architectural DNA. At Narbo Via, as at the Sainsbury Centre, a unifying structural system – in this case a monumental concrete roof – encompasses multiple functions and programmes into one coherent construction. At the museum’s heart, the expansive Lapidary Gallery exploits the size and strength of the roof’s beams to produce an expansive and column-free public space.
Traversing the length of Narbo Via’s Lapidary Gallery is a seventy-six-metre-long and ten-metre-high double shelving unit, used to display a collection of unique stone antiquities. Exploiting modern automated industrial shelving techniques and storage systems, not dissimilar to the FLEXRacks in EAC’s FLEXHab, the Lapidary Wall provides a flexible and reconfigurable display system that removes the distinction between display, storage and preservation of museum artefacts. It unifies multiple functions – as is critical in space and programme-efficient interplanetary structures – into an architectural object that is both technologically sophisticated and experientially enriching.
The danger, or feeling of danger, that the space environment presents is difficult to simulate within the confines of the astronaut training hall. ESA uses a variety of analogues to create such high-fidelity experiences in extreme locations such as CAVES, which is hosted in a subterranean cave system environment, and NEEMO, which is located in an underwater habitat off the coast of Florida. Another example of an extreme environment analogue is the all-year occupied Concordia Research Base in Antarctica. Concordia, also known as ‘White Mars’, is one of the most isolated bases on planet Earth and tests an important prerequisite for space exploration: psychological resilience. A stay at its remote location, characterised by a vast plateau of ice, bears similarities to the environmental extremities one would be exposed to on a trip to the Red Planet.
In austral winter the Concordia Research Base remains in darkness – with no sunlight – for approximately four months. During this time, the facility becomes predominantly inaccessible to the rest of civilisation and its crew reduces by approximately seventy per cent, rendering it an even more isolated experience.
Each year ESA sponsors a medical doctor to spend twelve months on the Antarctic ice to conduct biomedical research experiments and communicate results back in real-time to medical teams. Studies include the effects of isolation, the impacts of altitude and lesser oxygen at this geographic location, and how these factors affect the human brain, blood pressure and locomotor skills.
This learning process is not dissimilar to the lived experience knowledge gained from predictive tools, environmental simulations and building physics modelling carried out by Foster + Partners’ Specialist Modelling Group.
Applied research, along with post-occupancy evaluation studies, are used by the practice to engineer better quality architecture founded on one of the most important principles of its design ethos: to create sustainable, high-performance and, crucially, social and humane environments.
Comparable to analogues, post-occupancy evaluations involve revisiting buildings after they have been completed and evaluating their performance scientifically. Additionally, performance is also evaluated by interviewing end users, collecting both quantitative and qualitative data: learning from past project performance and human experience while continuing to push the envelope of building performance forward.
Despite this focus on wellbeing, the number one priority with regards to space architecture is safeguarding the technology and engineering responsible for keeping astronauts safe from the hostile extra-terrestrial environment. As a result, spacecraft interior design is often less focussed on providing comfort.
However, one of the most extreme analogues previously used by ESA, Mars500, demonstrates why dismissing such factors can be detrimental to long-term astronaut health and wellbeing.
Mars500 was the first full-duration human simulation mission to Mars. Six male crew were selected, isolated and confined inside the habitat. It ran from 2010–11 and encompassed an eight-month journey, a two-week stay on the planet and the return trip home, totalling 520 days.
One of the most useful lessons learned from this particular study was that the crew spent 700 more hours in bed on the way back home than they did on the initial outward journey, and also socialised less, choosing to spend more time in their private cabins.
This was thought to be due to artificial lighting conditions and a lack of the red-light spectrum within the habitat, which impacted some of the crew’s sleeping cycles. It can also be associated with a phenomenon – which occurs in research stations like Concordia at about the halfway mark – known as ‘Winter-Over Syndrome’ (or ‘Third Quarter Phenomenon’), a form of psychological hibernation comparable to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
While Mars500 substantiates the importance of having access to – or a viable substitute for – natural light and maintaining Earth’s circadian rhythms, Foster + Partners’ design for Apple Fifth Avenue in New York puts this theory into practice, bringing the concept back to Earth.
Inheriting an existing location below-ground in Manhattan, the design team sought innovative solutions to bring natural light – and a connection to the external environment – down to the store floor. Apple Fifth Avenue incorporates lightwells along with a tunable luminous ceiling that alters intensity and colour temperature, mimicking the real-time tones of New York’s weather conditions to recreate daylight within the underground store.
Light, while imperative to human health, is also a sustainable source of power that is harnessed both on Earth and in space. In fact, some of the greatest triumphs in solar power development can be attributed to our need to generate power in space. NASA, for example, partnered with a solar technology company to develop paper-thin solar cells onto rollable, flexible sheets. The film is incredibly efficient, too, converting ninety per cent of the light that strikes its surface into energy. The next-generation material is just as readily applicable to consumer as well as interstellar products.
For Foster + Partners’ Lunar Habitation project, the proposed lunar base location was situated at the rim of Shackleton crater, an area of scientific interest. At this southern pole location, there is a near constant ‘peak of eternal light’ which enables sustainable solar power to be harnessed for a future lunar base. In a consortium created by ESA, Foster + Partners explored the possibility of using native lunar regolith as a building material combined with 3D printing technology.
To house and safeguard a crew of four, the design team ensured human comfort and wellbeing were prioritised within the habitat through the inclusion of ‘softer’ interior material finishes, provision of greenery and access to natural light.
The fact that the incorporation of such strategies is deemed essential to the mental health of astronauts reinforces the idea that we should make better use, and take greater advantage of, real-world equivalents back home. This is in accordance with the practice’s fundamental belief that architecture should accommodate the human condition irrespective of a building’s location or what its function entails.
While some might dismiss the recent resurgence of interest in spaceflight as nothing more than a fad, there is real value in its undoubted endeavour. Space technology has brought us satellite telecommunications, navigation and GPS, advances in meteorology, predicative tools for monitoring climate change, disaster mitigation imaging, sustainable power and advances in medicine.
Technological innovations resulting from space exploration not only benefit our everyday lives but also enable us to address larger global challenges such as environmental sustainability, with cutting-edge developments, such as water purification systems and green energy generation to name a few.
For Foster + Partners, extra-terrestrial habitation research has certainly influenced a number of terrestrial projects and will continue to do so.
- Norman Foster
Other by-products of said innovation, of course, include space analogues. As we have seen, analogues, often the unsung heroes of space architecture and design, have the capacity to accelerate research and development pertinent to the progress of the built environment. This unparalleled advancement, whether through innovations in self-sufficiency, flexibility or wellbeing, can be attributed to the unique environmental and psychological extremes space analogues house: experience-based cause and effect on a microcosmic scale.
However, as technology advances and we take the design lessons acquired from our habitation on Earth – such as the importance of aesthetics, materiality and comfort – and apply them to space architecture, an increasingly symbiotic learning process is beginning to emerge.
Apollo 8 Astronaut William Anders is often quoted reflecting on photographing the Earth as seen from lunar orbit: ‘We came all this way to explore the Moon and what we discovered was the Earth ….’ The Earthrise photograph, taken by Anders in 1968, is often credited as the catalyst that began the twentieth century environmental movement. Evidently, by creating methods for humans to explore the extremities of the space environment, we are simultaneously creating design solutions that are beneficial here on Earth. It could be argued that one of the greatest lessons learned from space exploration – and indeed space analogues – is, in fact, a deeper understanding of ourselves.
31 August 2021
Orla Punch is an architectural designer based in Foster + Partners’ San Francisco office. Prior to joining the practice, Orla worked with the European Space Agency’s Astronaut Centre (ESA-EAC), Cologne, as part of their Spaceship EAC initiative, which focuses on preparing the Centre for future lunar exploration.