Book Review: Space Architecture for Engineers and Architects

space-architecture-coverThis is the second review I’ve written of a book by the author, Sandra Häuplik-Meusburger (hereafter SHM), and the third review I’ve written on this topic because it interests me. Space Architecture for Engineers and Architects: Designing and Planning Beyond Earth is similar to SHM’s last book, Architecture for Astronauts, in that it covers the still-in-its-infancy discipline of space architecture. And like her previous output, this book is a worthwhile addition to the aerospace’s collective knowledge.

Textbook philosophy

What, exactly, is space architecture? We might think we know, but let’s go with the “official” definition SHM and her coauthor Olga Bannova use:

Space Architecture is the theory and practice of designing and building inhabited environments in outer space.

This book is designed to serve as a classroom textbook for a class “Space Architecture 101.” Like Out of this World: The New Field of Space Architecturethe book introduces a would-be architect to the various challenges that must be overcome when designing habitations that must support humans beyond Earth: different (or no) gravity, radiation, dust, little to no atmospheric pressure, etc. Likewise, if the prospective student is coming from the aerospace engineering side of things, SHM provides insight into the architect’s mindset, which is less linear, more free-flowing, and more artistic than an engineer might expect or prefer.

This tension between architect and aerospace engineer is reflected throughout the text, as SHM provides several examples of what the architect is looking at (interior layout, aesthetics, interior lighting, use of communal/personal space) vs. what the engineer looks at (functionality, meeting requirements, systems integration).

Additionally, while the typical engineering process is linear: “[Systems engineering] focuses on defining customer needs and required functionality early in the development cycle, documenting requirements, then proceeding with design synthesis and system validation while considering the complete problem.” Engineers tend to assume that, after enough analysis is done, a technical problem can generally be answered in one way.

Architects, on the other hand, go through a much more iterative process which might not necessarily be linear, cycling constantly between analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and back. One chapter points out that while engineers prefer to nail down the big picture of a project as soon as possible so they can get into the details, space architects prefer to keep their designs as “open” as possible, putting off major decisions about layout or structure until the last possible moment. This sort of uncertainty can be vexing for some engineers.

Structure

The book is broken out into six sections:

  1. Introduction
  2. Approaches and Methods
  3. Comprehensive Planning
  4. Habitation Systems Research
  5. Habitation and Design Concepts,
  6. Validation, Demonstration, and Testing

In each chapter, the author attempts the dual task of getting engineers to think like architects while ensuring that architecture students understand the realities under which aerospace engineers must operate when building for the space (or another world’s) environment. If anything, I’d say that the book is stronger at getting architects to think like engineers than the other way around. Along the way, she also includes “guest essays” by practicing space architects, including one I worked with at Marshall Space Flight Center, Brand Griffin. The guest essayists provide insights into real-world space architecture problems.

Not being an engineer, I found one of the earlier chapters the most interesting and thought provoking. In chapter 2, section 2.6.2, the book identifies the four most likely activities humans will perform in when they are able to “do space” in a big way:

  • Exploration (science)
  • Exploit (mining, space-based solar power, other resource exploitation)
  • Experience (tourism)
  • Settlement (permanent communities)

What the authors make clear is that each of these activities is relatively exclusive to the others. And while I believe that investments from the private sector and governments will make all four of these activities feasible in the next couple decades, each activity has its own special operational and thus architectural requirements. The book opens up the potential for space architects to do some deep thinking about how designing for one activity could or could not be used to support the next.

Section 2.6.7 shows a potential path of development, with different sectors (government or the private sector) developing those technologies best suited to them. For government, that would be things like demonstrating space habitation, expanding human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit, demonstrating space-based solar power, and exploring the outer solar system. The private sector, on the other hand, might be better suited to developing passenger travel through space, orbital hotels, industrializing space-based solar power, and permanently settling the Moon.

Concluding thoughts

If the book has a limitation as a “101-level” text, it is simply that it concentrates on actual project thinking on what has been done to date, with NASA’s TransHab inflatable structure (now being licensed by Bigelow Aerospace and used as a free-floating, unoccupied space station and a module attached to the International Space Station. Unfortunately, aside from several space stations built in low-Earth orbit, the Apollo Lunar Module, and the TransHab, space architects have not really had the opportunity to ply their trade beyond Earth. The authors do briefly touch on lunar and Mars settlements, but I hope they get the opportunity to look into projects like the Mars Foundation‘s  Mars Homestead, which introduces some of the structural and aesthetic possibilities of building Roman-style arches and vaults for permanent settlements on the frontier. I’m looking forward a “201-level” text, which would address the needs of future activities, such as tourist hotels in Earth orbit or on the Moon, mining habitats on the Moon or an asteroid, or exploration habitats on Mars. Given the information various NASA missions have collected on these environments, that book can’t be too far away.

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