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Want to Design a Space Station or Lunar Housing? There's a Program for That

From angular modernist homes to the giant domes of Buckminster Fuller, architecture has no shortage of otherworldly buildings. But if a designer truly wants to shape the next space station or sketch a new lunar dwelling, they don't have to confine their work to science fiction. Since 1987, the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture (SICSA) at the University of Houston has been training architects and engineers to create and conceptualize structures for space. Named after the Japanese businessman whose charitable foundation provided the school with startup funding, the interdisciplinary, masters-level program teaches classes such as Spacecraft and Habitat Design to roughly a dozen students. According to program founder and Professor Larry Bell, 1987 was a fortuitous site and time to start, considering the school's proximity to NASA and the nation's space program. But over the decades, as the Apollo generation has given way to a more entrepreneurial take on space exploration, the program has maintained its relevancy.

"This isn't about wallpaper for space stations," he says. "It's about focusing on the overarching connections and bringing everything together."

Bell, who formerly headed the Industrial Design program at the University of Illinois, views his field and the work of his students as a big departure from what he calls "magazine architecture." It's not just about structures, it's about designing with the entire mission purpose in mind, and taking variables such as gravity and radiation into account. No other program "connects the dots" like this, according to Bell—in fact, no other program like this exists—and before you label this a playground for students, he points out that the school, with decades of experiences, has worked with aerospace agencies such as NASA and top aeronautics firms including Boeing (the program is partially supported by an endowment from the consulting work it performs). It's actually under the aegis of the engineering department, which includes former NASA astronaut Dr. Bonnie Dunbar.

The program's real value, according to Bell, is helping both the commercial and government sector continue exploration and entrepreneurship, both in extreme terrestrial environments and space, and design relevant structures that work in the real world ("space stations don't look like what you see in movies; they're pressurized balloons").

"I have no doubt the private sector can reduce the cost of access to space," he says. "Then, it's really up to the next generation of scholars, engineers, and explorers to open up the possibilities. There are so many technological changes occurring right now, and space is just part of that dynamic."

Despite the literally other-worldly focus, Bell believes the program is actually grounded in concepts of collaboration, a key factor in a developing industry that requires large teams and extensive coordination.

"How do you define architecture?" says Bell. "It's making places coherent. Architects, in my view, are the ones who understand the requirements, possibilities, and responsibilities of creating the settings necessary for success. You can't look at these things in the abstract."

Soon, You May be Able to Spend the Weekend in Outer Space [Curbed]
This Is What Our Houses Are Going to Look Like When We Live on Mars [Curbed]
Bomb-Proof Space Station That Received Images From Moon [Curbed]