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Shooting for the Stars: UH's Larry Bell Discusses Space Architecture

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By: 

Audrey Grayson
Larry Bell, Director of the Space Architecture Graduate Program at UH and Head of the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture (SICSA)

When it comes to architecture, Larry Bell and the University of Houston are shooting for the stars…literally.

Larry Bell launched the world’s first and only research and education program in space architecture at the University of Houston in 1987 – a strategic choice not only for Houston’s reputation as the “Space Capital of the World,” but for the university’s unique access to the NASA Johnson Space Center. Since then, Bell has both led and defined the field of space architecture, exploring what, how, and where we call home. From the depths of the ocean floor to the heights of orbiting space stations and distant planets, Larry Bell and the University of Houston are pushing the field of space architecture beyond any earthly limits.

It Started With a Window...

It is said that the theory and practice of space architecture began with a window. The story goes like this.

When NASA was designing America’s first space station, the Skylab orbital laboratory in 1968, they asked the famous industrial designer Raymond Lowey whether he believed it was important for the lab to have a window. The short story is that Lowey said yes, NASA took the advice, a window was installed in the orbital facility, and the concept of space architecture – of considering every little detail from the top down when planning a space mission or habitat – was officially born.

Although a seemingly small decision, that Earth-viewing window proved to be an extremely important feature of the Skylab. This feature was not only valuable for scientific reasons, but was greatly appreciated by crews for psychological and recreational benefits.

But the field of space architecture has done more than introduce windows and interior design motifs to space shuttles and space stations. Today’s space architects still “do windows,” but they also do much, much more. Larry Bell is one of them.

In addition to being professor and endowed professor of architecture and space architecture, Bell also serves as founding director of the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture (SICSA) at the University of Houston. Since founding the center, Bell and SICSA have provided comprehensive orbital and lunar/planetary space facility research and design services to NASA and numerous major aerospace companies. To this day, SICSA stands as the world’s leading academic organization for the planning and design of habitats in space and other extreme environments.

Bell said that a key SICSA role is to prepare others for professional opportunities in the field of space architecture. As a result, many alumni of Bell’s space architecture program at UH are enjoying influential careers at the NASA Johnson Space Center and other space-related entities throughout the world, much like Bell has.

A Brief History of Larry Bell

Prior to coming to the UH in 1978, Bell headed the graduate program in industrial design at the University of Illinois, a position he was offered immediately upon graduation from that same program. By that time he was already a National ALCOA Award recipient for the design of a patented mass transportation system known as “Synchroveyor.” Then, after eight years on the U of Illinois faculty where he rose to the rank of full professor, he rocketed off to Houston to launch a new career.

Since arriving at the UH, Bell has received numerous other achievement awards. Included are certificates of appreciation for advanced design from NASA Headquarters, the Space Pioneer Award from Kyushu Sanyo University in Japan, and the two highest honors awarded by the Federation of Astronautics and Cosmonautics of the former Soviet Union for his contributions to international space development. Bell's name was even placed in large letters on the proton rocket that launched the first crew to the International Space Station.

Bell and SICSA are well known throughout the world for their concepts and contributions in planning and design of habitats in space and other extreme environments. Results of these activities have been widely broadcast in the US and international media. Included are featured presentations in the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, PBS, BBC’s TV World Business Report, NASA Select, NEC-Japan, Radio Moscow, Time Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times, among others. Forbes Magazine recently featured Bell in their 2013 series of “Thought Leaders.”

Bell is also an extensively published author of technical papers and articles. He writes a twice-weekly opinion column for Forbes.com titled “The Bell Tells for You,” which covers a broad range of topics including climate, energy, environmental, and space policy issues.

In addition to SICSA, Bell has founded and co-founded several commercial high-tech organizations. One, a space company, grew to employ more than 8,000 professionals and went public on the New York Stock Exchange.

So, when prospective space architecture students ask Bell about job opportunities for graduating space architects, his answer is that they are only  limited by their own creativity: “There are just as many as you can possibly imagine – as many as you can create.”

Space Architecture for Earthlings

Although cutbacks in the government space program are taking a large toll upon NASA-funded employments and contracts, Bell still sees exciting new prospects. “The commercial sector is expanding  entrepreneurial business markets both in space and on Earth.” Bell explained. “As space architects and other aerospace professionals seek diversified employment possibilities, their innovative problem-solving abilities can also be applied in other challenging terrestrial settings much closer to home.”

This, Bell says, is what makes the theory and practice of space architecture so vital to our lives here on Earth: “If we can solve difficult and critical problems in environments as extreme as space, then surely we can solve them in extreme environments on our own planet.” To this end, SICSA has, from its inception, addressed planning and design needs in such extreme environments and applications as polar research stations, offshore surface and underwater facilities, military deployment to remote regions, and emergency disaster response accommodations.

“Many different extreme environments share common problems and are analogues for one another,” Bell explained. “There are huge construction and logistical challenges, where site locations are often very remote and difficult to access, and weather and working conditions are severe – often hazardous.”

For this reason, Bell stresses that space architecture isn’t really about architects or industrial designers entering into the space industry. Rather, it entails a very inclusive multi-disciplinary approach to understanding and solving incredibly diverse problems, which requires collaborations with professionals from many different disciplines. “This is what space architecture, and more broadly, the space program, brings to the world: the benefit of top-down problem-solving, big-picture thinking. That is something real that we can offer to the world,” Bell explained.

Shooting for the Stars

To this end, Bell has teamed up with Dr. Bonnie Dunbar, director of the aerospace engineering graduate program at UH, to revitalize and reshape the space and aerospace programs at the University of Houston by encouraging collaboration across disciplines and establishing an updated, interdisciplinary curriculum for the aerospace engineering program.

Bell and Dunbar’s goal is to incorporate several disciplines into the updated aerospace engineering program – including engineering, space architecture, math, science, and physics – to provide students with a comprehensive education in space operation, space flight, space training, and space architecture all under one program.

“The way I see it, this gives us a chance to try to redefine and reshape our culture and our priorities when it comes to space and space exploration,” Bell said. Bell and Dunbar are also working with NASA, private industry, government, and other academic institutions to explore future collaborations on research and academic learning centers, as well as the development of space exploration design reference missions and technology.

“We are going to keep shooting for the stars,” Bell said with a smile.

Which brings us back to where the field of space architecture all began: a tiny window in a laboratory orbiting high above our planet through which we could see our world in its entirety. This story is more than just a colorful anecdote about the birth of a field of study – it is a beautiful metaphor for what the field of space architecture has provided to humanity: a window through which to view our planet, our species, and the problems we face with a fresh and holistic point-of-view. To see each and every detail of our world and believe not one of them is too small to consider. To keep shooting for the stars.

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