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Space Architecture: From Outer Space to the Ocean Floor

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By: 

Jeanie Kever

No longer the stuff of science fiction, the details of how people work and live in space and other extreme environments have become a growing part of the economy.

Education and training for the people who design and build those work and living zones is changing, too. The University of Houston’s Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture (SICSA) – the only program of its kind in the world – has restructured its interdisciplinary master’s degree curriculum and is working on real-world projects that point to the future of the industry.

That includes work for the newly designated Houston Spaceport at Ellington Airport and a crew space transit vehicle that could be used during the trip from Earth to Mars.

“Space architecture is the intersection of the skills and knowledge required to design an aesthetic and functional habitat, using the knowledge of what it takes to work, live and operate in space or other extreme environments,”said Bonnie J. Dunbar, M.D. Anderson Professor of mechanical engineering and director of the space architecture program. “It can include the entire life cycle of a habitat. For space applications, it includes what NASA has taught us, and what NASA still does – launch vehicle capabilities, the design of lunar and Mars habitats, space transportation habitats, resupply logistics and space stations.”

For students in the program, that means the chance to hear invited speakers from NASA and Boeing, such as design engineers, life scientists and astronauts with first-hand experience in such topics as orbital mechanics, launch weight and volume and capability balances.

Space architecture is, by necessity, green architecture.

“Space flight requires engineering solutions for recycling just about everything, minimizing the need for resupply and using solar energy as much as possible,” Professor Dunbar said.

UH System Regents earlier this year approved moving the graduate program and the supporting Center, SICSA, from the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture to the Cullen College of Engineering. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board then approved changing the degree to a master of science with a STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – designation.

Professor Dunbar, a former NASA astronaut who also is director of the UH graduate aerospace engineering program, said the change will allow a closer collaboration with faculty and students in architecture and engineering. The STEM designation is also more appealing to graduate students, she said.

Space architecture involves principles of both architecture and engineering, with a focus on working and living in extreme environments. That means not only space, she said, but also subsea, the Arctic and the desert, even disaster recovery zones. Space architects have to consider not just the temperature and pressure of space or other extreme environments but also “human engineering” factors – things like how people move in a low-gravity or no-gravity environment.

It’s really a new way of thinking, said Larry Toups, lead systems engineer with NASA’s Exploration Mission Planning Office, who graduated from the space architecture program in the late 1980s.

Designing for space or other extreme environments requires technical expertise, he said, but also a whole new way of looking at things.  “It’s not really the design itself,” he said. “It’s the whole thing.”

That is why the program is interdisciplinary: Professor Dunbar said students come from a variety of backgrounds – architecture and various engineering disciplines, including human factor engineering  – and include those who have just completed an undergraduate degree, as well as experienced professionals, all immersed in a program drawn from more than 50 years of knowledge built by NASA, its contractors and the growing commercial space flight sector.

Arturo Machuca, general manager for Ellington Airport and the Houston Spaceport, said the program is one of the selling points when he talks with industry about the spaceport, which was approved by the Federal Aviation Administration in June. He and other officials are now positioning the spaceport as a hub for aerospace operations, including designing micro satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles, spacecraft manufacturing and other activities.

“Every conversation we have with companies that are contemplating locating here, or are already here, workforce is the immediate concern,” Machuca said.

The spaceport’s relationship with the space architecture program began several years ago, before the official designation. Nejc Trost, an architect who was then enrolled in the program and is now assistant professor of space architecture, worked on a design for the proposed facility, incorporating flight operations, research and development, business incubation and even an onsite museum.

Once the Ellington application was approved, SICSA was awarded a grant to design the first building, intended to house researchers and businesses working together on a range of space-related projects.

The Texas University Space Consortium – made up of UH, Rice University, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin – will be among the tenants of the SICSA-designed building. Dunbar is the UH representative to the consortium, which seeks to capitalize on the range of space expertise at Texas’ leading universities.

Having SICSA – with its knowledge of the space community – involved in the building design is another way to showcase the workforce Houston can offer, Machuca said.   

“It’s another way for us to showcase the talent we have, the workforce pipeline,” he said.

For more information about the program, visit http://www.uh.edu/sicsa/.

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