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Straight From The Movies: Space Architecture Program Goes to Extremes

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By: 

Jeannie Kever

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of UH Magazine.

The nation’s space shuttles may be in museums, Constellation Program cancelled and the next generation rocket yet to be determined. The culture of space exploration, however, is alive and well in Houston’s Third Ward.

Canaan Martin is wrestling with what it means to be human and how that translates to habitats for living and working in space. James Flores, a former space shuttle flight manager, is researching ways to re-use existing hardware in an effort to cut costs and speed development.

And John Cook, who, like Flores, lost his job in the aerospace industry as projects were cut, is thinking about the best, least expensive way to establish a lunar outpost as a way station en route to Mars.

Students in the University of Houston’s Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture (SICSA) are working on projects with the potential to reshape how we think about space exploration.

They are dreamers, with a can-do attitude. “All of this has to be thought through,” says Cook, waving a hand at the calculations and computerized designs that provide detail to his work. “You can’t design the surface elements without understanding the whole picture.”

The “whole picture” underlies the University’s decision in 2015 to revamp its graduate space architecture program and SICSA, moving it from the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture to the Cullen College of Engineering. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board approved changing the degree to a master of science with a STEM — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — designation.

Space architecture involves principles of both architecture and engineering, along with physiology, physics and psychology, with a focus on extreme environments. That includes not only space but also subsea, the Arctic and the desert, even disaster recovery zones. Space architects have to consider the temperature and pressure of space or other extreme environments, as well as “human engineering” factors — things like how people move in a low-gravity or no-gravity environment.

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,” says Bonnie J. Dunbar, former director of the program and head of its advisory board.

“Sustainability is more than just a buzzword to people designing for space,” says Olga Bannova, associate director of SICSA. “You won’t survive without sustainability.”

In designing habitats — for space travel, for lunar colonies or for eventual use on Mars or elsewhere — space architects have to consider something else, as well. Habitats aren’t just workspaces for extreme environments, Bannova says.

They will also be homes. Humans aren’t troublesome complications, but the most crucial element to any space endeavor.

“Humans make things happen,” Bannova says. “People care. Robots don’t.”

So, Canaan Martin is considering how people would move through a settlement on the moon, including technology needed to extract water from deep craters, where previous research suggests ice could be harvested to provide not just drinking water but also rocket fuel and other products produced from its components, oxygen and hydrogen.

Martin is focused not only on the technical aspects of extracting frozen water from permanently shadowed craters, he is interested in the psychological elements that will come into play as more people spend extended time in space: Too big, and it’s not practical to launch from earth. Too small, and people go stir crazy.

“Everyone wants things bigger than ever, but if it’s too big, we can’t get it there,” he says.

Martin is among those who advocate going to the moon first. That would establish what Cook calls “a dress rehearsal for Mars. You don’t want to be doing something for the first time on Mars,” he says. After all, it’s a 550-day trip back home.

Nejc Trost, an assistant professor in the program, says modular design and re-using hardware already proven to work could improve safety at a lower cost. Basic airplane design, he notes, has changed little in the past 80 years.

But not all work inside the SICSA studios involves extraterrestrial worlds. Trost was tapped to design the first building at the Houston Spaceport at Ellington Field, intended to house researchers and businesses working on 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.

And Bannova says the skills apply to work outside of NASA and the private space sector. “It’s more about problem-solving and sustainable systems. The skills you can apply anywhere.”

Arturo Machuca, general manager for Ellington Airport and the Houston Spaceport, says the space architecture program is a selling point when he talks with industry about the spaceport, which was approved last summer and which he and other officials see as a hub for aerospace operations, including designing microsatellites, 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 says.

That workforce may wax and wane in tune with NASA funding, but the passion remains strong. “I always loved space,” says Bannova, who grew up in Russia and completed a master’s degree in architecture at UH before earning a second master’s degree in space architecture in 2005. “People still think space is cool, and we’re part of it.”

Cook and Flores came to the industry from different directions — Cook has a master’s degree in architecture, while Flores’ degree is in nuclear engineering — but both have spent years thinking about space, and they’re not ready to stop.

Their current projects consider how people can live and work in space using “proven technology,” hardware used in previous missions that still has potential value for the future.

U.S. astronauts travel to and from the International Space Station by Russian space capsule; little’s changed in its technology since the 1960s, Cook says. “If it’s flown and it worked, we should reuse it.”

Whether they are considering new uses for old hardware or designing new technology, space architects draw upon an interdisciplinary set of skills that approaches space holistically.

Larry Toups, lead systems engineer with NASA’s Exploration Mission Planning Office and a 1980s-era graduate of the program, says designing for space and other extreme environments requires not just technical expertise but a whole new way of looking at things. “It’s not really the design itself,” he says. “It’s the whole thing.”

Bannova agrees, comparing space architecture to traditional architecture. A building might last hundreds of years, she says.

“But if you do something in space, you open the door to another dimension.”

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