Space, the last frontier of residential construction

When architect Sebastian Aristotelis arrived in Greenland late last year, he was carrying a tent of his own design. The co-founder of the Copenhagen-based practice Saga had designed an origami-inspired structure, which he describes as a “black pineapple in an icy environment”. He was to live there for two months with his colleague Karl-Johan Sorensen for an unusual experience.

It was not, however, a prototype intended for extreme sports enthusiasts, but much more from another world: Aristotelis is one of the only space architects in the world and it was a model for a building on the Moon. and beyond.

Frontier-seeking billionaires like SpaceX’s Elon Musk or Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos have renewed their interest in a company that had fallen out of favor since NASA’s heyday, when the Cold War was fought by proxy in the United States. even colder regions of space. Much attention is now being paid to making rockets and shuttles more sustainable, affordable and profitable for these private companies.

But what about the permanent structures they predict? Whether it’s hotels in orbit around Earth like Orbital Assembly’s 280-guest Voyager station, slated to open in 2027, or the colonization of Mars? There are now courses in such a construction – the University of Houston offers an MSc in Space Architecture, for example – but only a handful of people pursue it.

A CGI image of the Voyager station of 280 Orbital Assembly guests, scheduled to open in 2027

Aristotelis is one of them, and his tent allows him to collect useful data to reproduce such structures in space. Greenland’s sometimes -50 ° C temperatures may not descend to deep space levels, but offer the closest terrestrial analogue. Such extremes are troublesome for building joints, which need a material that remains flexible even when it is very cold.

The unlikely solution came from a frozen cake factory, where the material used for its production conveyor belts, nylon reinforced rubber, could be tailored to its needs.

Growing up in central Copenhagen, Aristotelis studied architecture at university but always with an eye for the stars. “I tried to tell people that I wanted to be a space architect, and they were nice, but I could see in their heads that they thought this guy was completely crazy,” he says. “Every mission to college, I always tried to talk about space. ”

He requested that his town planning mission focus on a future Martian colony, but was turned down because there was no specific site he could visit to collect data. Undeterred, Aristotelis found a desert in Jordan that mimicked the reddish surface of Mars, grabbed a sleeping bag and a tent, and spent two weeks there alone to simulate a reconnaissance mission. “I got the best grade possible,” he says.

Karl-Johan Sorensen inside the origami-inspired tent of architect Sebastian Aristotelis in Greenland, where they spent two months last year

Karl-Johan Sorensen inside the tent of space architect Sebastian Aristotelis, a prototype building for the Moon and beyond, in Greenland, where they spent two months last year

He then took a postgraduate course with the International Space University on its Delft campus three years ago. “I learned 70% of what I know about space in those nine weeks,” he says.

The trip to Greenland last year was the culmination of 18 months of fundraising, much of it crowdsourced. Its arctic relief mimics space for reasons other than extreme cold, he explains: isolation and monotonous scenery, for example.

The palpable peril was also significant. “You can’t fake stress – it’s a real physiological phenomenon that occurs inside the body,” says Aristotelis. “As your hormone levels rise, you can make bad decisions.”

The Arctic experiences periods of almost constant darkness, much like in space, and such environments put a strain on the human body. The ceiling of Saga’s tent included a custom lighting system that mimicked sunrise and sunset.

“We didn’t have to take sleeping pills and we didn’t lose track of the time – we woke up to a beautiful sunrise and went downstairs to make breakfast, to boil a cup of coffee” , explains Aristotelis. There are also potential applications for such technology here on Earth, especially in high density cities with small, dim apartments. These land-based solutions are another potential source of income, says Aristotelis.

“The journey is like a pearl necklace, where each pearl is a small hit – the big picture is so crazy, you need it.”

The team traveled more than 1,000 km north of the Arctic Circle, wearing heated flight suits and 3D printed carbon helmets

The team traveled more than 1,000 km north of the Arctic Circle, wearing heated flight suits and 3D printed carbon helmets

The origami-inspired structure that Aristotelis describes as a

The origami-inspired structure that Aristotelis describes as a “black pineapple in a frozen environment”

Brent Sherwood wouldn’t be so dismissive of his sight. Sherwood is senior vice president of advanced development programs for Blue Origin, the company founded by Bezos, which in October announced plans for Orbital Reef, a commercial space station that will include housing.

He has worked in the field since the 1980s and helped set up a committee on space architecture at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He also edited Out of this world: the new field of space architecture, published in 2009. Brent calls Aristotelis as a talent. “He’s not crazy. He is very committed and quite innovative.

Sherwood adds that many of the concepts brought up for interplanetary development are unsustainable – think of the crystal domes common in the backdrops of Doctor Who on the 1970s TV show Space: 1999. The atmospheric pressure of a vacuum forces structures in such places to act more like high pressure balloons, he said, and those glorified greenhouses would shatter. Their transparency is also misplaced, because the only known way to protect humans from harmful radiation beyond Earth’s atmosphere is mass.

A photo from the 1970s British sci-fi television series

A photo from the 1970s British science fiction television series “Space: 1999” © ITV / Shutterstock

Lunar houses, for example, will need to be protected by thick walls rather than glass windows. “It doesn’t mean cave life – you can design it in such a way that it isn’t oppressive. Think of a Gothic cathedral, which is mostly stone but has a bit of glass at the top in its vaulted space.

Buildings on the Moon and on Mars might deploy some of the same technology, but much of the design would have to be localized. The atmospheric differences are one reason, but the different dusts on these worlds have more impact. Moon dust is abrasive and can cause silicosis when it reaches the lungs; the danger in Mars dust is its high level of toxic perchlorates.

“In space, whether the environment is meteorological and what the dust looks like, it will make the architecture of different places somewhat unique,” ​​says Sherwood.

Blue Origin, the company founded by Jeff Bezos, announced plans for Orbital Reef, a commercial space station that will include accommodation

Blue Origin, the company founded by Jeff Bezos, has announced plans for Orbital Reef, a commercial space station that will include accommodation © Blue Origin

CGI image of the interior of Orbital Reef

CGI image of the interior of Orbital Reef

However, successful space construction isn’t just about solving technical puzzles like these. Dr Sheryl Bishop is a social psychologist who studies the impact of space on the way astronauts think and feel. She participated in experiments similar to that carried out by Aristotelis de Saga in Greenland, as well as in studies of space missions.

Early rockets did not include windows because engineers considered them unnecessary, she says; It wasn’t until the astronauts protested that they wanted to look at Earth that they gave in. On long-haul flights, these windows are ineffective because our eyes have difficulty seeing deep space. Better instead, Bishop suggests, that the interior of a rocket be covered with digital panels instead of windows that can offer stimulation at the push of a button; The same is true of a house built on a planet with hardly any atmosphere.

She also has some interior design ideas, explaining that humans thrive best in interiors that are cognitively complex, but not complicated. A pristine white room with scrambling threads all over it is complicated and straining the brain, but a room that stimulates with novelty and surprise is complex by design. Earth is inherently complex and somehow replicating it in space buildings will be vital for the well-being of astronauts.

The key, Bishop says, lies in the fractals; research has shown that it is nature’s fractal elements that are particularly soothing to us. “The walls don’t need to be flat. What if we put in fractal patterns or created textiles of a fractal nature? “

Such considerations will be present in Sebastian Aristotelis’ mind the next time he isolates himself in a new iteration of his space capsule.

“Six months ago I said I won’t be doing a simulation anytime soon, but I’m trying to sneak maybe a weekend into the next habitat,” he says. “But I can feel the anxiety and the tingling building up.” Again, maybe it’s just the cold.

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