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Interview with a space architect

Sponsored by the BSA, SHIFTboston’s MOON CAPITAL Competition challenged designers to explore the concept of a moon habitat that includes both living and working. The BSA recently spoke with Dr. Marc Cohen, a registered architect who wrote the competition’s Category 1 program on designing an actual lunar base, about creating your own discipline and designing for extreme environments.

A leader in the space architecture industry, Cohen has extensive experience in design research for the aerospace living and working environment for space habitats, space stations, lunar and planetary bases, as well as in human-factors engineering design of space work stations, EVA airlock and crew accommodations.

As a very young child, Cohen followed the human spaceflight program with tremendous interest: As early as 1958, when he was five years old, he was trying to spot satellites passing overhead. He grew up watching Star Trek and reading classic science fiction. By working essentially two jobs at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, while in his early 30s, he eventually designed himself a career as a space architect.

Cohen’s space station concept, the triangular tetrahedral space station patent, was the origin of the nodes and cupola on the space station and predicted the assembly sequence. His patent for the Suitport—a kind of an airlock—has been adopted as part of the Small Pressurized Rover built by NASA; it saw unexpected Earthly duty when it served as the NASA float in President Obama’s inaugural parade.

Cohen also was coauthor of NASA's habitats and surface construction road map, which was summarized this year in the book Out of This World: The New Field of Space Architecture.

How on earth did you become a space architect?

In essence, I created my own discipline. My first encounter with space architecture came when I was preparing to do my bachelor’s thesis in architecture. There, in the Princeton Architecture thesis archive, I found William Sims’ 1960 master’s thesis on a concept for a lunar base built into a crater wall. Although my thesis turned out strictly terrestrial and urban, this revelation started me thinking about designing off-planet.

Once I started work at NASA, I was always thinking about creating space architecture, but I was not the first practicing space architect. That was Maynard Dalton, an architect with a master’s degree in architecture who worked at Johnson Space Center during the Apollo space shuttle and early space station programs. Maynard was extensively involved in the design, construction, operation and post-occupancy evaluation of the United States’ first space station, Skylab. There also were a couple other people of that generation with architecture degrees—Chas Willets and Ted Nathanson at Rockwell come to mind—who worked in aerospace, but mostly on airplanes, although they subsequently became involved in space station.

I started at NASA Ames Research Center in 1979, when I was 27 years old, as an in-house architect working on research facilities, including life-science labs, wind tunnels, flight simulators, aircraft-support buildings and master planning. While I was working on NASA’s research facilities, I came to know the people involved in both space science and research around life support and gravitational biology. I started doing some facilities work for those researchers and scientists and then worked two full-time jobs when the space station program started in 1983.

I did that for about eight months and became a charter member of the new Space Human Factors Office formed by the center in September 1983.

Was it difficult to work two jobs like that?

I wasn't married and didn't have kids or a house yet. Compared to all that, it was a piece of cake.

What do you draw on for design inspiration?

I don't get inspired. Instead, I use architectural history and architectural objects for the thought that went into them and try to understand the deep processes and structure of creation.

The problem I've always found with the way nearly all art and architectural history is taught is that they are all too much a part of a larger academic polemic of one persuasion or another. Within any one of these polemics, a building is notable only insofar as it meets a set of criteria in the polemical agenda:

  • Because it was part of a period or movement, all too often attributed in retrospect;

  • Because it was influenced by a past master, who was all too often totally unrelated to this building;

  • Because it had an illustrious patron who was trying to show off or proclaim the glory of God or the ruler or whatever;

  • Because it made a big cultural, political or social statement;

  • Because it influenced buildings that followed by setting a style or a standard; and finally,

  • Because it influenced people who followed: acolytes, arrivistes, imitators, protégés, wannabes or whatever you want to call them.

 All well and good for the short-essay response on a midterm, but none of it goes to the central issue of what is the building in and of itself.

What I find seriously deficient in that approach is the failure to recognize that the building, painting or sculpture is a remarkable accomplishment in itself. That object itself—both the artifact and the accomplishment—is significant to me because the architect or the creator went through a rigorous process of thinking and production that made it possible for them to complete that work. Therefore, what I’ve always looked at is: What was the logic? What is the reasoning? Where is the design integration? What was the process of turning ideas into concrete results? What was the production experience? Moreover, what did they accomplish in terms of form and structure that enabled the work to stand on its own?

That series of questions reflects my approach. For example, when I was working on my triangular tetrahedral space station, I was trying to think about type of circulation patterns and connection patterns would work. I looked at two sources.

One was Buckminster Fuller for his approach to the Platonic solids—not so much geodesics as his re-ordering of the Platonic solids, which is a whole other spiel. In his Dialogue of Timaeus, Plato ordered the solids by the number of faces, the hedra. Fuller re-ordered them by the number of vertices, and that really transformed the whole notion of a physical object, of a solid. Hedra as ordering principle derives from the role gravity plays on Earth in building a wall orthogonal to the ground, to resist gravity. However, vertices as an ordering principle frees design from the preconceptions of Earth gravity with all the perpendicularity and right angles that follow. That was really a key for me in developing the triangular tetrahedral space station.

The second was non-orthogonal circulation patterns. The place that I found those was in Renaissance and post-Renaissance garden design—particularly something like the Boboli Gardens designed by Niccolò Tribolo and Bartolomeo Ammanati, at the Pitti Palace in Florence. Both the reordered solids and the Bobolino present potentialities of a triangular circulation pattern: from the former, the edges or struts become the modules; from the latter, the paths become the modules.

How did you create a new field for yourself?

I had to learn how to talk to the engineering world, because I was always one architect in a sea of engineers. That meant working to understand their language and what's important to them and how to communicate what I thought was important.

Fortunately, one of the talents that I discovered I have is being what I call a “B-minus student.” Which is to say that it turns out I can go into almost any discipline and study it on my own and get it about 80 percent right on the first go-around, which is just enough to become dangerous and to either piss people off or make them feel threatened enough to talk to you.

But at least I get their attention and we have a discussion. Then I have the chance to get people to buy into it a concept and eventually to accept or adopt it.

What can architects bring to the space industry?

Engineers go through a training process that is essentially narrowing, always moving away from the broad but ambiguous perspective to the detailed certainties. To a certain extent, people who are attracted to engineering don't like to look at abstractions and abstruse concepts, and they want to deal with really concrete things that can be quantified. They're not comfortable thinking associatively or transformationally. Architects are.

Perhaps even more important is that the baseline criteria for being able to legally call yourself an architect is that you have demonstrated that you know how to protect the health and safety of the public. The standard in every U.S. state and every province in Canada and in most other countries is to attain licensure as an architect. I am certain that the BSA understands and agrees with this position. In space, the environment against which you must protect the public and the crew is far less forgiving than the environment on Earth. The way I look at it: How are you going to protect the health and safety of a crew in space if you can't show that you know how to do it on Earth, which has a much more benign environment?

How can architects successfully communicate in the language of space design?

They need to talk about the function, the structure, the mass, the cost, the viability, the safety and crew productivity. You need to be able to validate what you're doing empirically, if not quantitatively, because you're talking with engineers, who are very concrete. And you ultimately have to resolve what you're doing into mass, cost, operations, complexity and safety if you want to ever have any hope of having some of your design go into a spacecraft. Oh, and by the way, nobody cares what it looks like. Appearance not only doesn't help you with engineers, but the moment you start talking about what something looks like, most of them will become suspicious that if there is something worth looking at, it must be “gold-plated” and therefore costs too much.

Can you describe a few traits of an architect who’d be successful in your field?

You need to be comfortable with quantitative methods: math and physics. To put it bluntly, you must get the physics right or you are nowhere. You must be willing to research the precedents, which means reading and talking to the people who work in the field and going to the library and taking out books and journals and reading them. You need to understand statistics so that you can become a critical consumer of scientific and engineering research to inform and support your work. A key part of becoming this “critical consumer” is to become skeptical about the importation of irrelevant theories. Norman Pressman and Jane Tennyson (Journal of Architectural Education, summer 1983) write incisively about “the unquestioning acceptance of borrowed theoretical concepts.” We architects have witnessed the infusion of all these borrowed theories, often from literary criticism or philosophy: post-modernism, phenomenology, semiotics, deconstruction and so on until the next fashionable rant comes along. None of these borrowed theories will help us with space architecture, and one of the most difficult challenges students encounter when trying to enter the field is to recognize how utterly useless and even harmful something like deconstruction is when making a wall “dissolve” (because its rationale for being is really just persuasion) will literally kill the crew. Finally, you have to transcend what I call the architecture and arts spectrum.

Can you elaborate on what it means to transcend the architecture and arts spectrum?

The traditional kind of academic scale or spectrum is that you have schools of art and architecture, like at Yale, and then you have schools of architecture and engineering at places like MIT or RPI. Then there are schools of architecture and urban planning like Princeton and Columbia, which is another branch in the spectrum. An awful lot of architects, and particularly professors, come down at some locus on this spectrum. What I'm saying is, you just have to say yes to all of the above. You just have to accept that all these positions are active or valid, and not be engaged in this really, certainly centuries-old argument about which disciplines should go together and which should not. There's a whole history about how art and architecture have split, so there's a big split between architecture and engineering in the 18th century.

Space architecture is an opportunity to re-integrate architecture, at least in terms of engineering. Doing anything well in space so that it doesn't just look like a machine takes a lot of art.

What is the role of materials in space architecture?

You have to understand the intrinsic properties of materials and the physical properties. Part of the issue is the way the materials or structures are taught in architecture school. People are taught to believe that one material has certain properties and does not have others: There are ductile materials, like steel or aluminum; flexible materials, like wood or steel; and brittle materials, like reinforced concrete or masonry.

But this is a major misconception, because all materials have the same properties; they just have them in different quantities. Concrete has a tensile property; it's just the tensile property might fail under normal expansion and contraction and shearing. It's the same thing for any material. It has every property you can think of: hardness, ductility, conductivity, thermal insulation and so on.

This is where practicality and cost come into the picture, because sometimes you may be constrained by cost to use a design or an embodiment of something that may not seem to be the obvious material choice. But if it's big or robust enough or shaped a certain way or something, you can do the job at much less cost.

This principle becomes an issue when you're looking at constructing a multifunctional wall for a pressure vessel, whether it's a rigid module or an inflatable. You're going to need thermal insulation, as well as external reflective material to minimize solar gain. You need to address micro-meteorite impact: You've got to stop a particle coming in at 7 to 11 kilometers a second to hit your spacecraft, and you need it to break up into harmless particles before it reaches the pressure vessel. For radiation shielding, you're considering against what type of particle you need to protect the crew and spacecraft—whether it's a solar proton, solar helium, galactic cosmic ray particles or X-rays. Then, you need to understand what material or combination of materials will provide the best attenuation by maximizing absorption within the shielding while minimizing secondary particles scattering from the shielding itself.

So, you build up a multilayered, complex wall section, where all the materials work together to address all of the environmental stressors. And you look at each material used—whether it’s reflective foil, Mylar foil, micro-meteorite bumpers made out of Kevlar or similar material, carbon-carbon or polyethylene for radiation shielding—and think of each of in terms of all their properties in response to the many environmental forces.

It’s actually quite analogous to what James Marston Fitch, a famous architectural historian, wrote about in American Building and the Environmental Forces That Shape It.

Do you still read science fiction?

Yes, but after working at NASA I became somewhat disillusioned with it, because I’ve yet to read a science fiction story that features procurement officers, contract officers, accountants or human resources. Much of the stuff that passes for science fiction since the ’70s doesn't actually have much science in it. Instead, it’s largely fantasy—with magic and people with ray guns and swords. Of course, a physicist’s definition of fantasy is anything that goes faster than the speed of light. Ursula LeGuin is my favorite sci-fi writer. She is the only science fiction writer, at least in English, whose writing you can compare to a great novelist for her books The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Lathe of Heaven. I believe you can put her in a class with Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Elliot, Toni Morrison, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain or Alice Walker in terms of character development and the richness, quality and sophistication of language. Tied for second place as great novels—not just as science fiction—I would say are Ray Bradbury for Dandelion Wine and Fahrenheit 451 and Kurt Vonnegut for Slaughterhouse Five and Timequake.

Will we put a person on Mars any time soon? Or any other planet for that matter?

We will eventually. Certainly, we will have the capability. We have people who are smart enough and determined enough throughout the space agency and the industry. But it’s all pretty expensive. I don't want to make any predictions about the timing, because so much of it is political. And as Massachusetts’ own beloved Tip O'Neill said, “All politics are local.” With the demise of President Bush’s Constellation Program, the politics of space program funding lately has become all about local programs: the local short-term economic and employment impact of the NASA programs at each of the NASA centers and their contractors. In fact, right now the pendulum seems to have swung so far toward local self-interests that it is becoming difficult to call NASA the national Aeronautics and Space Administration anymore. Right now, judging from the various bills in Congress and the Senate, localism seems to be the dominant driver, without even the pretense of providing viable projects to create successful space vehicles.

However, I hold out great hope for the president’s initiative to use the current hiatus to invest meaningfully in new space technologies, something NASA has not been doing seriously since the mid-1980s. Apollo was a huge success of course, but NASA has been riding that wave and wearing those laurels for far too long. It’s hard to realize or accept that a quarter-century ago NASA essentially gave up the most important legacy of the Apollo era: technology development as the means to achieve new great goals. The Apollo generation, bless them, is passing on, and even my generation that followed is going into retirement. There will be a new generation of younger, better-trained and more open-minded architects, engineers and scientists in the space program. They cannot be bound by the old pork-barrel-driven convention that the only way NASA can advance is to recycle old systems and technologies: It is ultimately self-defeating to insist a priori that any new human spacecraft must include “legacy systems” from the space shuttle or perhaps the space station. Certainly, there are many reliable and effective “off-the-shelf” products available thanks to these preceding programs. However, during this great hiatus in U.S. human spaceflight, I hope we can reclaim that most important legacy of Apollo: not the nostalgia for one piece of hardware or another, but the living commitment to ongoing technology development and improvement without regard for which NASA center “owns” it or which contractor builds it. We need to develop these enabling and transformational new space technologies as quickly and as extensively as possible that will finally give us the capability to send astronauts to explore widely and for very long durations beyond low Earth orbit.

The only potential technical shortcoming I see in the current approach is that NASA is not yet giving enough recognition or support to the human element: space life science, advanced life support, space human factors, habitability and crew productivity. Let me assure you that the space architects and our colleagues in life support, life science and human factors will be arguing that case as strongly as we can in the years and decades to come.


Top image: Artist's impression of a Mars settlement with cutaway view. Courtesy NASA