A few months from now, a pair of Danish architects will travel to the Arctic and lock themselves in a 600-cubic foot isolation pod (roughly the size of a two-car garage) for three months.
Why? Believe it or not, they’re not doing this to escape the coronavirus. They’re doing it for science. The two men are personally testing out their design of a new habitat for use on the moon, to see if they can survive in isolation similar to what astronauts would experience on long-term lunar missions.
Digital Trends spoke to one of the pair, Sebastian Aristotelis, CEO of SAGA Space Architects, along with space psychologist Konstantin Chterev, to talk about their concept for the future of space habitation and how thoughtful architecture can help people to thrive in extreme environments.
The Lunark habitat folds down to about 100 cubic feet, and expands using a system of intricate folds which are based on Japanese origami. Powered by solar panels, the habitat can withstand the freezing temperatures of the Arctic and, because it is 3D printed, any parts that need to be replaced can easily be re-printed.
But the real innovation of the habitat is the way it is designed to accommodate the psychological needs of its inhabitants. A big challenge for long-term space habitation projects is the problem of monotony, as astronauts have to perform the same tasks and look at the same environment every single day, which quickly becomes wearing. To alleviate this, the Lunark habitat has features like a weather simulator and a system to replicate the body’s natural circadian rhythms, which provide a respite from the grey, drab environments that are typically created by those focused on space engineering challenges.
The architects don’t see their work as being in opposition to traditional approaches to space habitats, however. “We work in conjunction with engineers, we love engineers,” Aristotelis said. But there are advantages to approaching what have traditionally been considered engineering problems from an architecture perspective. “What architects do is we think about the human that is occupying the space. So it’s always human-centric, and it’s always the human in focus. The bonus of being an architect in the space industry is that we are trained in a different way, so we tackle problems in a different way.”
As an example, Aristotelis cited the challenges of designing a habitat for Mars, as SAGA did in a previous project. Most approaches to building habitats focus on trying to recreate Earth-like conditions and must fight against local conditions like high winds, a lot of dust, and a thin atmosphere, all of which contribute to the generation of static electricity. This has generally been considered a problem that must be solved, as it can cause shorts in electrical equipment. But for Aristotelis it was an asset, and by designing exterior panels for the habitat which collected the static electricity, it could be used to generate power.
We don’t just want people to survive in their environment,” Chterev said. “We want them to thrive. In our future space exploration, we want people at the best of their wellbeing. It’s not about putting up with things, it’s about doing the best we can.”
This approach means considering not only the design of the habitat, but also how people will cope with the challenges of living in isolation. One psychological booster which already exists in the space industry is the system of care packages for astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Resupply rockets carrying equipment and essential supplies also leave a little room aside for personal packages from friends and family, or for specially-requested snacks. The ISS astronauts report that these small treats go a long way to keeping their spirits up in tough times, because they not only remind them of home, but also provide something for them to look forward to.
One of the challenges for keeping astronauts happy on the moon is simply how featureless it is. There is no weather, and its days and nights last 14 Earth days each. There’s a distinct lack of stimulation, which can contribute to feelings of tedium and frustration. Maintaining a roughly 24-hour circadian rhythm is important for psychological stability, so the habitat will support this through its lighting which will glow brightly in the morning before dimming to a warm pink or orange when it’s time to sleep.
Another part of making habitation for the moon which supports astronauts’ wellbeing is simulating weather conditions to relieve the monotony. The weather is simulated through lighting and sounds, varying from beautiful rainbows to dark, stormy days. While you might think that a simulation of endless sunny days would be ideal, in fact any kind of repetitive experience becomes dull quickly. That’s why the simulated weather will include some good days and some bad ones.
“We don’t only need positive stimulation, we also need negative stimulation,” Aristotelis explained. “We need the variation. We need the cold day to feel the warm day.”
Another way to relieve monotony in the habitat is by bringing aspects of nature inside. “Through psychological studies, we have something called the biophilia hypothesis,” Chterev said. “Which is that we have an innate tendency to connect with nature.”
Two ways this will happen are through the habitat’s vertical garden and algae system. The vertical garden allows inhabitants to grow a small amount of their own food. Not only are fresh fruits and vegetables a valuable commodity in extreme environments, but the process of growing and tending to them is also rewarding. Even if the process can be fully automated, there’s psychological value in letting the inhabitants experience agency and ownership by growing their own food. “It’s like having your own little pet,” Chterev joked.
The algae system consists of bags of algae hanging from the ceiling, which converts carbon dioxide to oxygen via photosynthesis. It could theoretically be used to bolster or even replace life support systems in space, and the algae is highly nutritious and can be consumed as well. For the upcoming isolation experiment, there will only be a small algae system so it won’t act as life support, but it will be consumed daily as a supplement to meals.
An unexpected benefit of the system is the sounds that it makes. As air is pushed through the algae bags, it makes a quiet bubbling sound that is highly relaxing and provides another kind of stimulation.
“We hope to see a future where large parts of the life support system could be exchanged for an algae system,” Aristotelis said. “It would be possible to get a large part of your nutrition from just algae.”
“We are working towards a future where it’s not just astronauts going to space, but also civilians,” Aristotelis said. That requires designing environments not only for the highly trained, carefully selected astronauts of NASA and other space agencies. When it comes to sending civilians into space, “we need to account for their wellbeing.”
And their plan for understanding the challenges of extreme environments is a radical one: Aristotelis and his co-founder Karl-Johan Sørensen will be spending three months living in the habitat in the Arctic, in Northern Greenland. During this time they’ll be effectively cut off from the rest of the world and they will have to survive on what they can bring with them, with the habitat itself providing the mental stimulation they need.
“What we’re hoping is that it will give us a better idea of what are the most influential architectural elements that are important on a space mission,” Aristotelis explained. Whether it’s the aspect of nature from tending to the garden, the circadian rhythms as modulated through the lighting system, or the generative soundscape, they want to know which elements of sensory stimulation are the most important, so they can know which elements to focus on developing.
“We also hope to get an intuitive understanding of this type of habitat and what you need. There have been engineers and scientists and fighter pilots in space, but there haven’t been any architects in space yet. Given our background, we might see different solutions to problems than people from other fields.”
Aristotelis also hopes that the time will teach him and his colleagues about design elements that can be incorporated into work here on Earth: “We think there’s a correlation between what I need in a very extreme environment, and my everyday life here on Earth. The things that we learn from this mission don’t have to be just for space travel.”
SAGA is finishing up its prototype phase at the moment, and readying to move into construction. The aim is to begin manufacturing panels for the habitat within the next month, and to finish up the final aspects of the interior. Then fabrication will begin this summer, ready for the isolation experiment to begin in September. And eventually, the team hopes that their design can make it out into space: “Our long-term hope is that one day a version of this habitat, maybe a distant mutation of it, will land on the moon,” Aristotelis said.
In the more immediate term, the team is hoping to attract interest from space agencies or private space companies like SpaceX. For now, the firm is raising its own money using Kickstarter to fund the habitat prototype and experiment, and the focus of most of the space industry remains on engineering issues like improving rockets. But as humans spend more time in space, the focus on habitation is likely to increase.
“This decade, with the new launches that are coming out, we’re going to start seeing more of a focus on habitation, whether it’s for the moon or Mars or even low-Earth orbit,” Chterev said. “I think the topic of habitation will get more and more popular, and SAGA will be in a good place for that.”