International Space Station: Architecture Beyond Earth


1 March 2016

“The International Space Station is the most ambitious habitat contrived by mankind to support its existence beyond Earth," writes David Nixon. "Day in, day out, it orbits the globe, half in blinding sunlight and half in blackest darkness.”

Nixon is a British architect and co-founder of London-based architecture and design practice Future Systems. Author of a new book entitled International Space Station: Architecture Beyond Earth, Nixon was one of a group of architects invited to work on the design of the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS was approved by American president Ronald Reagan in 1984 and completed in 2011.

Following Nixon's work on the ISS, the architect departed from his practice Future Systems in the 1980s and relocated to America to further understanding of architecture in the realms of space exploration. He later established a studio in Los Angeles dedicated exclusively to the field.

International Space Station is the result of seven years of research. Whilst Nixon modestly notes that he “has just scratched the surface of its complex and compelling subject,” the book provides a comprehensive account of the ISS’s conception, development assembly, and legacy.

Ahead of its book launch at the Architectural Association in London tomorrow evening, Disegno is delighted to publish and excerpt from the book. The excerpt has been lightly edited for style.

The International Space Station is the most ambitious habitat contrived by mankind to support its existence beyond Earth. Day in, day out, it orbits the globe, half in blinding sunlight and half in blackest darkness. If the Station were a building on the ground it would need foundations to support its weight. In weightlessness on orbit, the Station is in a state of perpetual free fall around the planet, in which inward gravitational pull is equalled by outward centrifugal force. It is a perfectly balanced form of motion. Inside the Station, cocooned and safely sealed off from the hostile space environment, are six highly trained men and women working on experiments at the cutting edge of science for the benefit of the planet and mankind. They live in a cluster of bus-sized modules that are bolted on to a long structural truss that is almost the length of Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. The vantage point of the Station’s orbital path as it cycles back and forth across the equator provides it with stunning views of nine-tenths of the planet’s habitable surface. From an altitude of 400km, features such as mountains, glaciers, forests, fields, rivers, lakes and cities stand out clearly. Also visible are hurricanes, eruptions, fires, floods, landslides and from time to time the ravages of war.

To most people alive in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, the idea of a Space Station orbiting the Earth would have been fantastic and inconceivable. Space was an alien and mysterious place seen in science fiction films, through telescopes on lawns at night or read about in paperbacks or children’s comics. Occasionally people saw or read something on it that was more thoughtful. In a magazine article in 1952, the rocket engineering genius Wernher von Braun, who was the driving force behind the early development of America’s rocket programme, envisioned a Space Station on Earth orbit shaped like a giant bicycle wheel that slowly rotated to provide artificial gravity. A long forgotten film called On the Threshold of Space, made in 1956 by Twentieth Century Fox, realistically depicted the risky tests needed to prepare astronauts for spaceflight. Then, with the pioneering orbital flights of Yuri Gagarin on Vostok 1 in 1961 and John Glenn on Mercury Friendship 7 in 1962, sending humans into space evolved from fiction to fact, though newspaper photographs of Gagarin and Glenn in their spacesuits crammed into their tiny capsules made the short flights seem like dangerous joyrides.

A few years later, two extraordinary events changed common perceptions about going into space. The first was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s stunning 1968 science fiction movie 2001: A Space Odyssey inspired by a short story by Arthur C Clarke. Written, directed and produced by Stanley Kubrick, the film’s superb special effects and its convincing portrayal of a giant rotating space station, lunar colony and interplanetary spacecraft conveyed the imagined reality and predicted detail of future habitats in space to the public for the first time. The second event was the spectacular Apollo 11 mission to the Moon in July 1969 and the successful lunar landing and return to Earth of American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. The blurred and jerky video footage of Armstrong and Aldrin ambling across the Moon’s surface banished the suspicions and superstitions that the astronauts and their Apollo lunar module would sink into a sea of lunar dust.

With these two events just a year apart, fact and fiction intermingled to portray human spaceflight as a complex, exciting and fascinating field where the dangers, if not avoidable, could be brought under control by sophisticated design and engineering. Armstrong and Aldrin showed that the Moon could be visited safely. In fact, after five subsequent Apollo missions landed there, it began to feel routine. The Apollo missions that had caught the world’s attention ended in 1972. Following them were two missions to Earth orbit that seemed humdrum by comparison but would prove to be vitally important for any future Space Station.

The first was Skylab, America’s first space laboratory and outpost. Three crews spent twenty-eight, fifty-nine and eighty-four days consecutively on Skylab in 1973 and showed that humans could live for long periods in weightlessness with the aid of physical exercise to combat adverse side effects. Up to that point, there was doubt that astronauts could survive in weightlessness for long periods without some kind of artificially induced gravity. The second mission was the Apollo-Soyuz project of 1975, the first demonstration of the orbital docking of two spacecraft launched by different nations – in this case America and the Soviet Union. Apollo-Soyuz showed that two small spacecraft could join together to make a larger one, that two spaceflight rivals could work together on a common project and that international rescue of a stranded spacecraft was potentially feasible.

By the mid-1970s, the successful Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz missions and the go-ahead for the Space Shuttle had set the scene for the Space Station that is the subject of this book. It was to become an epic engineering development saga beginning in 1979 with some outline ideas and ending thirty-two years later when the final building blocks were plugged into the International Space Station as it orbited the Earth.

What is a Space Station anyway? A leading English dictionary defines it as a ‘large artificial satellite used as a base for operations in space’. This definition leaves much to be desired. Today, a satellite is universally understood in the aerospace world to be an object that operates remotely on orbit for purposes of telecommunications, navigation, observation, sensing, surveillance and suchlike. Calling a Space Station a satellite leads to potential misunderstanding of its function in a field where terminology and comprehension require clarity and precision. These days, only astronomers might refer to a satellite launched from Earth as artificial because satellites to them are natural orbiting objects such as moons, moonlets and various lumps of rock. The dictionary gets it right when
it calls it a base for space operations.

In its present form the International Space Station is a base dedicated to scientific research operations. This is made clear in a recent guidebook produced by NASA. The agency describes it as a national laboratory concentrating on research in biology, human physiology and psychology, physical science and materials, Earth and space science and technology for exploration beyond low Earth orbit. The Station’s job is to return the resulting discoveries and new knowledge to Earth for the benefit of mankind and the planet. This emphasis on research is quite narrow compared with the much broader role envisioned for the Station when President Reagan gave it the go-ahead in 1984. Then, it was intended to perform eight functions: space laboratory, astronomical observatory, transportation node, servicing facility, assembly platform, manufacturing plant, storage depot and staging base.

The gradual erosion of expectations for the Station before its completion in 2011 is marked by multiple design changes to the Station’s configuration, forced on the project by financial and political realities. These changes are chronicled in this book and they make a fascinating story. However, it is important to stress that if the Station’s functions have diminished over time, its scale, size and presence have not. The International Space Station as a completed piece of engineering has, if anything, gained in stature for only recently can we stand back, take it in and appreciate the true significance of what it is.

Why call it a space station, rather than a base, port or outpost? There are twenty definitions of the noun station in the dictionary, excluding those that are ecclesiastical. For example, in early nautical use from the seventeenth century a station was a port, harbour or roadstead for ships. In aviation it became an aerodrome where personnel were employed or garrisoned. In ground transportation it was a place where trains regularly stopped for taking up and setting down passengers or for receiving goods for transport and including the buildings erected for these purposes.

In industry and science it was a place where people were stationed and apparatus set up for some particular kind of industrial work or scientific research. None of these definitions embraces the unique characteristics of the International Space Station. First and foremost, it is a habitat for astronauts and cosmonauts without whom it would be impossible to carry out the scientific research in the laboratories that constitute the greater part of the Station’s anatomy. It is also a strongly international project, has been since the early 1980s and is today dependent on international operation and support for its survival. So, if we consider the stated research aims and international perspective, we might adopt the following working definition: the International Space Station is a port, habitat and laboratory on Earth orbit that is internationally operated for purposes of research in the physical, medical, biological, terrestrial and astronomical sciences and for the return to Earth of the discoveries and knowledge that result.