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How Space-Based Design Will Keep Martians and Moon-Dwellers Sane

Reminders of home will be necessary for humans to make the great leap of living off the Earth.
Image: NASA

Imagine trying to take a leak, say, in the inhospitable environment of a Martian winter. Or getting your crops to grow when the temperature outside your moon colony is a crisp -153°C. The environment in which you work and live obviously has to stand up to the severity of the alien environment outside your habitat. Architects and designers have been contemplating how we will live in alien environments for a while now; but the new push to send astronauts to Mars has lent this question new urgency.


The bare-bones infrastructure needed to keep people alive in space is not enough. Humans are social animals; we need to stay tethered to our home and our culture in some way to keep us sane while we push the boundaries of space travel.

From the cramped quarters of the Nostromo in Alien to the ill-fated Icarus II of Danny Boyle's Sunshine, fiction is littered with accounts of extraterrestrial spaces that work against the crew. The challenge for designers of new off-world habitats is to avoid these pitfalls and design a harmonious environment for those that will live there.

Image: NASA

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin proposed a solution at the 2013 edition of the Humans to Mars Summit for colonizing the Red Planet: deploy a fleet of robots to Mars orbit and have them assemble the components of a living structure. Then guide it down to the surface in segments, assemble it, and presto—instant Mars habitat.

However, it seems reasonable that the first wave of settlers to set up shop in a Mars colony, for example, are going to need a glimpse of the familiar every now and again to prevent their Earth-bound psyches from going completely off the rails. According to Jessie Andjelic, a guest lecturer at the University of Calgary and an architect at the Spectacle Bureau of Architecture and Urbanism, that requires three things: the use of building materials from home, some kind of a view of the familiar, and a way to preserve and maintain privacy.


"The research is pretty varied," said Andjelic in a phone interview, "but what we heard from other experts and people who've spent time in space is there's a lot of pressures when you're involved in a mission like that. Physically it's exhausting, but mentally it's really exhausting as well. You have people who have high expectations for your mission where you're testing out certain technologies or certain scientific experiments and their work is really resting on your performance."

One of the best ways to clear your mind on the ISS, for example, is to gaze out the window to a glorious view of Earth. On Mars the situation is not so simple. "On the ISS you have this amazing panorama of Earth where you can see quite a bit of detail, you can see that there's no borders, it kind of changes your worldview," said Andjelic. "When you're on Mars, Earth is a star, so the connection is much more tenuous."

The next step is to design a culture—an established way of doing things that can transmit the "values" of the new settlement from one wave of colonizers to the next. That tactic is on full display in Matt Damon's portrayal of a Mars-bound survivalist in The Martian, wherein the protagonist goes toe-to-toe with the harsh landscape to grow crops. He rigorously attempts to replicate a small corner of the Earth in his botanical facility.

But this "colonization" of the new world could eventually lead to problems that the first wave of settlers could never anticipate. Adopting an "imperial" attitude of imposing the laws of Earth on Mars, for example, could dull the creative impulses of settlers, leaving them unable to improvise effectively on the native terrain of their brave new world.

Brian Boigon, a professor in the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto, has been working on the philosophical underpinnings of alien habitats for many years. His latest project, a multimedia extravaganza called Interopera, is described as a portal into a hypothetical civilization that exists 5,000 years from now, based on the narrative structure of The Canterbury Tales.

He says the key to successfully adapting to an environment that has no connection with Earth is to avoid adopting a "colonial" attitude, in an attempt to "civilize" the alien environment. Instead, Boigon suggests we "reinterpret our lives there in a new way." He says we should re-think our environment rather than attempt to reproduce what we already know. "My idea would be that if you're going to go to another place that has nothing that's familiar, that you try to learn from that environment and generate new portals of experience."

Like a well-designed habitat here on Earth, a successful, productive colony on Mars, the Moon, or possibly a far-flung exoplanet will have to not only withstand the rigours of an extreme environment, but must also provide succor for the lonely souls who will be living there alone for years at a time. Spiritual and emotional wellness will be key considerations—not just knowing how to irrigate crops in a place where it could rain liquid methane.