SPACES: An Interstellar Approach to Urban Design
by Steve Summerford
“What a beautiful tree lined street.” Not quite the sentiment typically associated with the pondering of interstellar travel or the early colonization of a neighboring planet. Yet despite the seemingly incongruent nature of such a thought, further examination may prove it to be quite relevant. More specifically, it is important to understand the underlying pretext which causes the design of an occupiable space to influence the mind, thus evoking a particular emotion. The positive psychological impact that a thoughtfully designed space can impart on an individual or a society can be tremendously far reaching. In turn, it could be expected that when interacting with a well designed space, individuals are more likely to experience higher productivity and are inclined toward a generally healthier mentality. Of course, the benefits of such design practices are widely known and utilized by designers, architects, and engineers around the world. But when the opportunity arises to employ such careful spatial consideration over a new macro network of interactive environs and interrelated facilities, the urban planner is ideally situated to act as orchestrator. We now find ourselves at an exciting and rapidly evolving time in the history of deep space exploration. Modern technology is advancing in a dendritic manner almost as fast as it can be conceived and subsequently demanded. As such, the time for thoughtful discussions and informed preliminary planning of future interstellar exploration is rapidly evolving, and is being embraced by designers, researchers, engineers, and theorists around the globe. At a macro planning level, the inclusion of the urban planning discipline seems logical as such complex projects continue to coalesce. Typically, when people think of what an urban planner or someone associated with the various facets of spatial design practices, images of earthly buildings, landscapes and green spaces, or richly detailed interiors come to mind. In contrast, thoughtful exploration of interstellar spacecraft design or fledgling planetary colonization may conjure images of immense technicality, cold metallic materials, and confined enclosures. However, the reality could ideally reside somewhere in the middle. By utilizing some of the successful design strategies implemented by urban planners, it is possible to meld innovation and technical prowess with comfort and familiarity in an effort to develop expansive habitats that promote well-being and explorative productivity, despite their inherent spatial constrictions. As a great deal of modern day focus is commonly directed toward the technological marvels of space travel, emerging propellant systems, inspiring missions and the like, we should be mindful that equal attention is allocated to the preservation of the human element. Without proper planning and thoughtful consideration to the physical and psychological needs of the people tasked with living and operating in such colonies, even the most advanced technological achievements may risk failing at the human level. Design for the psyche and pragmatic daily functionality should be of equal concern as those of cosmic radiation shielding, fuel supply, food procreation, etc., for should the human component be allowed to atrophy, a given mission risks failure. Steps must be taken throughout the design phases to ensure a harmonious interconnection between infrastructure and its end users. Taking clues from centuries of earth-bound urban design and community interaction, it should be possible to vastly enhance the return value on early colonization efforts by properly designing the spaces within which colonists will live and explore. As a comprehensive list of such needs is likely to be ever evolving, at a preliminary level it should be safe to assume two distinct approaches; design as it relates to mental well-being, and design as it relates to efficient colony-wide functionality. The two are really concurrently related, but can be addressed separately. It is not the trees in the aforementioned example that specifically evoke a peaceful mindset, but rather how they function. Psychologically we associate the existence of the trees, particularly along an otherwise barren street, as representative of a nice space in which we would like to spend time. However, there are many other intangible elements designed into that space that are the real contributors. To be sure, any attempt at interstellar spacecraft occupation or colonization of an inhospitable planet will not involve the use of trees. However elements such as how comfortable humans feel under a certain overhead canopy height, the way repetitive elements are used visually in design, and even the proper width of a particular circulatory corridor for a given number of persons are all equally at play. When design scenarios become realities—at least with regard to modern day spacecraft and space stations—it seems as if these elements are often discarded, most likely as a function of the perceived cost to benefit ratio. While I have never of course visited the ISS, interior photographs portray a space that was designed around the technology and budget, primarily intended to operate as a working laboratory with human considerations having been born out of functional necessity. In short, while a 6 month long visit may be permissible, living in perpetuity within such an environment would surely take its toll. The most precious technological component involved in any deep space exploration will always be the human brain, and considerations must be taken to ensure its optimal performance. At a macro-functional level, there are many interrelated necessities to be considered when preliminarily arranging the spatial relationships that will exist within a given spacecraft or planetary colony. To begin, a well vetted list containing all of the foreseeably required spaces and facilities should be created and utilized as a guidance tool throughout the design process. Input across all design and engineering disciplines would help to ensure the tightest control possible over the efficient locating of each element in the final design of a ship or research station. In addition, thoughtful consideration regarding not only the immediate needs of potential colonists, but also any future requirements arising during expansion should be accounted for as best as possible. When speaking with regard to confined spaceship travel, it becomes especially crucial that cohesion between psychology and functionality be established, as the occupants would be denied the freedom inherent to planetary colonization of routinely exiting the structure and openly roaming. Disagreements may arise between those seeking larger accommodations and those focused on propulsive energy needs and cumulative financial cost, but it is essential that any such spacecraft or research colony be designed with sustainability in mind. Numerous master plan concepts and schematic layouts should be developed and allowed to evolve as the knowledge base increases, ultimately expanding to include real-life testing and emulative prototypes here on earth. Studies should be devised to embrace and expand upon that which is already known; for instance, what can be learned from examining the similarities between proposed durational space travel, and life aboard a modern day submarine deployed for 6 months at a time? How does one allow for the occupants to modify space as desired aboard a contained vessel? What spatial elements impart the greatest psychological and function benefits upon humans? The challenge will be to ultimately develop prototypical elements that not only embrace the modularity required to realistically accommodate expansion, but to do so in a manner that responds synergistically with surrounding terrain and microclimate (in the case of planetary colonization). The later may well become relevant when garnering support from the general public, who may react adversely to such interplanetary colonization if executed without consideration of the planets natural systems, in a sense learning from mistakes made during the colonization of earth. Further studies will provide a more complete picture of the totality involved in preliminarily master planning such a community. By spending the time necessary to compile a thoughtful and exhaustive schedule of uses, goals, caveats, and spatial considerations, it will become possible to undertake the intricate task of compiling experienced knowledge and specificities from various design disciplines into a cohesive, sustainable, inhabitable environment.