A new typology for space exploration, Fusing Human factor and technology

Speaker Interview: Masayuki Sono

A new typology for space exploration
Fusing Human factor and technology


They may be known by all future space explorers. Day 1: Clouds Architecture Office and Space Exploration Architecture, to which Sono (who takes the stage for the art & creative session) belongs, took the grand prize last autumn at a competition held by NASA calling for submissions of 3D-printer based Martian residences, a project calling for revolutionary technology and ideas from the public. The proposal, which involves: 1) 4 astronauts would spend one year living on Mars and require a safe and comfortable facility (approximately 90 square meters); 2) using indigenous materials from Mars and autonomously constructed prior to the arrival of the astronauts; and 3) a structure which uses ice to protect the astronauts’ bodies from radiation which will be created remotely by 3D printers, garnered praise from the judges. Shortly before ICF2016, we spoke with Sono, co-founding partner of Clouds Architecture Office (New York, launched with Ostap Rudakevych)

Why use ice for a residence on mars?

We approached the design from both the technical and psychological aspects in envisioning a habitat on Mars. On the technical front, we had to meet the fundamental requirements to ensure the safety of people living there; this meant first protecting them from radiation. This called for a shielding element to prevent exposure.
Humans naturally need water, and through our research we learned that hydrogen is excellect shielding material against radiation, and we further confirmed that water molecules and ice exist underneath the surface of Mars.
Given the need for the shield and the existence of water, and that the average temperature on Mars is about -43 degrees Celsius, we came to the conclusion that constructing the habitat itself out of ice, would meet all of these conditions. We also looked into Martian soil (regolith) which is the typical material proposed as shield, but learned that it potentially runs the risk of containing toxic compounds; we felt that basing our design around water, the symbol of life and Earth, would be a more powerful concept.

Our next focus was on the psychological effects produced by the transparency of ice. If the structure was built from regolith, the rooms would feel small and claustrophobic. For example, while we live in small New York apartments, having large windows increases the sense of space dramatically. The feeling of openness provided by windows contributes highly in feeling of relaxation and expansiveness. Further, diurnal cycle on Mars is very similar to that on Earth, so making ample use of natural light is a very effective means of supporting the fundamental health and rhythms of the residents.
As a consequence, covering the residence with a shield of ice not only protects it from radiation, but also allows for incorporation of views and natural light. Transparent insulating layer is used to retain the internal temperature of the structure at a comfortable level.

One thing we learned after the competition was that, of the nearly 200 entries, ours was the only one that proposed a structure based on ice as opposed to regolith. We assume that there must have been other teams who considered the use of ice. Then what was it that allowed us in making a difference?
The reason lies in the fact that our proposal involved a breakthrough that inverted both the materiality and structural configuration of preexisting space architecture typology. More specifically, where conventional space architecture had opaque pressure membranes inside shielding material, we took it further by exploring transparent materials in conjunction with use of ice. At the same time, in order to keep the ice from sublimating, we proposed the membrane to be on the outside of the shielding material instead of inside, which allowed construction of internal walls and other supports by the use of 3D printer. In essence, we flipped the typology of space architecture through material and structure.

What kind of architecture is needed for extreme environments?

This competition called for parameters involving Mars twenty years into the future; in spite of that, our team discussed to design it as we normally do. In other words, we wanted to ensure that it will not be overly driven by engineering aspects, or that our preconceptions about Mars and outer space unduly affect the design. We wanted to create something that emphasized human factors and habitability instead of mechanical gymnastics. Personally I believe that a good architecture is something that fuels energy and viability to the people living there or viewing it from outside.

On one hand, we can say that "it is impossible to predict what technology 20 years from now will look like.” And on the other hand, "anything we have envisioned will someday be realized".
What can be said from these is that we should focus on the fundamental values essential to humanity first, instead of the technology becoming the priority. For that reason, we decided to zoom in on the question of what it is that people need in this context, and expanded that idea for the competition.
Given the framework that this would be the first human edifice on Mars and be seen by everyone on Earth, we felt it also had to have a strong symbolic quality, something people can be proud of. Something that would inspire imagination and interest of, for example children, and make them want to visit or feel its beauty. To that end, we should focus not only on the technical side, but equally on cultural aspects, and that is exactly where the role of architects would be crucial.

Backgrounds in producing innovative ideas

Clouds AO, our architecture firm's exploration focuses on experiential qualities of built environment and research-based concepts that test architectural inhabitation of the atmosphere and outer space. As the natural extension to the history of architecture on Earth, we have been proposing cities that expand the idea of space elevators or architecture that travels through use of comets, for example.
Further, we have been researching architecture that deals with natural disasters; which also translates to architecture in extreme environments similar to outer space. I come from the region that was struck by the Great Hanshin Earthquake; following the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, we were forced to face the fact that architecture, as long as it is sited on the surface of the ground, is susceptible to immediate damage. So we had been exploring how we could free architecture from the substrate of the Earth. And airborne architecture inevitably seek to reach next destination - like Mars.

What we want to share through ICF

In reality, taking part in competitions of this sort could subject one to occasional criticisms; "the conditions on Earth are bad enough, so why not focus on those instead of taking off to space?"
Personally I feel that this matter is not something that needs to have orders, but are interrelated and be achieved simultaneously.

Having immersed in space and Mars for this project for a long time, we came to develop an even deeper understanding towards Earth, and daily scenery presents itself in a different light. We have to step outside of our usual environment to see things differently. By opening new kinds of metaphoric windows to work as filters for new values, we can contribute in sharing new visions. That is my fundamental belief in designing architecture, so I hope that the guests for the event will take home some new perspectives in mind.

Masayuki Sono

Co-Founding Partner, Clouds Architecture Office
In 2015 Clouds Architecture Office (Clouds AO) and Space Exploration Architecture (SEArch) collaborated with a team of subject matter experts on a proposal for a pioneering Mars mission. Their proposal, "Mars Ice House," was awarded the top prize in NASA’s Centennial Challenge for a 3D Printed Habitat on Mars. The team, comprised of Christina Ciardullo, Kelsey Lents, Jeffrey Montes, Michael Morris, Ostap Rudakevych, Masayuki Sono, Yuko Sono and Melodie Yashar, is currently participating in the conceptual design of a Martian habitat made of ice at NASA's Langley Research Center.

Masayuki Sono is a co-founding partner of Clouds Architecture Office based in New York with Ostap Rudakevych. He holds Masters Degrees from University of Washington and Kobe University. Masa has worked on diverse projects ranging from urban scale cultural complexes to public arts. He received American Institute of Architects Public Project Award with winning design for international competition of New York Staten Island 9/11 Memorial. He has taught at Pratt Institute and lectured at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art and University of Tokyo. Clouds AO's explorations focus on design of experiential qualities of built environment and research-based concepts that test architectural inhabitation of the atmosphere and outer space.