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SPACE ODDITY

TECHNICAL & PRACTICE

At the Architecture Foundation's Summer Nights season of 'talks with some of London's most inspiring and creative architects', Diana Cochrane and Alex Mowat of Urban Salon presented their work to a packed room.

They said that after their involvement in a proposal for the British Antarctic Survey's Halley VI project, they have been approached to help the British Interplanetary Society on a project for a manned space flight to Mars. They are working on an idea to send an unmanned craft powered by a solar sail (which will take four years to reach the red planet) that will unfurl on landing, so that the manned mission can arrive later in a faster, more conventional liquid methane-boostered spacecraft to find the space station already self-assembled.

Even though Urban Salon seemed blissfully unaware that these ideas have been around since the West's favourite Nazi, Werner von Braun, proposed Earth Orbit Rendevous as a space-assembly space station, there was something terribly British, frightfully sustainable and ultimately tragic about their scheme.

Mowat described how the unmanned flight will carry bamboo (a 'building material and foodstuff'), some soot (to melt the polar icecap for water), a length of hosepipe and a crisp packet. Admittedly, with their enthusiastic, undergraduatestyle naivety, this part of their presentation had a certain Blue Peter-esque charm. But though the reusable space shuttle is the epitome of the here's-one-Imade-earlier approach, space flight is not really schoolboy stuff: as Colin Pillinger, who tried to pay for the Beagle 2 project out of his own pocket money, found out.

That failed project cost just £50 million but last year President Bush pledged £217 billion - half of the predicted costs for a Mars landing - to the US space race over 20 years. Notwithstanding NASA's conservative intention to use the moon as a staging post, American ambition seems to compare more favourably to British penny-pinching.

The increasingly cranky astronomer royal, Sir Martin Rees, says it should be left to billionaire adventurers to salvage the spirit of exploration.

He wants to get around society's risk-averse climate by relying on space tourists like Denis Tito or maybe Richard Branson. The social aspiration of space exploration is undervalued and undermined by Rees' defensiveness.

Reviewing the failed Beagle project, the UK Select Committee on Public Accounts commented that: 'Ambitious projects like this should go ahead only if enough money has been made available up front.' Easy for them to say.

Back on earth, the competition to design miserly £60,000 houses is the architectural equivalent of Britain's frugal space race.

We all recall Pillinger having to scuttle around in taxis with a cardboard model trying to raise a couple of quid.

Now architects are having to do the same for the privilege of increasing the housing stock to a civilised level. Housing, like space, used to be seen as being socially important;

it is now simply seen as an individual's hobby.

I do not agree with those who say that we shouldn't waste money in space that could be better spent on housing the homeless. Of course we should do both. But unless we counter the 'liability aversion' culture, we will have to look to more dynamic economies for a vision of the future. A government that has washed its hands of spending the billions needed to provide decent homes doesn't bode well. Just like the Beagle, a parsimonious housing policy is similarly doomed to crash.

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