The flying Meccano set that is the International Space Station is the most enduring legacy of the space race, says Catherine Slessor
As a child of the space-age ’60s, I grew up with William Shatner portentously intoning ‘Space: the final frontier’ on our valve-operated television set of an evening. In fact, Star Trek was the very first programme I watched in colour, prompting the epiphanic realisation that crew members’ tops were colour coded: yellow for officers, blue for scientists and red for technicians. Family viewing in the early ’70s didn’t get much better than this, crystallised by Shatner’s perpetually split infinitive ‘to boldly go…’
But as the over-egged weirdness of most sci-fi literature and films consistently demonstrates, the fantasy of space exploration is always more lavishly choreographed than the actual fact of it. The grimy, grainy footage of the Apollo moon landing might well have been a giant leap for mankind, but could do with a CGI buffing. And ironically, despite ambitious talk of planetary colonisation, the most enduring legacy of the space race has been the International Space Station (ISS), a flying Meccano set orbiting the Earth, effectively going nowhere at 17,000 miles an hour.
Yet as a habitable satellite and research laboratory, it embodies an ultimate architecture of extremes, designed to exist in the freezing vacuum of space and support human life 200 miles above the surface of the Earth. To build it, hundreds of modular components were propelled into space and assembled by teams of astronauts – a feat of astounding complexity and daring.
Its precisely engineered structure can leave nothing to chance. The story of its evolution is compellingly related in a new book by David Nixon, an architect (and co-founder of Future Systems) who worked on the space station’s design and has spent his career investigating and developing architecture for space programmes. ‘It is the most ambitious habitat contrived by mankind to support its existence beyond Earth,’ writes Nixon. In orbit, it is in a state of perpetual free fall, in which inward gravitational pull is equalled by outward centrifugal force – ‘a perfectly balanced form of motion’.
Designers had to consider everything from the colour of the walls to the acoustic quality of the interior all without being able to experience it themselves
Each day on the ISS takes in 16 sunrises and sunsets, an undoubtedly wild experiential ride for its six-person crew quartered in a cluster of bus-sized modules bolted on to a structural truss almost as long as the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The effect of such potentially mind-bending confinement was meticulously researched to minimise stress within this terrifyingly isolated ‘micro-society’. Designers had to consider everything from the colour of the walls, including one ill-advised experiment with salmon (supposedly ‘soothing’), to the acoustic quality of the interior (it creaks alarmingly, apparently, due to temperature differences between inside and out), all without being able to experience such environmental conditions themselves.
Formally initiated by Ronald Reagan in 1984, the ISS was seen as the visionary successor to the moon landing odyssey. But throughout its short history it has been buffeted by the shifting currents of geopolitics. Its purpose and stratospheric cost have been the subject of contentious debate, and the Americans have the Russians to thank for bailing out the programme on more than one occasion. Today, the ISS stands as a model of trans-national collaboration (not so far from the fictional ideal of the Starship Enterprise), involving teams from 26 countries conducting and sharing research into fields that include biology, astronomy, meteorology, human physiology and psychology.
Back on the ground, the über-functional architecture of the ISS helped to catalyse the technological fetishism of High Tech, a now extinct stylistic genre that drew lustily on idealised notions of industrial kits-of-parts and toys-for-the-boys. Though that era may have passed, Nixon sees a more serious and long-term relevance in how ISS technology could be translated and transferred into developing new kinds of architecture for extreme environments on Earth. In future, the real ‘final frontier’ may well be terrestrial.
International Space Station: Architecture Beyond Earth by David Nixon is published by Circa Press