What is space architecture?

Space architecture is basically residential/design architecture in space but within the space industry, it’s easier to understand as systems engineering with human factors in mind -> Human factors systems engineering (HFSE).
The main goal of space architecture is to create safe, functional, and habitable environments for humans in space by supporting the engineering team.

To quote the definition of Space Architecture in the ‘Millennium Charter’, signed by 43 representatives of Space Architects from 17 countries in 2002:

Space Architecture is the theory and practise of designing and building inhabited environments in outer space

It is an interdisciplinary field that draws on knowledge from a variety of fields, including architecture, engineering, industrial design, human factors, and psychology. Space architects work closely with other professionals in the space sector to ensure that the built environment in space is designed to meet the needs of astronauts and space explorers. HFSE includes considerations of the social and psychological aspects of living and working in space. Space architects must consider the needs of astronauts for privacy, social interaction, and recreation, as well as the impacts of isolation and confinement on mental health and well-being.

It plays a critical role in human space exploration as it is essential for the success of long-duration space missions. Space habitats, for example, must provide adequate living space, life support systems, and protection from the harsh environment of space. Spacecraft interiors must be designed to accommodate the needs of astronauts during launch, docking, and landing.

The need for space architects (HFSEs) first arose with the increasing length of missions for astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS). Later the significance of human factors increased with the new commercial space stations that will see commercial astronauts, space tourists, and space scientists in orbit. As space tourism becomes more prevalent, there will be a growing need for space habitats that are designed for short-term stays by non-professional astronauts. 

Astronauts have been staying significantly longer time in space these days and although their training prepares them for basically every scenario and to endure everything, their cognitive performance is affected by different impacts. There are studies carried out by NASA on their astronauts to follow their performance and help them to mitigate any issues.
Commercial astronauts have shorter training, and in the future, space tourists and space scientists will not even have that.
Thanks to the career astronauts from NASA and ESA we have learnt a lot about the impacts of the surroundings, and the toll that take on the human mind. In the future, it will not be enough to simply keep the astronauts or space visitors alive, although that task in itself is far from simple. That’s where space architects come in, to support the engineering team with their knowledge on human factors. To address these human factors, some additional design considerations could include:
  • Personal space: Providing individual spaces for each crew member to store personal items and retreat for privacy can help reduce stress and increase comfort.
  • Ergonomic design: Designing equipment and furniture with ergonomics in mind can improve comfort and reduce the risk of injury.
  • Colour and lighting: Colour and lighting can have a significant impact on mood and well-being. It can also help to keep the astronauts’ personal circadian rhythm. Using warm colours and adjustable lighting can create a more calming and comfortable environment.
  • Noise reduction: Noise levels on the ISS can be high due to the equipment and ventilation systems. Designing soundproofing systems or providing noise-cancelling headphones can help reduce noise levels and increase comfort but it also allows the brain to rest or focus on one thing. 
  • Adequate ventilation and air quality: Proper ventilation and air quality are crucial for maintaining a healthy environment. Ensuring adequate airflow and air filtration can help reduce the risk of respiratory issues and improve overall comfort. The CO2 level on the ISS is higher than the recommended and air/Co2 pockets are formed in areas the fans don’t reach.
  • Different textures and colours: The brain and nerve endings require varied textures to be seen and touched, while different coloured surfaces have proven effects on the brain.
  • Growing food: a greenhouse can not only provide nutrition to the astronauts but also allow them to connect with nature, to see green and taste fresh ingredients have invaluable effects on humans we don’t appreciate until we are cut from it.
The microgravity environment on space stations and spaceships creates a very different environment than partial gravity on an extraterrestrial body for a space habitat, and the latter has its additional challenges as well. Therefore, designing for a spacecraft or a space habitat is very different and presents its own unique challenges.

As commercial space activities continue to grow, space architects will be needed to design the built environment for activities such as space manufacturing, mining, and satellite servicing.

However, space architecture is not only about designing space structures. While the design of space structures such as habitats and space stations is a key component of space architecture, the field also encompasses other aspects related to the built environment in space. For example, space architecture also involves the design of spacecraft interiors, which includes the layout of equipment and systems, as well as the design of crew accommodations and other human factors considerations. Space architects must consider the unique challenges of designing for a microgravity environment on a spacecraft, such as the need for restraints and the effects of space motion sickness.

In 2020, NASA has acknowledged the need to design spacecraft with the human factors in mind to support engineers as their responsibility and background did not prepare them for this. Axiom Space has hired its first ‘space architect’ in 2021 and there are more HFSEs needed as the number of space stations, and space habitats being designed and manufactured is increasing.

Admittedly, OHB, the company which was involved with the ISS, SpaceLab, Space Shuttle, MIR and now the DreamChaser, is working with space architects for years. So does Airbus (LOOP) and Thales Alenia Space (I-HAB, EuroHAPS, Space Rider). In addition, space architecture includes the design of systems for life support, environmental control, and waste management, as well as the integration of these systems into the overall design of a space habitat or spacecraft.

Space architecture also involves the development of technologies and materials that are specifically designed for use in space. This includes the design of lightweight, durable materials that can withstand the harsh environment of space, as well as the development of new technologies for energy generation, storage, and distribution.

Overall, space architecture encompasses a wide range of activities related to the design and planning of the built environment in space, including the design of space structures, spacecraft interiors, life support systems, materials and technologies, and considerations of human factors and psychology.

We are members of the AIAA, IAF’s Space Habitat Committee, and the Space Architect Organisation. If you want to know how to become a space architect, click here.