SpaceHabs: One man's architectural vision for colonizing Mars
April 8, 2014
With a projected settlement date of 2025, the Mars One project has received over 200,000 applications for the one way trip to the Red Planet. But creating a living, sustainable community on the distant planet for the select inhabitants will require not only unique technological and engineering solutions, but also novel architectural systems. Bryan Versteeg is a conceptual designer who’s been working with the Mars One team in anticipation of the planet’s eventual colonization.
Versteeg is the founder of SpaceHabs.com, which launched in 2011 in order to focus on the conceptual visualization for space exploration after he was approached by the founders of the Mars One Foundation.
Versteeg took time away from his Martian renderings to speak with Gizmag about the project’s unique challenges and the inspirations behind his futuristic SpaceHab projects.
Gizmag: Mars One has received countless amounts of attention from both the media and persons looking for a literal one way trip to the red planet. Where do your designs fit into the project as a whole and what kind of earth-bound influences and empirical experiences were included in the process?
Versteeg: I started working with Mars One over 2 years ago, well before the entire project was announced. The plan is to design and build and ship parts of the infrastructure required to help people live on Mars, then send 4 people at a time to grow a (eventually) self sustaining settlement.
My job is to communicate what it could look like and help to identify some of the necessary parts required. At the front end of this project, my job is purely conceptual, creating images and animations that help people to relate to the mission. As we move forward however, the tasks involved are gigantic. Trying to identify the necessary building blocks of technology, industry, agriculture and society that would enable an isolated group of people to live long, healthy, happy lives is a monumental task. What excites me most is that the building blocks of a self sustaining infrastructure are something that can be used where ever people live. So much of what we learn in the development process can be used immediately here on earth. Projects like this help to identify and spur innovation in areas that could ultimately add to the quality of life. The sustainable and efficient growing of food is one of the most exciting examples of how innovation can potentially help everyone, whether they live in an isolated community, urban center, or Mars.
Gizmag: What specific challenges do you foresee in designing habitats for life on Mars?
Versteeg: Designing habitats for space or other planets presents many challenges that are unique to their specific environment. We don't have the benefit of being able to use the precedents available and the lessons learned from a millennium of home design here on Earth. On Earth, every aspect of our homes has been an evolving process for generations. When designing a new home for here on Earth, you can easily choose from an endless number of variations, styles and details to customize your space, using parts and techniques you know will work. But things like doors, windows, life support systems, etc. for other planets, however, require an extensive amount of research and creativity to work in application in that world’s specific environment. Unfortunately, we don't have a significant library to choose from on the subject, so innovation in almost every aspect is required.
Gizmag: In terms of adapting to Mars' extreme climate, what ideas or requirements do you foresee when it comes to creating Martian habitats and how do you see that affecting Earth-based materials?
Versteeg: Environment in this case can be a very difficult variable to design for. In space, equipment exposed to the Sun on certain planets can bake at 250° C (482° F) but once in the shadows, the temperature can plummet below -160°C (-256° F). These temperatures will not only cause certain materials to melt or become brittle, but a 410° C (782° F) temperature fluctuation could significantly affect structural members as a result of extreme expansion or contraction.
Environment can be a very difficult variable to design for. In space, the equipment exposed to the sun can bake at 250C but once it is in shadow, can plummet below -160C. The temperature can make some materials melt or become extremely brittle and the resulting expansion and contracting can cause a lot of stress to structural members. On Mars, there is less of a temperature variable but a different environmental factor like dust that has to be taken into account. Dust can cause extra wear to small moving parts and clog filters as well as be a health hazard to the astronauts.
Gizmag: As oxygen will be a precious commodity on Mars, what engineering and architectural requirements are needed to ensure the inhabitants' safety?
Versteeg: One of the larger engineering challenges involved in working with structures for off world use is containing the atmospheric pressure required for human life. This is a critical part of life support, and as such the structural integrity of the habitat is something that cannot be compromised. Of course there are a couple of systems that are non-negotiable such as the ability to filter carbon dioxide out of the air and the security of the water filtration system.
Gizmag: What are the logistical challenges around transporting and building habitats on Mars?
Versteeg: Establishing a community that is isolated from our Earth-bound infrastructure of resources is going to be extremely difficult and challenging. That being said, I believe it is absolutely inevitable. Colonies in free space will get to a point where they can supply all of their energy and materials necessary from the Sun and mining nearby asteroids. In fact, the space stations of our dreams will only be possible by using materials processed from asteroids. The main imports for these settlements at that point will be people and unique items like seeds to help with bio-diversity of the ecosystems established within the large structures.
Establishing communities on Mars will have different difficulties than settlements in free space. Mars has a "gravity well" that complicates most aspects of delivery in either direction. Both landing and taking off require a huge amount of energy that is not easily accounted for. Another problem that further complicates the issue is Mars' distance from Earth. Only once every 26 months is there a travel window where Earth and Mars are close enough to make trips viable.
Gizmag: What are the priorities for the first inhabitants and how will their mission differ from previous extraterrestrial outings?
Versteeg: Building a settlement is a lot different than an exploration mission. To "settle" suggests that the intention is to live there indefinitely. The equipment required for settlement and the purpose and activities of a mission like this are quite different. The primary work is setting up the infrastructure that will keep the settlers alive. Establishing the systems that will replenish the life supporting supplies is paramount. The sooner that all of the food, water and air is grown, mined or produced on site from in situ resources, the safer the settlement will be. At that point, the production of larger and better shelters becomes a priority, again, using local resources to further expand development.
Gizmag: We’ve seen hundreds of thousands of people apply to become first inhabitants through the Mars One program. What kind of skill sets, personality traits, backgrounds, etc. will be best suited to adapt and survive in this unique environment?
Versteeg: The first settlers for off world development will have to be a diverse set of people with a varied set of abilities. A combination of carpenters, farmers, electricians, pipe fitters, programmers and doctors would ideally round out a functional working team. In this scenario where you have a limited number of people available for support, it’s important that everyone is able to multitask and take on a variety of duties when called upon.
Gizmag: How important will it be to populate these habitats with persons possessing creative mindsets?
Versteeg: The importance of a creative mindset cannot be understated. When facing a challenge no one has ever faced, the ability to be innovative and produce unique solutions will be the difference between life and death. The problems being solved will have trickle down effects that can ripple throughout the Mars based populations. In space exploration, almost everything is a new experience so creative minds are a must.
Gizmag: Since there are no Martian architectural publications to rely on for inspiration, what Earth-based examples do you use in designing the MarsHab spaces?
Versteeg: I find a lot of inspiration for certain spaces from designs here on Earth. There are wonderful examples of large interior atrium's full of gardens of plants that could be analog versions of what could be built on Mars. Inflatable structures that house entire football fields also give a glimpse of the potential for larger enclosed environments.
Gizmag: What experiences and knowledge can we bring to Mars that will increase the likelihood of survival?
Versteeg: Living on any part of planet Earth requires an assortment of tools and experience to survive. In some areas, the equipment necessary for living may only be a set of gardening tools but in other regions it may require an entire network of infrastructure, equipment and community. For example, a person dropped in to the Arctic without proper equipment, experience or support will not survive, yet the Inuit people have lived for thousands of years in the region with little more than a flint, a knife and a spear. Sure Mars is more forbidding than the high Arctic, but we also have more tools than flint, a knife and a spear to work with. There is no limit to the number of tools and systems we can develop that will assist us in inhabiting and ultimately surviving on Mars.
Versteeg: Kalpana One was the result of a study that was done to improve on the existing concepts of large scale space stations. Some of the existing concepts had problems of inherent rotational instability around their own axis. We also wanted to find a shape that would create the most "one G" living space and habitable volume per shielding and structural mass. Because of the dimensions of our design, it would take very little correction to prevent it from wobbling and also has much more habitable volume than previous designs.
I spent a lot of time working on the interior because that is ultimately where everyone would be spending their time. I wanted to create a feel of a small town that had all the amenities of a larger city. The people living farthest from the axis would have the feeling of earth gravity because of the speed of the rotation of the structure. This would enable their bones and muscles to develop like they would here on earth. This would also help a lot of the manufacturing and agricultural practices that have been refined here on earth for centuries to be used in space.
Gizmag: Tell us more about the vision of space harvesting being pursued by Deep Space Industries?
Versteeg: Deep Space Industries is a company I started with a group of like minded people in the space industry who wanted to explore the possibilities of utilizing unlimited resources found in space. The team is an extremely smart and versatile group of experts from around the world who collaborate in the design of vehicles for prospecting, harvesting and designing mission plans. My job is to create images that show the potential of the projects, both short term and long term. It is a difficult topic to understand so my ability to communicate our intentions to the public is a wonderful challenge.
This is one of the most exciting initiatives that I have been able to work on because of the possibilities. When human kind has access to the trillions of dollars of resources found in asteroids, the real exploration and utilization of space will begin. It will enable the building and creation of the space stations and settlements of our dreams. There will be a day when there are more people living off of the Earth than on it, and asteroid mining will be a forebearer to that expansion.
Images courtesy of Bryan Versteeg / Spacehabs.com