The space race


6 August 2016 – by Samantha McClary

Plans to colonise space have been around for decades.


Back in 1975, the conclusion of a NASA-sponsored study said: “The people of Earth have both the knowledge and the resources to colonise space.” That was NASA, not some loon in a tin-foil hat.

Last year, in his address to Congress, US president Barack Obama said: “I want Americans to push out into the solar system, not just to visit, but to stay.”

Richard Branson is pumping millions of pounds into Virgin Galactic as he aims to bring space travel to the man on the street – if the man on the street has a spare $250,000 (£189,000), of course.

Elon Musk, the man behind Tesla, has been wanting to establish a colony on Mars since he founded SpaceX 14 years ago. By 2018, he expects to be sending unmanned flights to Mars every two years, with the aim of landing the first human on the Red Planet, which incidentally is a mere 140m miles away, in 2025.

Is space colonisation the science fantasy of the rich and entrepreneurial, or is it something that the forward-thinking developer needs to start considering? Space settlement can sound barmy, but so did air travel at one time. Some 150-odd years ago, no one had flown in a plane, and today 500m people a year take to the skies, with some flights costing little more than a round at the pub on a Saturday night.

In 2008, Premier Inn owner Whitbread bought a 43,000 sq ft site on the moon from Dennis Hope of Moon Estates. Hope took claim of the moon after interpreting the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits national sovereignty of celestial bodies but not private appropriation, as an enabler for him to do so.

Whitbread paid just £24 for an option on the site (area E5 on Quadrant Foxtrot, for those who want to get their telescopes out), but would have to stump up a further £1m for the land, should it ever develop the hotel.

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At the time, Premier Inn managing director Patrick Dempsey said: “Given the pace of exploration and transportation possibilities beyond Earth’s atmosphere, we feel that it is now more feasible than ever to expect travel to the moon to become a common experience within the next 20-30 years.”

The current Premier Inn team is less aware of the moon expansion plans, but Dempsey still has a good 22 years to prove his investment. And it is not like hotels on the moon have not already been designed.

In 2011, architectural practice Morrow + Lorraine participated in a competition set up as part of RIBA’s Guerrilla Tactics conference to design a space hotel for Virgin Galactic. Its design, which used the moon’s craters for foundations and attempted to design out all the life-inhibiting factors of moon tourism, such as cosmic and solar radiation, won. And while Morrow + Lorraine has not yet been instructed on the project, Virgin Galactic, after a fatal failure in 2014, is still pushing ahead with its plans to make space travel available for all.

“Outer space is the province of all humanity and we think it is about time that all of humanity has a chance to explore it,” says Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides.


The tools to build in space are already being developed too. In 2013, architect Foster + Partners teamed up with the European Space Agency to investigate methods for building lunar homes and came up with a robot-operated 3D printer that could construct homes able to withstand the extreme conditions on the moon – temperatures range from -180°C to 130°C – out of lunar soil.

Japanese contractor Kajima is working with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to develop machinery able to build on the moon and Mars, and believes it will be ready by 2030 for the moon and by 2040 for Mars.

And earlier this year, researchers at Northwestern University in the US found a way to construct bricks out of sulphur, a widely available product on Mars. Sulphur, the researchers found, could take the place of water to bind concrete together. The only problem is that sulphur is not very resistant to high temperatures, meaning if your Martian home/office/shop catches fire, it will melt. But theoretically, NASA (or Musk or Branson or insert developer of your choice here) could send an advance team of robots to Mars to 3D print structures of locally sourced sulphur concrete so that when the humans arrive, they can install an airtight membrane inside and voila, a home/office/shop on Mars.


Sounds simple doesn’t it? But if scientists have been banging on about space development since space travel began in the 1950s, and about how the survival of mankind is dependent on pushing beyond the borders of Earth, why haven’t we at least gone back to the moon since 1972? Rachel Armstrong, professor of experimental architecture at Newcastle University, TED fellow, and founder of Black Sky Thinking, says the issue is about the “liveability of living beyond Earth’s environment”.

She cites the Biosphere 2 experiment of the 1990s as an example. The 3.14-acre closed-system in the Arizona desert struggled to survive for much more than 18 months. And that was on Earth. If we cannot seal off an environment on a planet we know well and make it sustainable, what chance do we have off Earth?

“We have equated ecology to cybernetics,” says Armstrong. “We have never been able to rear a great white shark in captivity. Why? It has something to do with the space [it inhabits naturally] and the quality of that space that cannot be contained.”

For Armstrong, there are a lot of questions still to be addressed before we can start even contemplating colonising space. “Colonisation is a big ask,” she says. “Until we can get a biofilm [a micro-organism of cells that stick to each other] to exist beyond two years, it would be unethical to expect any other type of creature to try the same.”

But she adds: “The quest Musk is on should not be sniffed at. We do need to push at the edges. We should not stop doing that just because it is impossible right now, but we do need to be critical.”

So, while a Glexit may be some way off, the Premier Inn of 2008 and Morrow + Lorraine of 2011 might have stolen a march on their rivals.

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