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Fred Scharmen

Morgan State University

The Architecture of Outer Space

People working in the traditional spatial disciplines, like architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design, can learn a lot from those working in space science — and vice versa.

The design and construction of spaces on Earth demand a high degree of specification. We’re constantly asking: What is that surface made of? What is within a person’s reach? How can I move through here? Very little is unregulated: Even the air in our buildings must conform to standardized levels of temperature, humidity, and movement. If we get these specifics wrong, we can exclude people, albeit unintentionally, from the spaces we make.

Such considerations and requirements are all the more acute in the harsh environment of outer space, where habitats like the International Space Station must be usable and ideally comfortable for the people who live and work there. They also must be as safe and foolproof as possible, protecting inhabitants from exposure to the dangers from the outside environment and from the possibility of malfunction, misuse, and mistakes on the inside. Space architecture is like Earth architecture with the volume turned up to eleven. The stakes are high, and much of what we take for granted needs to be carefully reconsidered.

Meanwhile, engineers who work on spaces for people in space have realized that there’s a lot more to the problem than simple “human factors.” As they remind one another when something goes wrong, “space is hard” — and it’s even more difficult when things are reduced to engineering alone. Beyond satisfying functional needs and protecting human life, space architects recognize the need to make habitats that are not merely functional but that also support meaning and culture. In doing so they are participating in the ongoing conversation of architects, landscape architects, and urban designers about how (and maybe more importantly why) we make spaces for life in the future.

Here is a brief collection of books and other texts that I’ve found to be useful in inciting dialogues across fields.

  • Online

    The Brick Moon

    Writers like Jules Verne had already imagined that space travel might be possible, but Edward Everett Hale, in this 1869 short story originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, was the first to write about going into orbit simply to stay there and live. “The Brick Moon” and a sequel, “Life on the Brick Moon,” are about the first space station. Starting from near failure and catastrophic accident, things don’t always go smoothly here, but they do turn out well.

  • Online

    Making New Worlds

    In this well-organized and wide-ranging podcast, astrophysicist Erika Nesvold mobilizes teams of researchers in diverse fields to talk about what might go wrong and right with daily life in space. Over 14 insightful episodes, seemingly simple questions — “Who’s in charge?”; “What if I want to have kids?”; and “Which way is Mecca?” — open up engaging and complex issues.

  • Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo

    MIT Press

    De Monchaux goes on a deep dive into the many contexts around, and layers within, the spacesuit developed by NASA for the Apollo moon landings. This suit is a technical object, but it is also every bit a piece of architectural design that was influenced by, and influenced in turn, many aspects of design culture in the 1960s.

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    Space Settlements: A Design Study

    This classic report, from a 1975 Summer Study convened by the NASA Ames Research Center, collects the efforts of a group of engineers and space scientists who, together with architects, artists, and urban planners, designed large rotating cities in space that would accommodate thousands of people. Wonder at the numbers and specs that show how this all could have been possible by the year 2000, or just look at the amazing renderings by architect Rick Guidice and others.

  • Online

    The Shape of Space

    Places Journal

    This article was adapted from my 2019 book, Space Settlements, on the 1975 NASA project of the same name (see above). It’s an overview of the various ways in which living in space might challenge, distort, or expand our own spatial sensibilities. Whether we are designers or architects making these spaces, or people imagining how to live in them, this new environment offers threats and opportunities, and some of these have been anticipated or rehearsed in the history of design on Earth. See also Fred Scharmen, Space Settlements (Columbia UP, 2019).

  • Architecture for Astronauts: An Activity-based Approach

    Springer Praxis Books

    Häuplik-Meusburger is an actual practicing space architect. This meticulously researched book consists of a collection of reports about how human spaces have been used, thus bringing attention to the words of the astronauts themselves. It also describes and presents various habitats throughout history, showing the different activities that make up daily life in space.

  • The Architecture of Closed Worlds: Or, What Is the Power of Shit?

    Lars Müller Publishers

    This collection of projects from around (and beyond) the planet offers a close examination of an old architectural obsession: the desire to create autonomous spaces that are separate from and independent of their outside environment. As the book’s subtitle suggests, Kallipoliti is not afraid to get real or to talk frankly about all of the things that will inevitably go wrong.

  • Galina Balashova: Architect of the Soviet Space Programme

    DOM Publishers

    For decades, Galina Balashova was the only architect in charge of designing the interiors for NASA’s former space-race rivals and eventual collaborators in Russia. Top secret before the fall of the Soviet Union, her archives are now accessible — and they show just how prolific and influential this multifaceted designer was. From space stations to mission patches, the descendants of Balashova’s work are still in orbit today.

  • Interior Space: A Visual Exploration of the International Space Station


    The International Space Station might be considered, from one perspective, the most complex (and most expensive) building ever made. This book, the result of a collaboration between a photographer and an astronaut, is the best, clearest, most compelling look at what the interior spaces of this structure are really like for those who live and work there. Marvel at the technical clutter and fawn over all the small human touches visible in these astounding and highly detailed photographs.

  • Geostories: Another Architecture for the Environment


    Design Earth, led by Rania Ghosn and El Hadi Jazairy, is an ambitious practice. They advocate in favor of doing just what it says on the label and more. Pulling together lessons from the cultural imagination, from the history of architecture and urbanism, from science fiction and fantasy, Geostories is a collection of projects that show how design can rearrange this world — and make new ones.

  • Moving to Mars: Design for the Red Planet

    The Design Museum

    A catalogue for the 2019 show of the same name at London’s Design Museum, this lavishly illustrated book features the work of practitioners, theorists, historians, and fiction writers who have imagined how human life might be possible in the harsh environment of Mars. This compendium shows that design, architectural and otherwise, is necessary if we want humans to survive and eventually thrive in these unfamiliar places.

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    Ethical Exploration and the Role of Planetary Protection in Disrupting Colonial Practices

    Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey 2023-2032

    This article was written by its many collaborators as an advisory document to a scientific committee, but don’t let that put you off. Its effective audience is much broader than its background implies. Anyone who is thinking about, or designing spaces for, human presence in space should listen to what these experts have to say. They expand on the concept of “planetary protection,” the principle in space exploration that defines practices of quarantine and cleaning necessary when technology travels between worlds. If we shouldn’t bring harmful microbes to the rest of the universe, they argue, then we probably shouldn’t spread destructive politics and social systems like colonialism, extractivism, and capitalism to the cosmos either.

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    How Much of the Solar System Should We Leave as Wilderness?

    Acta Astronautica

    Spoiler alert! — a lot. Architecture and urban design on Earth have depended for millennia on constant expansion: access to more resources, more energy, more markets. And a corresponding increase in production of buildings and cities has paralleled an expanding global population, rapidly filling global landfills. Many people who want to go to space say that it is a place where this expansion can continue apace, indefinitely. The solar system is big, but it’s not infinite. These two authors, an economist and an ethicist, calculate that unless growth rates in space are curbed, and territories preserved, all available resources in our solar system might be expended in as little as 500 years.

  • Star Ark: A Living, Self-Sustaining Spaceship


    Eventually some kind of earthly presence might leave the solar system itself, and whoever those future travelers are, Rachel Armstrong shows us that humans might not be in first-class during the trip. An architect who works with materials science and synthetic biology, Armstrong paints a picture of a potential starship that’s very different from the cool, spotless interiors we see on Star Trek. Armstrong’s Star Ark is an intentionally messy place, reminding us that future vitality depends upon networks, ecosystems, and other nonhuman organisms, and not just air filters, coffee packets, and potted plants.

  • Space Forces, A Critical History of Life in Outer Space


    Many societies have imagined going to live in space. What they want to do once they get up there — whether conquering the unknown, establishing space “colonies,” privatizing the moon’s resources — reveals more than expected. In this radical history of space exploration, I show that often science and fiction have combined in the imagined dreams of life in outer space, but these visions have real implications for life back on earth.

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