Science Friction

Architect Constance Adams designed an inflatable house that could take American astronauts to Mars. NASA wants to build it, but Congress keeps bursting the bubble.

At first glance, the Johnson Space Center looks less like a hub for the nation's space program than a college campus in the summer. The green, geometric grounds are virtually deserted, NASA's brain trust of purposeful scientists and engineers hidden away in low-slung, sand-colored buildings distinguished from one another only by big block numbers. But even inside, there are not many signs of life. The engineers stare intently at the numbers on their computer screens and tinker officially with very expensive equipment. This is a place of rules and regulations, governing everything from which way visitors may exit the tram ("To the right only, please") to what NASA employees may talk about with the press. When you do notice something human, like a guy in Mission Control eating a sandwich at his desk, it seems incredibly out of place.

Enter Constance Adams, interrupting the quiet productivity with loud and breathless expositions -- peppered with words like "boss" and "dude" -- on everything from evolutionary biology to the psychology of sensory deprivation to her screenplay about a mission to Mars in which everyone dies. Reporter and photographer in tow, she bounds past an elephant's graveyard of discarded spacecraft models and into the former centrifuge building now housing the large aluminum cylinders that one day will become a planetary life-support system called Bioplex. Minutes after introducing the project manager, she steals the floor back from him, pointing at an already outfitted cylinder and pronouncing its design, in a word, "terrible." It does look a little like the inside of a motor home, decidedly low-tech. "It's an early model," apologizes the supervisor brusquely. Adams, oblivious to his annoyance, barrels on to her next thought: She wants to swim in the big pool next to Bioplex that NASA used to use for its neutral buoyancy simulations. Everyone else laughs nervously. "It's a big no-no," she explains later. Adams is not one to follow rules.

Adams doesn't fit in at NASA -- her motto around the office is "originally from Mars, just trying to get home" -- but that is at least part of the reason the space administration hired her. She's one of a growing number of architects the agency has brought on in recent years to work on what they call human factors, that is, the livability of spacecrafts. It's part of a new way of thinking at NASA. So far, the agency has been focused on quick trips into orbit and, of course, to the moon. But astronauts dispatched to the International Space Station will stay at least six months at a time, and interplanetary missions will take years. While people can endure some pretty rough conditions on short jaunts, longer missions require things like comfort, privacy, even aesthetics, but most importantly, more space in space.

Adams's first major project for NASA, an inflatable "transit habitat" called Transhab for short, solves these problems in such an innovative and radically simple way that it has captured the imagination of the international aerospace community. In fact, it just might revolutionize the way that we think about space exploration altogether. "The Russians have been trying to solve this problem; the Europeans have been trying to solve this problem; the Japanese have been trying to solve this problem for years, the problem of space inflatables," Adams says. "And we solved it!" The race to Mars is on, and Transhab clearly gives NASA the advantage. But NASA can't get the thing built.

Adams is used to not fitting in. Her first job after she earned her masters from the Yale School of Architecture in 1990 was working in Tokyo for Kenzo Tange, an architect "so famous," she says, "most of my classmates thought he was dead." After that, she went to Berlin to work with Josef Paul Kleiheus and play a part in reshaping the city's landscape after the fall of the wall. She never thought of working at NASA. Why would she? They hire scientists and engineers and fighter pilots -- not architects.

Adams never even visited the Johnson Space Center until she was in Houston interviewing at a few architecture firms in 1996. Since she was in town, she thought she might as well see Space Center Houston and asked a secretary at one of the firms for directions. The tram tour turned her on. "It was like, dude!" she exclaims. "[This is] the most important thing our country is doing right now." She bought a T-shirt. She could not have predicted how important that T-shirt would be.

Soon after the JSC tour, Adams was visiting friends in Boston and still looking for a job. When she put on her NASA T-shirt to sleep in one night, her friend had a bright idea: Adams should work there. Even better than a bright idea, this friend had a friend who worked at NASA. He could put in a good word for her.

"I'm not good at math," Adams protested.

"I bet they have plenty of people who are good at math," her friend countered.

Adams submitted her résumé, not really expecting to hear anything back. She moved to Los Angeles and started designing kitchens and bathrooms for the stars. A year and a half later, NASA put her in touch with Lockheed Martin, one of its contractors. The company needed architects. But for what, Adams wondered. To build hangars for spacecrafts? Lockheed hired her for the Bioplex project, but within months, NASA had recruited her for a "Tiger Team" charged with developing an inflatable space habitat. Two years ago, Adams was unemployed; now she was part of "the sexiest thing in the space program."

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