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.

Home away from home: An artist's rendering of Transhab's three-story interior.
Image courtesy of NASA
Home away from home: An artist's rendering of Transhab's three-story interior.
Constance Adams's motto at the Johnson Space Center: "Originally from Mars, just trying to get home."
Deron Neblett
Constance Adams's motto at the Johnson Space Center: "Originally from Mars, just trying to get home."
Before: A deflated Transhab awaits space-condition testing in NASA's giant vacuum chamber.
Photo courtesy of NASA
Before: A deflated Transhab awaits space-condition testing in NASA's giant vacuum chamber.
Before: A deflated Transhab awaits space-condition testing in NASA's giant vacuum chamber.
Photo courtesy of NASA
Before: A deflated Transhab awaits space-condition testing in NASA's giant vacuum chamber.
Before: A deflated Transhab awaits space-condition testing in NASA's giant vacuum chamber.
Photo courtesy of NASA
Before: A deflated Transhab awaits space-condition testing in NASA's giant vacuum chamber.
After: Twelve hours later, the full-blown, full-scale model is ready for astronauts.
Photo courtesy of NASA
After: Twelve hours later, the full-blown, full-scale model is ready for astronauts.
After: Twelve hours later, the full-blown, full-scale model is ready for astronauts.
Photo courtesy of NASA
After: Twelve hours later, the full-blown, full-scale model is ready for astronauts.
After: Twelve hours later, the full-blown, full-scale model is ready for astronauts.
Photo courtesy of NASA
After: Twelve hours later, the full-blown, full-scale model is ready for astronauts.
After: Twelve hours later, the full-blown, full-scale model is ready for astronauts.
Photo courtesy of NASA
After: Twelve hours later, the full-blown, full-scale model is ready for astronauts.

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."

But the team faced a dilemma: Since the advent of the space shuttle in the early '80s, NASA has been limited in what it can send into space by the size of the shuttle's cargo bay, a mere 15 feet in diameter. Aluminum modules, such as the ones being built for the International Space Station, must be smaller than that to fit inside. Once fully outfitted with research and life-support hardware around the perimeter, these "hard habs" become the extraterrestrial equivalent of shotgun shacks, seven-foot by seven-foot corridors without enough room to accommodate the supplies, let alone the psychological needs, of astronauts on long missions.

An inflatable module like Transhab, on the other hand, could be launched as a cylindrical core of hardware wrapped in what is basically a deflated balloon. Once out of the cargo bay, Transhab would be inflated with attached air tanks; the balloon around the core would expand to three times the packed volume, 12,000 cubic feet, the equivalent of a 1,500-square-foot house on earth. In other words, NASA could put a module the size of Skylab into space with just one launch. Adams likens the idea to the earth-based evolution of exoskeletal to endoskeletal biology: The hard hab is like an oyster, with its skeletal structure on the outside. Transhab is like a human -- a more advanced life form that's mushy on the outside with its skeleton underneath.

The risk of Transhab seems obvious: Wouldn't an inflatable structure pop? Both NASA and the Russian space program have been experimenting with inflatables since the late '50s and early '60s, but until now fabric technology wasn't advanced enough to accommodate the idea. Transhab's outer shell is a foot thick and made up of 20-some layers. The structure itself combines ancient craft with modern technology: a basket-weave of super-strong Kevlar. (A mock-up was actually hand-stitched by 400 local union garment workers.) A food-packing material called Combitherm keeps the air inside, and successive layers of Nextel and simple foam keep the micro-meteoroids out. According to NASA, it's better than bulletproof.

But the shell isn't the only watershed design element on Transhab. This balloon is the closest thing astronauts have ever seen to a home in space. When the module is inflated, the core of the structure folds out -- a little bit like umbrella struts -- to make three floors. To create the illusion of even more room, openings in the floors lend Transhab an atrium effect, and two 20-inch-diameter windows give the astronauts a view of earth far below. The top floor is the exercise and health care area, with a treadmill and resistance equipment to keep the astronauts' muscles from atrophying in microgravity. The bottom floor is the kitchen, including a table that seats 12 -- enough for the entire crew plus its replacements. NASA has discovered that eating dinner together is as important for astronauts as it is for families. The separation of kitchen and exercise room is no coincidence: "Sweat floats," Adams says. "It's really gross." It seems like common sense, but most spacecrafts put the treadmill and the food preparation area right on top of each other.

The middle level holds six individual crew quarters, each with a sleeping bag, personal storage space and a computer entertainment system. This level is also important because it is completely surrounded by water storage tanks that protect the crew from radiation. Radiation is a numbers game: A little exposure is okay, a lot is not. In this design, astronauts would lower their exposure time by at least sleeping in a safe environment. Plus, the area would serve as something like a cellar in the event of a solar storm. The current design for the International Space Station includes nothing of this kind.

In 1998, the Transhab team presented its design to NASA management. "They said, 'Wow! This is such an incredible idea. I want you to consider proposing this as the habitation module on the space station,' " project manager Donna Fender remembers. Transhab was originally conceived for a potential mission to Mars, but now it had a much more immediate purpose. NASA gave the team a year and a little bit of money to prove that it would work. Within that year, Transhab went from a concept on paper to a reality. "Within that one year," Fender says, "we about killed ourselves."

They built a full-scale model, inflating and deflating it in a huge vacuum chamber that simulates the conditions of space. They fired larger and larger aluminum pellets at panels of its layered shell. Eventually the pellets got so large that they broke not the balloon's material but the hypervelocity guns used to shoot them. The team even tested the Kevlar-weave structure to a safety factor of four times the standard-operating pressure inside the shell. If you blow up a balloon with too much air, it pops. But in this test, to everyone's amazement, not a single stitch broke.

"Every time they gave us a hurdle," says Fender, "we leaped the hurdle -- with room." The Transhab team even passed the toughest test of all: astronauts. Dr. Shannon Lucid, who earned the American record for the most consecutive time in space with 188 days aboard the Russian space station Mir, has given the project her endorsement. "Look at it like this," she says. "Think of yourself with your family, and you are living inside a recreational vehicle but you can't open the door. And you're gonna live inside this RV with your family for six months. And then think about the importance of the living space….I was really hoping that the project would continue to be funded."


NASA wanted to hitch Transhab to the space station for a reason, and it wasn't just for the safety and comfort of the astronauts.

The International Space Station has been in the works for 16 years now, draining billions of dollars while producing somewhat lackluster results. The original plan, announced by President Reagan, was to spend $8 billion and get the station in space by 1992. The first two elements didn't go up until 1998, and the third, Zvezda, the problem-plagued Russian service module, had been further stalling the project until its launch just a few weeks ago. Some are speculating that the space station will run up a bill -- including costs since 1984, shuttle launches and future maintenance needs -- in the neighborhood of $96 billion.

Now, with billions of dollars already spent and many ISS modules still waiting to go up, those members of the public and Congress who have managed to maintain interest in this excruciatingly delayed project are wondering what's the point? Low-earth space station orbit has been done. In fact, the International Space Station has taken so long to build, the Russians have passed NASA up in terms of the science to be learned in orbit. Many of the medical experiments originally planned for ISS were completed aboard Mir. What exactly, then, will this very expensive floating laboratory do -- besides prove that NASA can finish what it starts and that Americans and Russians can, sort of, work together?

Transhab is the answer. By attaching the inflatable module, rather than another hard hab, to the space station, NASA can give new purpose to an old project. The agency can start using and testing and adjusting now the technology that will ultimately take man to Mars, which is what the public is excited about anyway. "On station we can work the bugs out for Mars missions lasting 500 to 1,000 days," NASA's Mars Exploration Office head Doug Cooke told Aviation Week.

It was a big idea, a major expansion of the space station's mission, but Congress would have none of it. In May 1999, fed up with station delays and NASA's ever-increasing cost estimates, the House Science Committee, led by Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, produced legislation that prohibited NASA from spending one more taxpayer dollar on Transhab. The language was perfectly clear: "No funds … shall be obligated for the definition, design or development of an inflatable space structure to replace any International Space Station components" nor any "inflatable space structure capable of accommodating humans in space." The same language is in a bill, now in conference committee between the House and the Senate, that would authorize NASA's budget through 2002.

Congress may not have understood exactly what it was killing. Historically, NASA has been charged with constantly innovating to maintain its pre-eminence in space technology. So why limit the agency now from pursuing the Next Big Thing? At least that was Congressman Nick Lampson's argument. "It's a disincentive for scientists to do science when you do things like that….Somehow we've got to find a way to re-create the enthusiasm that John Kennedy brought to this country when he issued a challenge [to put a man on the moon]," says Lampson, whose district happens to include the Johnson Space Center.

Early Transhab projections put its costs at less than the hard habitation module, but they quickly escalated to slightly more. And concrete figures are hard to come by all the way around. Former NASA employee-turned-independent spacewatcher Keith Cowing says the bill's supporters in Congress were just trying to keep the agency in check. "It's almost like you're building one of those big ol' houses in Texas, and you want to add a four-car garage to your house, and you haven't finished paying for the roof and you want to take out a second mortgage to pay for the garage for the new car you can't afford," he explains. "And your banker says, 'No, finish your house first.' "

Instead of saving ISS from its own obsolescence, it seemed that Transhab would be the space station's victim. But NASA wouldn't let it die without a fight, even a dirty one.

NASA staged an end run around the House Science Committee and into the uncharted and controversial territory of space commercialization; the agency lobbied a sympathetic congressperson to tack a legislative rider on an appropriations bill at the last minute. Critics of the rider complained that it would allow NASA to keep any excess funds in their budget and then, as Sensenbrenner put it, "pick and choose which private ventures will receive the retained fees." NASA wanted to keep the $174 million already appropriated to build a hard habitation module and use the money instead to grease a deal with a private company to build Transhab. It was a little like asking Mom for permission when Dad has already said no. Needless to say, this maneuver pissed off members of the Science Committee, and before NASA officials knew what hit them, the $174 million designated for the hard hab was deleted from the budget. But don't worry about the astronauts having no place to sleep. The hard hab is scheduled to be the last module hooked up to the space station in 2005, and sources close to NASA say funds will certainly be reinserted in time for its construction. Washington was just sending a message to NASA: If Transhab is going to be built at all, it will be built with wholly private funds.


But just how would space commercialization work? McDonald's billboards circling high above the earth? Scientific research corporations sponsoring experiments in their best interests? An out-of-this-world hotel for the rich and famous?

Space tourism might seem like the most far-fetched of the possibilities, but it's already in the works. Earlier this year, an antigovernment American billionaire named Walter Anderson formed a corporation with his Sikh sidekick to lease Mir from the Russian government for $200 million a year for the rest of the station's lifetime. MirCorp's Web site announces that "the Mir space station is now commercially available for international users who seek access to one of mankind's most unique industrial, scientific and recreational facilities." The price tag for a week in orbit is a cool $20 million, including round-trip transportation via a Soyuz rocket. First to sign up was a former rocket scientist from Santa Monica, California, named Dennis Tito, who's now in training for his vacation scheduled to take place in early 2001.

Aside from philosophical questions about whether tourism is the best use of space technology, there are practical concerns about whether space is a sound investment. As for Transhab, says Cowing, "you've got to find some commercial thing to do inside of there that's worth [the cost of building and launching the module], plus what it takes to run it, plus what you could have gotten if you just put that money in the bank." He estimates a private company would have to generate $700 million to $800 million with Transhab in a relatively short period of time. "Now, what are people going to pay to do up there?" he asks and then answers: "The only possible customer you could have for that is the U.S. government -- to rent it back." And Cowing says that NASA claims it is legally unable to enter into a lease agreement for a space station module. Daniel Tam, NASA's assistant to the administrator for commercialization, declined the Houston Press's request for an interview.

Last August NASA held a Habitation Module Commercialization Conference at the Johnson Space Center to drum up interest in a privately owned space station module, "Comlab," based on Transhab's design. Insiders say about five companies submitted proposals, including Boeing, the corporation already contracted to build the space station's traditional hard habitation module. These initial proposals were rejected by NASA because all of them assumed significant government backing, something NASA can no longer offer.

But Fender, the ever-optimistic Transhab project manager, says that "a new person, a new entity, came into play, and they proposed something that was very appealing to NASA as far as commercialization." Fender can't talk about the proposal or even the parties involved, but she hopes to see it go public within the next three months. Cowing is not convinced. "As with Transhab, I would suspect that NASA's manager is full of hot air," he says. "Any company now who wants to build a Transhab has to cough up all the money themselves. I can take that same amount of money and invest it in lottery tickets and probably do a lot better."

If the profitability of Transhab scares away potential private investors, that's perfectly okay with Constance Adams, who has understandable concerns about one person or corporation owning the inflatables technology or the information to be gained from research on the space station. "The best parallel," she says, "is the human genome project. Is anybody comfortable with the idea that the private team is going to get there first? … The idea of anybody owning that information should make us all very upset."

In fact, it might be even more crucial to keep Transhab technology in the public domain, because it is that technology that will enable a trip to Mars. "Dude!" she exclaims. "If I were Bill Gates, would I be on my way to Mars? You bet. The problem is that I'd own what I got to. That's not a problem for me if I'm Bill Gates, but it's a problem for the people of the earth. What troubles me is that in a scenario in which private capital gets there first, you can forget -- for the rest of history -- there being anything like equal rights for the non-capital-holders on earth. The potential for abuse there, in the absence of law, in the absence of full public disclosure and full public ownership of that knowledge, [would mean] we're in big trouble as a species."


Constance Adams is in her kitchen making coffee late one night, when it seems to sink in for the first time that her project will most likely not be built -- with public or private funds. When the evidence is laid out before her, she is, uncharacteristically, speechless. The woman who can explain virtually everything can't figure this one out. She pauses, shaking her head and absentmindedly rinsing the few dishes in her sink. Like any architect, she is certainly used to designing buildings that never get beyond drawings on paper. But Transhab is more important than even the most beautiful earthbound building, and the moment of quiet doubt passes quickly. Transhab can't be dead. She's off again, in a flurry of excited words:

"Some of the materials we're using are produced abroad….If America doesn't invest in it now, Germany will build one three years from now. They'll figure out how to do it….So we're either the first people, and then we're globally dominant again in a vital new type of technology, in a vital new field, or we're not, and we've just given it away to somebody else….We can sit here and say, 'Oh, the greatest country on earth!' But unless we do some work behind it, unless we invest in that and put our money where our mouth is, it's not true….Transhab is a very, very, very important part of that kind of decision that this country has got to start making again, which is to invest in itself. Do we have to have a cold war? Do we have to have an enemy in order to invest in ourselves?"

Exasperated, Adams thinks about taking a week of vacation and going to Washington to lobby Congress as a private citizen. Then, under her breath, she hopes NASA doesn't completely back off of space exploration beyond the International Space Station. She doesn't want to look for another job.

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