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Texas Spaceports, Mars Colonies On Drawing Board At Houston

Larry Bell, director of the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture (SISCA) at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture at the University of Houston. Photo by Thomas Shea
Houston - Oct 09, 2002
Construction of commercial spaceports in Texas and plans for the first human settlement on Mars have University of Houston architecture faculty and students focused on the future of the nation's space program.

The critical first step for the successful commercial development of space is to lower the cost of access to space, says Larry Bell, director of the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture, or SICSA, a research and education center in the University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture.

Since the center's establishment in 1987 with a $3 million gift provided by the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation, SICSA faculty and students have been developing comprehensive plans for transporting and maintaining humans in space.

Bell and his SICSA colleagues are key consultants to the Texas Aerospace Commission as the state moves forward with plans for spaceports in three areas of the state.

Commercial spaceports would offer a less expensive and less time-consuming alternative to satellite developers and other potential users from industry who want options for access to space other than launching from government-run facilities, Bell says.

"There's a large emerging market for smaller satellites, and satellite developers, including the military, who want very inexpensive launches," Bell says. "They don't want to have to wait for a year or more to launch out of a large government facility. There is some competition among several states to create spaceports and attract launch providers."

Bell has been working with a spaceport development corporation in West Texas to plan the first demonstration launches from a site in Pecos County, which took place Oct. 5. The site is currently undeveloped. Balloon payloads carried small balls filled with experiments by school children, and a sub-orbital rocket also was launched. The U.S. Air Force paid for the launches.

SICSA has a contract with the Pecos County/West Texas Spaceport Development Corp. to aid in the development of the West Texas site. SICSA's role is to prepare plans for facility requirements, including facilities for vehicle preparation and payload processing, flight control and monitoring, emergency services and security.

In addition, SICSA is looking at future ancillary facilities such as restaurants, hotels and other aspects that may attract businesses to the future spaceport. Educational facilities for high-school and college students that provide curriculum support and hands-on experiences also are part of the plan.

In addition to his work on the spaceport in West Texas, Bell will be discussing issues surrounding planetary exploration and settlement, such as the first Mars outpost and the technologies needed to get there, during the World Space Congress 2002 Oct. 10-19 in Houston.

Bell describes the role of a space architect as more than just an interior designer for NASA.

"Architecture, whether applied on earth or to dynamic space missions, must take into account all of the elements and consider all the issues involved in a particular project," Bell says. "Just as designing a building must take into account the ventilation systems, code requirements, materials and construction, financing, and the interior layout, an extended mission in space has multiple elements."

While an engineer may address only certain aspects of a mission, the space architect takes a very holistic view, planning for propulsion systems, design of transport and habitat modules, risk assessment, social aspects of long- duration flights and health concerns, among others.

"All these elements are totally interdependent and changes in one affect plans for another. This is the realm of the space architect," Bell says.

To help the next generation of space explorers address these issues, Bell has proposed an M.S. program in space architecture through the UH College of Architecture, which would be the first of its kind in the world, he says. The proposal is still in the approval stages and Bell says it has been favorably received by the college and the Texas Aerospace Commission.

Currently, undergraduates in UH's five-year architecture program can take space architecture courses beginning in their fourth year of the bachelor's program. Bell says a graduate program in space architecture would attract scientists and engineers in the aerospace sector who want to expand their vision to look at the total mission- planning picture.

"This place is really marvelous and unique," he says. "Many of our graduates already work in aerospace fields continuing projects they started here. When you're talking about going to the moon or Mars or beyond, you're really talking about taking risks, stretching your horizons.

"The dynamic problem solving aspect of our program is what makes it truly fun, and I believe the people who come through our program are going to make a difference in our future. It's like a whole bunch of people jumping into the deep end of the pool together and we all have to learn how to swim. It's a wonderful learning experience."

In SICSA's plans for the first Mars outpost, for example, Bell says they've come up with a good overall view of the key issues and elements and the interrelationships among those elements. Among the considerations for a

Mars mission that groups of SICSA students are working on:

  • How do you make a settlement self-sufficient so that minimal supplies must be transported from Earth? Plans may include extracting oxygen from the carbon dioxide on Mars, which could be used both for life support and in propellants to lift off from Mars. How much mass you initially take on a mission also has implications for the type of propulsion system you'll need, as well as for the size and design of transport and habitat modules.
  • How might the moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, fit into the exploration equation? Resources on the moons might be utilized to provide an interplanetary "gas station."
  • If people are to go beyond Mars on longer-duration missions, artificial gravity becomes a more important consideration for the health of astronauts. Bell and his colleagues are exploring an artificial gravity project that works by using a system of tethers.

Another consideration for a Mars mission is radiation. The sun and galactic radiation sources are particularly dangerous to humans beyond the protection of earth's atmosphere.

"Radiation is a potential show-stopper for long missions, including Mars," Bell says.

"We need to find out a lot more about radiation effects. This issue has implications for the type of astronauts we send -- women have different vulnerabilities to radiation than men do, for example -- as well as for the amount of risk we're willing to accept.

"What kind of medical equipment and personnel should we take along on a mission? How willing are we to risk lives to expand science?"

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