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ith the announcement of NASA’s Artemis program in 2017 and the European Space Agency’s vision for a multi-state ‘moon village’ on the rim of the Shackleton Crater, the likelihood of the first lunar civilisation edges ever closer (GCR, 2020; Shekhtman, 2019; ESA, 2018; Tate, 2013). It heralds the moment whereby humans will no longer be confined to living on Earth and can seek the opportunity to inhabit extra-terrestrial land masses beyond previous capabilities. Of course, both these (largely western) initiatives seem to reflect the current paradigm for state-sanctioned space programs, which centre around public/ private partnerships (Dunnett et al 2017; Johnson, 2016). This positions any extra-terrestrial settlement as a product of this new arrangement, particularly so after waves of U.S. legislation have made it easier for private companies to exploit and extract off-world resources, as it pursues yet further deregulation of outer space in the service of its own profit margins (Shammas & Holen, 2019; Dunnett et al 2017). Already there is competition between corporations clamouring to become the first ‘colonisers of space’ which has put yet further strain on the original 1967 ‘Outer Space Treaty’ and has partly undermined the efforts of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) who have attempted to position outer space as a ‘global commons’, free from existing political borders or sovereign claims to territory and resources (Peters, 2017). Instead, a smaller number of private corporations and billionaires are increasingly able to dictate the direction of Humanity’s ability to travel, live and inhabit spaces beyond Earth (Spector et al 2017).
It is amidst this political and economic context that I turn to consider what humanity’s future off-world might look like. Of course, this is a question that has been asked time and time again, as visions of life in outer space frequently make their way into popular consciousness; whether it be through the imaginative speculations of 20th century science fiction writers (Asimov, 2020 ; Dunnett, 2012; Clarke, 1956); the atmospheric installation work of contemporary artists (Rubio, 2018; Saraceno, 2013, Mattingley, 2009); the comprehensive design of notable architects (Fuller, 1969; Carlson, 2020); or through the more recent theoretical and scientific considerations of what future space settlements could entail (Häuplik-Meusburger & Bannova, 2016; Benaroya, 2010). In this this respect I wish to take a closer look at one of the more dominant and prolific architectural imaginaries that surrounds many of these future interpretations of a society in space, notably that of the dome. Specifically, I wish to use the dome as a lens through which to explore our possible relationship with extra-terrestrial living and how the social and political problems of Earth may find themselves transposed in its architecture.
Society and the Dome
In recent history the dome has long featured as an image of the future and of humanity’s ability to overcome ecological threats. As an architectural structure it has prominent legacy in many North American ‘mega projects’ such as the Biosphere constructed at the American pavilion for Expo ‘67 in Montreal. The geodesic structure became one of the many centrepieces of the exhibition wherein a 250ft dome, designed by R. Buckminster Fuller, was used to house four themed displays of American culture, ranging from art to photography and film (Chu, 2018). Other designs which utilise similar dome architecture include the Epcot centre, the gold dome in Oklahoma City, and even the Millennium Dome (now O2 Arena) in London. Each have attempted to cultivate a particular aesthetic of the city as ‘the future’ through their uses of ‘the dome’ and its associations with science-led design. These futuristic projections/visions of the dome are also prevalent within modern media with countless representations from Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome (2009) and TV adaption of the same name (2013), alongside depictions of the dome in films like The Simpsons Movie (2007); Silent Running (1972); Logans Run (1976); and on the planet Krypton in the 1978 Superman film. Again, these different iterations of the dome capture a (largely 20th century) fascination with geodesic structures, and how they became synonymous with visualising and interpreting ‘utopian’ futures.
Yet this preoccupation with the dome in popular discourse is perhaps for good reason. As a structure it offers the greatest volume for the least surface area, and an uninterrupted space free of columns (Chu, 2018). It is inherently strong, evenly distributing structural stress through tension whilst retaining an intimate sense of security (Squire, Adey & Jensen 2018). This has made the dome particularly successful in its application for providing protection for those in extreme environments. Its application in research projects such as ‘Biosphere II’ in the late 80’s saw the geodesic dome as a means through which the Earth’s environmental conditions could be replicated and examined, ultimately to see if closed ecological systems could support life in outer space (Cohen & Tilman 1996). Also, the use of the dome in the earth’s polar regions (landscapes seen as the closest terrestrial analogue to space; Nieboer & McCormack, 2017), has seen them employed during the cold war as a means to house radar equipment in the North American Arctic Circle as part of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) system, a primary line of defence against long-range missile strikes from the former USSR. In addition, the former geodesic dome at the South Pole, also known as the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station, was Antarctica’s first architectural icon, providing shelter to numerous scientists and researchers between 1975 and 2009 (Nieboer & McCormack, 2017).
Domes of the Future
Therefore, in terms of a viable architectural form suited to housing an extra-terrestrial human civilisation the dome has very real potential. Whether geodesic, tensile or inflatable, it remains a structure that space agencies are still considering in their evaluation of future space habitat design. NASA favoured geodesic domes in its early speculative plans for surface-based habitats on the Moon and Mars (Grey, 1977; Figure 2.). Whilst the European Space Agency’s recent conceptual designs for their ‘Moon Village’ introduces the idea of an inflated dome covered by lunar regolith to protect and insulate future inhabitants from the vacuum of space and its cosmic radiation (Figure 3.). Other concepts have also explored the use of inflated domes made of Kevlar as a staging ground for future construction activities (Langlais & Saulnier, 2000). Whereas another simulation suggests the use of modular dome system where each dome houses a specific function (Gaviraghi, 2008). Similar ideas are also exhibited in Elon Musk’s conceptual images of ‘Mars Base Alpha’ which displays a series of domes linked by a network of corridors amidst a sprawl of solar panels and landing sites. The viability of the dome is therefore readily apparent, and it is more than likely that the dome in some form will enter into humanity’s future in space.
Whilst in the first instance the ability to build settlements in outer space is likely to be guided by physics and biology, given the physical restrictions of space, yet as settlements become established, they will also be dependent on the political and economic realities of Earth (Anderson 2019). In this respect we can perhaps speculate how the ‘dome’ already fits within existing terrestrial economic logics and how these may transpose themselves onto a life beyond earth. For instance, the combination of the dome’s practical design alongside its associations with visions of ‘the future’ arguably places the dome in a unique position, in that it provides both a functional architectural solution and a dynamic piece of place branding. This is particularly relevant as we enter a future of space travel likely to be defined by corporate interests. Therefore, the use of domes could become more than just an efficient form of habitation, rather it could instead become emblematic of those looking to rebrand themselves as serious contenders in the neoliberal space race. Afterall what’s the point in a ‘Moon base’ if it doesn’t look like what the public and investors have come to expect? This is particularly poignant when we consider that any future lunar civilisation is likely to be funded through forms of space tourism or ‘habitat rent’ (Spector et al, 2017; Webber, 2013).
Already the terrestrial market for dome holiday spaces or ‘dome attractions’ has received some degree of success. For instance, listings on Airbnb see pop up ‘geodomes’ as fashionable travel destinations where people can ‘get back to nature’ (Figure 4.). Whilst new-build ecologically friendly dome homes and dome villages are planned by an organisation called ‘Geoship’, which markets ‘bioceramic’ domes as a means to be more energy efficient and improve individual wellbeing (Figure 5.) As it stands space tourism is predicted to expand significantly, according to some estimates the space sector is already worth $330 billion dollars, and many predict that future space entrepreneurs will become the world’s first trillionaires (Shammas & Holen, 2019; Spector et al, 2017; Hempsell, 2010). In the same capacity the Eden Project in Cornwall in the UK, which attracts over a million visitors ever year, presents a possible example of a future lunar tourist destination. The regulatory capacity of each of its ‘biomes’ able to provide experiences of different ecological environments to its visitors. Therefore, a future space faring civilisation might have to face up to housing shortages and inequality as it sees its residents live in rented or bought dome homes, whilst holidaying in exotic tourist biomes reminiscent of a time on Earth.
Domes of Control
Any kind of off-world settlement brings with it a whole host of political considerations. And yet whilst many see a collaborative human effort to settle space as potentially liberating and economically lucrative (Billings, 2006; Collins & Autino, 2010; White, 1998), not everyone is keen to view the colonisation of other celestial bodies as a benign process of profitable expansion (Spector et al 2017; Cockell, 2016). Organisations such as the ‘Institute for Security and Cooperation in Outer Space’ and the ‘Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space’ are sceptical of human settlement beyond the biosphere, seeing it as yet another opportunity for government backed entities to increase the militarisation, surveillance, and degradation of the solar system’s habitable zones, whilst propagating the same economic systems that have contributed to unsustainability and inequality on Earth (Shammas & Holen, 2019; Spector et al 2017; Cockell, 2016; Dickens & Ormrod, 2007).
The more recent commodification of the dome perhaps illustrates some of these concerns as whilst the dome itself may offer a form of freedom and protection from the elements; it is also bound up with notions of ‘control’. Therefore, to entirely exist within a sealed and closed dome that would be required for a life in space, would be to enter into an artificial biological system that becomes political when there is an ideal operational human being defined by a broader logic; life becomes operational, controlled, and commodified (Nieboer & McCormack, 2017). For instance, the internal conditions of any future space habitat will need to be strictly regulated - how much oxygen does each person need, how much food can each dome support, each person must contribute to the dome’s survival. There is a danger that the dome could fit neatly into capitalistic notions of control, bureaucracy and regulation as ‘foreign bodies’ would be evicted if they do not fit the dome’s regime of compliance. At the same time it would be easy for authoritarian regimes to use the excuse that the extremity of the space environment requires people to forgo any form of dissent in the name of survival, potentially legitimising questionable forms of governance and work practices (Cockell, 2016). In this sense the architecture of the dome coupled with authoritarian rule may stifle people’s right to protest or freely take control over their own lives. This is particularly troubling given that current space travel is increasingly privatised and commodified– as one future could see future moon residents working in slave style contracts in the name of maintaining habitable conditions with no real routes to democratically protest (Cockell, 2016). In this respect the dome could amplify the prejudices of society, a political reflection of the world in which it is imbedded, based on who or what is granted access.
Territorial Politics of the Dome
In contrast to the concerns that centre around the dome’s ability to amplify authoritarian forms of governance and control, are those that see the collective freedoms of future off-world settlements as too great, hampering opportunities for future financial investment in space and the potential cause of future space-based conflict (White, 2002; Salter & Leeson, 2014). Specifically, that the lack of any legal ownership or authority over territory in outer space (as determined by the Outer Space Treaty, 1967) is seen as a deterrent to those who would seek to invest in building beyond Earth, as private parties would be unable to protect their investments (Shammas & Holen, 2019; White, 2002; Salter & Leeson 2014). In this respect there is growing body of voices that look to challenge the ‘collective ownership’ of space and instead develop similar rights to occupy and control resources as found on Earth (Riederer 2014). For instance, in 2013 space technology company ‘Bigelow Aerospace’, a company that designs and works with both NASA and SpaceX to develop expandable habitats which it intends to use to build a base on the moon, filed a request with the US Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation asking that the agency grant a ‘zone of non-interference’ around their future lunar operations (Riederer, 2014). This would therefore prevent anyone else from hampering its operations or placing a claim on its future settlement locations. This request arguably sets a precedent for how the legality of building and inhabiting spaces beyond earth might be negotiated – as inflated and expanding domes used by companies like Bigelow Aerospace could become the new territorial borders of a space faring society. This approach also seems to have support from the US government, who in 2015 passed the ‘US Commercial Space Launch Competitive Act’, which aims to encourage and propel private-sector investments and entrepreneurship in space by allowing companies to claim and secure their own strategic resources. The executive director of the National Space Council, Scott Pace, even going on the record to state that ‘outer space is not…the common heritage of mankind’ (Shammas & Holen, 2019). This therefore reinforces financialised visions of any future off-world society, as nations are able to facilitate the bypassing of the original Outer Space Treaty (1967) in order to allow corporations to occupy and exploit its resources.
At the same time, it is not just the US which seeks to expand its territorial interests in outer space as other nations look towards opportunities for inhabiting other celestial bodies (Johnson-Freese, 2017). As it stands, China aims to establish a manned space station by 2020–22 and a space-based solar power station by 2050, alongside its own ambitions to build a mining station on the far side of the Moon (Goswami, 2018). It looks to compete with countries like Japan and the US in its efforts not to be left behind in the race for strategic off-world settlement locations, with the possibility of it declaring its own ‘zone of non-interference’ once an off-world colony has been established (Goswami, 2018). Many are seeing this as the beginning of a new space race, in large part dictated by corporations but backed by national governments (Johnson-Freese, 2017). This certainly represents a point of future geopolitical tension, as traditional border politics are mapped onto the realities of colonising space (Riederer, 2014; Johnson-Freese, 2017). Nations are therefore increasingly arming themselves for future interplanetary conflict; China continues to test missiles at geosynchronous orbit (Johnson-Freese, 2017); whilst Russia, and India continue to develop targeting systems that would be capable of targeting existing space installations. Although any kind of military architecture in space is currently prohibited it could well signal a return of the dome to its previous cold war use as a defensive structure for future off-world structures, as it again becomes emblematic of national technological prowess and control (Nieboer & McCormack, 2017).
These discussions therefore signal how tensions on Earth could manifest themselves on the territorial and legal politics of space, and whilst conflict is one possible future, the dome could also present another. As previous dome-based settlements on Earth have used its strong, and easy-to-build structure as the basis for communal and collective living. For instance, counter cultural communities such as ‘Drop City’ in Colorado, utilised the dome and other architectural and art forms in an attempt to forge a holistic consciousness, whereby people worked together without the need of a formal hierarchy (Sadler, 2006). Whilst a more recent community project by Technion, in Tel-Aviv worked with the local homeless population, teaching them how to build their own geodesic dome homes, giving them more agency over their environment and a means through which to live more permanently as a community (Allweil, 2018). A collective approach to living in outer space is also echoed by Michael Simpson, executive director of the Secure World Foundation, an organization dedicated to the sustainable use of space resources, as he stresses the importance of any future settlement in space remaining communal, referring back to historical examples of the ‘Boston Common’ (Riederer, 2014). In this respect domes could exist as an architecture of the intergalactic commons, as it could help to foster a shared awareness and connection between inhabitants as each works towards maintaining the delicate balance of conditions required to sustain live in space. These perspectives therefore temper the visions of a commodified, or militarised dome society, regulated by Earth-based property laws, instead presenting how the dome could provide a platform to envisage a more democratic space where individuals are encouraged to live and work together towards the good of society rather than for their own specific interests.
Therefore, when we return to the question – what might a viable space architecture look like? The dome offers a realistic vision of what humanity’s future in space could entail. Whilst our current trajectory places us towards a future regulated by capital, the dome as an architectural form still enables the opportunity for resistance and more communal forms of living. The issue then rests with society, as the supposed freedom that extra-terrestrial living will bring, and the flexibility of the dome as a space architecture, will only be undone by those that seek to control and profit from humanity’s future in space.
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List of Figures
Figure 1. Nellenburg, E. (2004) Montreal Biosphere, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Retrieved here.
Figure 2. Puttkamer, J. (1977) Lunar Base Expansion, from ‘Developing Space Occupancy: Perspectives on NASA Future Space Program Planning’ in Space Manufacturing Facilities (Space Colonies).
Figure 3. StatelessPerson (2016) ESA 3D printed lunar base design, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Retrieved here.
Figure 4. Brookes, E. (2020) Screenshot of Geodome listing on Airbnb website. Retrieved here.
Figure 5. Brookes, E. (2020) Screenshot of Geoship website. Retrieved here.
Ed Brookes is a doctoral researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London, with research interests in Architecture, Brutalism, Urban Politics, Contemporary Archaeology and Creative Geographies.