Space travel and exploration have fascinated generations of scientists and engineers, but architects are becoming mesmerized as well. In 2018, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the European Space Agency (ESA), the MIT Media Lab, and the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics formed a collaborative research agreement—sparked by shared mutual interests—to develop a vision for a permanent human settlement on the moon’s surface.
Beyond the obvious technical challenges is the human-centered design needed to make extraterrestrial living functional and tenable, notes Colin Koop, AIA, a design partner in SOM’s New York office. For example, astronauts on hypothetical 500-day missions would need areas for fitness and recreation, and windows to enjoy views from the proposed 2-kilometer-square site on the rim of Shackleton crater at the moon’s South Pole, where near-continuous sunlight would be harvested to generate electricity and grow food.
Still in development, SOM’s proposed system of habitation modules can cram into the largest rockets currently made by SpaceX and Blue Origin. After landing, the modules will employ inflatable-shell technology to double in volume to 25,000 cubic feet (approximately equivalent to a 30-foot cube). Multistory and amenable to many uses and configurations, the modules will be held upright by structural mesh and armored to withstand potential micrometeorite impacts. The envelope will also be packed with thermal insulation, radiation-blocking materials, and a liner to contain pressurized air.
SOM envisions the modules connecting in three-cell clusters that can expand and link diagonally to form a hexagonal network on the site, dubbed Moon Village. “In case of any obstruction, the astronauts could still move from structure to structure without exposing themselves to solar radiation by stepping outside the enclosure,” says SOM senior architectural designer Daniel Inocente, Assoc. AIA.
Now SOM is studying how to connect rigid components, such as airlocks and 3D-printed radiation shelters, to the inflatable shells. If prototyping and testing proceed as anticipated, Koop says, a fully functioning module could be launched in as soon as five years.
The meticulous planning and rapid progress of Moon Village impressed the R+D jury. “This was well thought out and it captured my imagination,” said juror James Garrett Jr., AIA. “It feels not far-fetched with the research that’s gone into it.”
"At ESA, we are extremely satisfied to see this joint study with SOM and MIT to be recognized at such a high level," says ESA director general Johann-Dietrich "Jan" Wörner. "This award shows that creativity and skills from different businesses—public and private, from space and non-space entities—can successfully work together to further our understanding on how to permanently live and work on the Moon. This is the spirit of the Moon Village vision, an open concept open to multiple users for multiple utilization. The moon is now the focus of many nations' space plans as well as of private initiatives. Somehow a Moon Village is about to see the light and I would like to congratulate all those who worked on this award-winning joint study between ESA, SOM, and MIT."
Project: Moon Village
Location: South Pole–Aitken Basin, Shackleton Crater
Client: European Space Agency
Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, New York . Colin Koop, AIA (design partner); T.J. Gottesdiener, FAIA (managing partner); Neil Katz, AIA (architectural associate director); Daniel Inocente, Assoc. AIA, (senior architectural designer); Georgi Petrov, AIA (structural engineering associate director); Kelsey Lange, Assoc. AIA (structural engineering); Laura Gonzalez, Assoc. AIA, Max Haney (architectural designers); Timothy Tai (junior architectural designer)
Structural Engineer: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Academia Partner: Massachusetts Institute of Technology . Jeffrey A. Hoffman (professor of the practice of aerospace engineering, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics); Valentina Sumini (postdoctoral associate, Media Lab, Responsive Environments group)
Special Thanks: European Space Agency . Jan Wörner (director general); Claudie Haigneré (special adviser to the director general); Piero Messina (relations with Member States Office, strategy department); Advenit Makaya (advanced manufacturing engineer); David Binns (systems engineer); Marlies Arnhof, Ina Cheibas (young graduate trainees); Aidan Cowley (science adviser); Hanna Läkk (researcher); Brigitte Lamaze (environmental control and life support engineer); Markus Landgraf (architecture analyst)