Amidst a jagged landscape of red lava rock on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa sits a dome, a forlorn white dot with a photovoltaic array as its only neighbor for miles. The volcano is about as close as one can get to approximating the alien environment of Mars here on Earth. It is also the home base for HI-SEAS (Hawai'i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation), a NASA-funded research program that has been run by the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa (UH) for four years and counting.
Recently, the program wrapped up its fourth mission, its longest to date and the first time a trained architect was counted among the six-member crew, which also comprised scientists and engineers. From Aug. 28, 2015, to Aug. 28, 2016, the crew lived in a two-story, 1,302-square-foot dome, leaving only to conduct experiments in the field. They ate freeze-dried food and showered just once a week. All communication with “Earth” was delayed by 20 minutes.
With NASA eyeing the 2030s for its first manned mission to Mars, and private space exploration becoming a real possibility, projects like HI-SEAS have taken on new significance. Although crewmembers conduct their own investigations throughout the year, the real goal of HI-SEAS is to study group dynamics. A mission to Mars will mean more than two years in space (a one-way trip takes eight months under the best circumstances), and the experience can have profound psychological effects on a person. “You can design the greatest ship, but if your crew doesn’t work well, you’re going to have a failure,” says Tristan Bassingthwaighte, the lone trained architect of the HI-SEAS crew.
Despite the hardships, the experience was a dream come true for the 32-year-old. As a child growing up in Missoula, Mont., Bassingthwaighte presciently told his parents that he was going to live on Mars. He also built model rockets, attended space camp in Florida, and began mimicking Spock’s raised eyebrow from Star Trek—something he perfected so well that he can’t not do it during normal conversation.
But none of these reasons is why he was picked for the mission.
Instead, Bassingthwaighte, who sports a dark goatee and is astronaut-sized at 5 feet 6 inches, was selected in large part for his personality. A doctoral candidate at UH-Mānoa’s School of Architecture researching the effects of the experienced environment in extreme settings, Bassingthwaighte is lighthearted in demeanor and prone to antics. Photographs on his blog “Artchitecture from Mars” documenting the year show him in a hazmat suit playing the ukulele, and inside a cardboard replica of the TARDIS, Dr. Who’s time machine. Between his upbeat optimism and his unbounded—and unapologetic—nerdiness, he is a cross between Mark Watney from The Martian (2015) and Ben Wyatt from Parks & Recreation.
Two weeks after he emerged from the HI-SEAS dome, Bassingthwaighte and I met in a hotel lobby in Honolulu. (He requested that we meet indoors since he was “still a pale vampire” and might “burst into flames” if exposed to sunlight for too long.) Architecture, he says, is fundamental to the future of space travel. “Imagine a world in which there are no architects, and we all live in squares, and the world becomes Minecraft,” he says. It would be the end of civilization.
For more than an hour, we discussed his HI-SEAS experience, the implications of virtual reality, and life in some of the extreme environments on this planet.
ARCHITECT: You seem like someone who’s good in a group but who also is perfectly happy alone. How did that play out in a confined space like the dome?
Bassingthwaighte: The dome was made in a very engineering-focused way; the human factor was virtually ignored. The interior programming precludes any sort of private area. Almost the entire [interior] can be seen from everywhere else. You’re almost living in the dreaded Panopticon. There’s also no soundproofing so I never felt removed enough from everyone that I could let down my last social barriers and just rest, recuperate, decompress.
How would you redesign the dome?
Super generalized things would be to flip the programming of the dome’s second floor. Instead of having the staircase go straight up the center of the habitat and [the individual bedrooms] at the top in a semicircle, I’d have made that whole top half a solid wall, have the stairs gently curve up and around in the back, going over the teleporter door, so that the staircase is semi-private, the hallway is completely private, and your rooms, experientially, are as far away from everything else.
All of the wood in the dome was plywood, painted white. If I’m going to look at something for a year, I don’t want any of that modern, minimalist bullcrap. I want Frodo’s house: It’s warm, it has a human touch to it. And instead of shitty carpet that looks like something the ’70s barfed up, you could have a hardwood floor or even smooth concrete, which can be nice, especially with solar water heating, which we had for our showers. It would have been easy to put in a second [thermal loop] and route it through the floors to keep everything warm during the night.
Technologically, what could have been designed better?
It would be interesting to push what we were doing with virtual reality (VR). [During the mission, I couldn’t] hang out with my brother. But if he had a simple, low-cost 3D camera on a tripod and goes to a Taimane concert, he could talk to the camera a little bit about his life, enjoy the concert, whatever. You send that video to me, I’ve got the VR goggles, and suddenly I’m hanging out with my brother, he’s talking to me, and I can make eye contact with him. It’s not the same, but it would be a great way to have a different world for an hour or two, the same way we might pick up a book to escape reality.
The main goal of HI-SEAS is to study the social cohesion of a group, but crew members also have their own research projects. What questions were you exploring?
One of my thesis committee members is Sandra Häuplik-Meusburger, a prominent space architect out of Vienna. She wrote Architecture for Astronauts (Springer, 2011). She and I did experiential surveys because [people’s experiences] are surprisingly different. One month might have been on the work environment, the next one might have been the social environment.
One recent trend in space architecture is the idea of democratic design. You and I live in this world, but we can leave it and go anywhere else. But if it was our entire environment—perhaps forever—we would want some say in it. If I were designing for SpaceX (the aerospace manufacturing company founded by Elon Musk), I would try to find out who was going, get to know them, find out what their favorite materials are, how much privacy they need, and how they re-energize, and then try to incorporate who they are into the semi-private areas, such as their bedrooms, which all could be designed differently with panelized systems.
Besides crew architect, what other roles did you play?
Crew comedian, moral support guy for the crew members who were my closer friends. I did all the EVA [extra-vehicular activity] paperwork and logs. I became the second-best cook in the hab (second to crew commander Carmel Johnston). I was the obligatory salsa dance partner with the commander because you only have three men and three women, and everybody needs a partner.
Because space is arguably the harshest, most extreme environment we can imagine, the focus historically has been on the how—for example, how do we make this work without blowing up? But you imagine there will be aspects to space architecture in the future that will be more like designing a person’s house.
When [the astronauts] went up in the Apollo, it was a little capsule: tiny, cramped, and smelled like shit. But [they] only had to be in there for a week or two. If you’re going to spend a couple of years going to and coming back from Mars—or [multiple] generations going to Proxima Centauri [4.22 light-years away]—that’s your entire world, and you have to design it appropriately.
How will developments in architecture, such as the use of 3D printing, transform how we imagine space architecture?
3D printing could become a fundamental technology for making other worlds livable. You could take 600-micron-wide, very powdery moon dust or Mars regolith and use a laser to sinter it into 3D-printed forms or bricks. Another interesting thing is the Mars Ice House, which was a recent winner of the NASA 3D-Printed [Habitat Challenge]. Same basic idea, except there’s a robot that is digging up and processing ice water that’s been found under the surface of Mars. You 3D print [the ice] around a skylight with a thin layer of something to keep it from sublimating in the low pressure, and you’ve got this semi-transparent dome over a huge area that can be pressurized.
Do the Mars simulations have applications here on Earth?
At the most basic level are those extreme places where people are already living—the McMurdo Antarctic Station or stations in the Arctic. One that is even more prevalent is the experience of people doing intercontinental shipping, or the roughly 50,000 to 60,000 people who are living on oil-drilling platforms.
Are you still in touch with your fellow crew members?
I'm still in touch with Christiane [Heinicke], Carmel, and Cyprien [Verseux], due to the fact they're all awesome and Christiane is helping me with girl advice.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.