On March 18, a Russian Soyuz rocket blasted off from Kazakhstan, carrying three new crew members to the International Space Station. Four days later, the private space-transport company Orbital ATK launched a cargo ship from Florida to the ISS, delivering almost four tons of crew supplies, spacewalk equipment, vehicle hardware, and science experiments. The crew will embark on studies of oxygen consumption during spacecraft fires, of meteors that enter Earth’s atmosphere, and of the properties and stability of regolith, the “soil” layer on asteroids and other airless worlds. They will be able to manufacture tools and parts with a new 3D-printing device, and they will conduct tests of Gecko Gripper, a new material inspired by the tiny hairs that allow small lizards to climb and rest on walls.

On March 1, astronaut Scott Kelly came home after an American-record 340 days at the International Space Station. That was in the news, but there’s so much amazing research going on in space all the time that most of us never hear about. The scientific experiments are just one part of what David Nixon covers in the eminently readable and fabulously illustrated International Space Station: Architecture Beyond Earth, just out from Circa Press in London.

Nixon’s career includes stints during the 1970s working for several architecture firms, among them Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP in Chicago and Norman Foster and Richard Rogers in London. Then, in 1979, he and architect Jan Kaplicky founded the Future Systems studio. In the 1980s, Nixon directed a Southern California Institute of Architecture graduate-student project for NASA focusing on the design of astronaut accommodations for the developing space station. He established his office, Altus Associates, in 1992, and over the years he worked on an assortment of space and transportation projects for NASA, the European Space Agency, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, British Aerospace, and other clients.

He offers great detail on the space station’s conception, development, and assembly in space. Construction began in 1998, 14 years after President Ronald Reagan approved NASA’s plans for a space station. In 2000, the first crew began living and working on the station, which orbits a little over 200 miles above Earth at a speed of about five miles per second. For years now, a changing crew of six men and women have occupied the station, working on cutting-edge science experiments and living in a cluster of “bus-sized modules,” the whole having an interior volume greater than that of a Boeing 747.

The basic components of the gangly station are a 167-foot-long complex of cylindrical laboratory, habitation, and service modules, along with eight broad pairs of solar arrays attached to a spine, more than 350 feet long, of cagelike trusses. Astronaut Nicole Stott, who was an ISS crew member for most of 2009 on what Nixon calls “the engineering and construction masterpiece of modern times,” introduces the book with a personal memoir titled “A Home in Space.” Among other topics, she discusses comfort issues and the usefulness of Velcro and bungee cords. “If you don’t consciously manage your belongings,” she writes, “they are likely to float away and not be seen again for a long time, if ever.” In the introduction, Stott also thanks the station’s designers for adding visual cues by which the astronauts can orient themselves in the weightless environment of space “because our brains and bodies don’t give us any physical cues of up or down.”

Regarding the safety of crew members, the space station has no energized deflector shields like on Star Trek, but it does have 23 tons of debris-shield panels on its exterior. These are effective at blocking or moderating damage by micrometeoroids up to 10mm in diameter. Anything over 100mm can be detected by Earth-based radar and, alerted, the station can maneuver out of its path. It’s the space bits and pieces of old spacecraft between 10mm and 100mm that continue to pose a danger.

Nixon said the astronauts typically don’t complain about some of the station’s less commendable design issues in order to keep up morale in their cadre, but he isn’t so reticent. “Speaking as an architect, I think the interior design of the modules is a disaster,” he told Pasatiempo. “They’ve filled these pressurized modules with as many racks full of equipment as possible, leaving just a narrow corridor down the middle. I think the lesson is that the interiors of the habitable part of these modules need to be much pleasanter places to live, particularly on long missions. There was going to be a habitation module that would provide the crews with a proper galley and gym, and that was canceled by the George W. Bush administration. Consequently, this facility that has cost more than $100 billion dollars to the U.S. taxpayers has no proper living faciliites. It’s the most extraordinary omission.” 

The ISS is still a leap from Russia’s Mir space station (in orbit from 1986 to 2001) and a huge leap from the United States’ Skylab (1973-1979), which Nixon said was more of a space outpost than a station. “Mir was the first space station, because it was occupied for years by different crews and it gave way to the International Space Station, which I would call the first great piece of extraterrestrial architecture.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the American modules of the ISS are “somewhat sterile, with a lot of white panels and exposed cables and equipment,” Stott writes, “while the Russian modules are what I would describe as ‘cosy,’ with a plush tan fabric covering the major surfaces.” Perhaps its best feature for the crew is the seven-window Cupola. “In the days of Skylab,” Nixon said, “there were no windows because the engineers claimed they would be too heavy and risk-prone, and astronauts don’t need to look out of windows, anyway, because they’re too busy with their work. But how can you possibly expect people to go into space for months without having something to look at outside? Today the astronauts love the Cupola during their time off, just to sit there and look at the Earth or to play guitar or read a book or just meditate.”

One of the many amazing procedures the astronauts orchestrate is docking other vessels from Earth. The process is facilitated by articulating robotic arms, the most remarkable being the 58-foot Canadarm2. “All visiting spacecraft stop short of the station and the robotic arm grapples them and brings them in very slowly to berth with the port,” Nixon said. “The Canadarm is absolutely indispensable for berthing spacecraft and is the major construction tool; it’s a space crane. It’s the most amazing piece of equipment. I’d love to have a go at operating that thing.”

The main ISS components were transported into space by NASA’s Space Shuttles. Nothing could be taken up that didn’t fit in the shuttles’ payload bays, which were about 60 feet long and 15 feet in diameter. The Space Shuttle program was discontinued nearlyfive years ago. “Now International Space Station supplies, as far as the U.S. is concerned, have been taken over by two private companies, Space X and Orbital ATK. Space X and Boeing are both developing capsules to transport crew to take the load off the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Theoretically that leaves NASA free for other things, like Mars,” Nixon said. SpaceX’s Falcon 9R rocket, based at Spaceport America outside Truth or Consequences, is related to the company’s history-making Falcon 9 rocket. In 2012, it delivered the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft into orbit for rendezvous with the International Space Station, the first such mission by a private company. It’s the Dragon that SpaceX is evolving to transport crew members.

The ISS is helping to develop transportation protocols for both crew and commercial cargo, and it functions as an orbiting scientific laboratory. By March 2014, 1,824 scientists from 82 countries had participated in more than 1,550 experiments hosted by the station. Examples of the station’s benefits are the NeuroArm, a device based on Canadarm that has been used in brain surgery; a water-purification technology that has been tested in New Mexico; photographic mapping that aids management of reef ecosystems; and station monitoring of flood conditions to benefit North Dakota farmers. The International Space Station is equipped with a receiver used by ships on Earth’s seas; in 2012, it registered a distress call from a capsized Norwegian vessel, out of range of coastal receiving stations, and relayed its position to a nearby ship. That action resulted in the rescue of the lone survivor. The ISS is poised to provide Earth with photographs of volcanic eruptions, forest fires, and other catastrophic events, if needed.

Nixon laments that so few people know, or care, what’s going on on the space station. Beautiful photographs help the cause, and the station’s awe-inspiring Cupola is “an absolutely fabulous platform for photography,” he said. “Scott Kelly took some stunning photographs of Earth, and there’s an astronaut from Britain up there now, Tim Peake, who is also taking some amazing photos. I grew up in the 1950s, when space was mysterious, and there were programs on television that were pretty scary with monsters and things. I remember the beeping of Sputnik was very alien-sounding. It was a generation that was awed by space, but I’ve noticed that in the younger generations today there is not the same alacrity. They’re not really getting the message that it’s the field of the future.” ◀

“International Space Station: Architecture Beyond Earth” by David Nixon was published in early March by Circa Press.