Tabula Rubra: Critical Reflections on the Design of Mars
“At the first sight of MDRS, the dissonance between the white dot of the habitat on the red and brown field of the desert is profound. For a while I’m transfixed at the image of a capsule that seems to have fallen out of the sky.”
Two days after Thanksgiving I’m driving from Grand Junction, Colorado, to a very different new world than the early European colonists: Mars, or at least the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in the Utah desert. I actually feel a bit more like a settler than an astronaut, stuffed inside an SUV full of luggage, building material, and food. Beside me, Kelly Rickey is telling me about the pros and cons about her life as a twenty-five-year-old mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, California, as we share a stack of ranch-flavored Pringles. She’s friendly and loud, but already I can detect a hint of cynicism in her sense of humor. I like her right away. That’s lucky and also a bit deceptive, because for a real mission to Mars, individuals will have to trainfor years to learn to live and work together for extended periods of time in isolation. As it stands, when crew 84 crosses the Colorado-Utah border we’ve been together for about twelve hours.
The drive itself takes three hours, but if we were actually going to Mars, the trip would be fifteen hundred times longer. That’s almost six months.1 Yet, as we are propelled ever closer to our destination, thoughts are not on inaccuracies. For the longest time, the only sound in the car is the rumbling of the tires over the rocks. Our faces are pressed to the car windows as, like Percival Lowell a century before us, we are lost in our own imaginations, transported by the magic of a landscape that appears ever more Martian with each successive look. Transfixed by the flashing images in the glass, I spot my own face-on-Mars in a stack of boulders resembling a man in a top hat. In a flash of apophenia, I impose myself onto the landscape and dub him, “the Pilgrim”.
As we begin to drive over what was once a prehistoric lake, I realize that the millions of tiny gray rocks I see covering the ground are actually petrified shells. I am out of place and time in an increasingly alien landscape; the Habitat will appear at any moment. Kelly compares this moment to “Six Minutes of Terror”— the breathless anticipation while a spacecraft prepares to land and, upon entering the Martian atmosphere, rapidly slows down from the incredible speed of 12,000 mph or crash on the surface.2 My stomach clenches from excitement rather than nerves. Finishing the last of my Pringles, I wonder if this is what Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin felt as they approached the Moon: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” I start to imagine what my first words will be seeing the “Hab” (as the MDRS is fondly called) for the first time. As with every turn and every hill, my eyes continuously refocus to search each new vista and when it finally appears, it is Kelly who vocalizes the power of the moment: “Cool!”
At the first sight of MDRS the dissonance between the white dot of the habitat on the red and brown field of the desert is profound. For a while I’m transfixed at the image of a capsule that seems to have fallen out of the sky, and then I voice my intrigue. Kelly retorts, “Well, it is supposed to be a lander!” Touché. But in that moment I genuinely feel like I’ve been transported to another world, the desert seems even emptier in relation to the tiny house and this will be even truer on the Martian surface; a desertuntouched by humanity and yet the size of all the land on Earth.
Kelly elbows my right side to get my attention. “You know,” she says, “I know it’s not really the same at all, but I bet this is kind of like what Buzz Aldrin called ‘magnificent desolation’.” In his book of the same name, the Apollo astronaut recalls his first moments on the lunar surface. He wrote, “I slowly allowed my eyes to drink in the unusual majesty of the moon. In its starkness and monochromatic hues, it was Magnificent, I thought then said ‘magnificent desolation.’ It was a spontaneous utterance, an oxymoron that would take in an ever-deeper dimension of meaning in describing the strange new environment.”3
As we get closer to the habitat I begin to see more of its details: first the basic two-story cylindrical shape of the station. Those in the space community often refer to this form as the “Tuna Can.”4 Vertical seams can be made out that divide the main cylinder form into ten wedges. Then a series of six red and gray braces arranged radially around the structure that secure it to the ground and raise it two feet into the air at the same time. A metallic airlock door comes complete with rounded corners. Windows are the last of the major structural elements that come into focus from afar. Those on the second level are noticeably larger in contrast to the microwave oven-like side portholes below. I count eight total—most are circular, though some are rounded squares.
To most, MDRS would look like an alien ship landed on Earth; to the more design- oriented like myself, it recalls Finnish architect Matti Suuronen’s Futuro House.5 Though constructed over thirty years apart, MDRS and Futuro evoke the same visual cues. They share circular qualities such as radial symmetry visibly bisected into multiple wedged segments with rounded windows. In size, their diameters measure within a foot of each other, with Futuro’s slightly smaller at 26 feet. Because of its more aerodynamic shape, Suuronen’s structure seems to float more gracefully than its modern descendant, which instead seems to strain against the ground.
But it is in the similarity of their outward architectural language, rather than the specifics of construction, that MDRS and Futuro share their strongest and most resonant bonds. When it debuted in 1968, Futuro then, like MDRS now, was an anachronism. Each is an essentially far-forward looking design that expresses optimism and a hope of better days to come. Both are simultaneous evocations of past and future. The Futuro house specifically takes its appearance from futurism, it seems to be pulled from the pages of Popular Science or Modern Mechanix. It was based more on science fiction than on science.6 Intentional or not, MDRS shares this language, and appropriately so for its very role in experimenting with new modes of living. It is ironic then that while on the exterior the two are in sync, it is in fact within the interior programs of living that the two structures diverge.
Upon closer inspection however more structural flaws of MDRS become obvious. This in itself is not as troublesome as how ill fitting and incomplete they seem. The segments are visibly bound together at the top and bottom of the façade by a ridged off-white band that has the appearance of masking tape. In fact there seem to be many holes and mismatched parts apparently held together by glue and tape. The overall effect evokes more of a coopered barrel than an industrial can. But perhaps the most out-of-place element is the rickety wooden porch deck hammered together below the airlock.
As Kelly is fiddling with the lock to get inside the station—not an actual airlock, more like a jammed Home Depot padlock on a metal chain—and just as the lock starts to budge, her fingers slip and the key clangs onto the rickety wooden deck at the entrance to the habitat. Frustrated, the young mechanic reaches down to pick up the key and give it another turn—but not before a few choice curses. She turns to me, embarrassed. “Sometimes it works when you yell at it.” Maybe there is something to that since the lock finally snaps open and the chain uncoils from the door handle. As the door swings open on its hinges, stabilized by a rickety shopping-cart wheel with all the wobbliness that this implies, Kelly looks inside and laughs with delight.
Indeed it is a space that only an engineer could love, regardless of the fact that the entire first level is designed specifically for one. Kelly reminds us to take off our boots so we don’t track the dirt from outside into the Hab; “Martian dust” she calls it, adding a sarcastic laugh afterward. There is so much dirt it hardly matters. The first two chambers are the Airlock and Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA) prep area, where the suits are kept. While they are essentially a foyer and coatroom in conventional function, they look more like a garage. The inside of the Mars Society’s “tuna can” is buried in clutter; perhaps “sardine tin” is a better metaphor.
The rest of the ground floor is covered in icy cold sheet metal; I instantly regret that I didn’t bring slippers. In the center wall of the room dividing the EVA prep area from the lab space is a rubdown sign that reads “RESEARCH GOALS: Same as Devon Island.” Three quarters of the space is dedicated tothe science and engineering equipment. And by dedicated I mean overrun. Assorted scientific equipment overwhelms what might be any usable space even for the people this space is supposed to be made to serve. Save for the “airlocks” at either end of the station, the doors are of the wooden-rectangular-with-brass- knob variety. In fact, the majority of the shelving is constructed mainly of plywood. All around there is an almost comical mish-mash between high-tech and low-low prices.
The only common areas downstairs are composed of the sanitation facilities and the airlocks. The bathroom is divided into two smaller enclosed rooms; this keeps the facilities open for multiple crewmembers at a time, though not for the same function. One room consists of the showerand sink that are both poorly lit and gloomy; this room does however have wooden flooring for water drainage and is much warmer in general than the rest of the downstairs. The other smaller room is the most important; it has the toilet. This is basicallya regular flush toilet, but for water conservation it has to be hand pumped to fill. With this function-oriented prioritizing of the space, as the crew journalist, the message for me seems to be, “wash your hands and get out.”
And I am eager to do so, and Kelly’s lucky that I am because, as she slips down the precariously steep stairway that’s modeled on a companionway (a nautical ship’s ladder) I’m there to break her fall. The design of the Hab is not only ugly; it’s hazardous! All around are exposed wires and pumps running from the ground, up the walls and across the ceiling. Kelly points out to me that this is actually very useful for accessibility. In terms of function I would concede this, but this is again the engineer’s justification and designers and architects have argued against this excuse since Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus. Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school, writes: “from the artistic point of view as well the new building procedures must be affirmed. The assumption that an industrialization of house building would result in building forms becoming ugly is totally erroneous.”7
The upstairs living quarters are equally as unpleasant and territorial. Half of the floor is taken up by the individual quarters; six staterooms each more or less four-by-ten- feet rectangular hallways, forcibly imposed into the circular plan of the overall structure.Inside the rooms are constructed with a bunk (the upper ones inconveniently high with no ladder) and an unsteady plywood shelf that doubles as aprivate desk. The stateroom doors are consumed with stickers and name badges from each crew, and the walls graffitied with quotes and drawings that all work in concert to claim the space for the current occupant. This is designed to be a lonely place. MDRS is a façade, and within, a view of pure desolation; nothing magnificent about it at all.
- William L. Fox, Driving to Mars. (Chichester, Emmeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006), 153. ↩
- Garfield Reeves-Stevens and Judith Reeves-Stevens, Going to Mars: The Stories of the People Behind NASA’s Mars Missions Past, Present, and Future, (New York: Pocket, 2004), 1. ↩
- Buzz Aldrin with Ken Abraham, Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon, (New York: Harmony Books, 2009), 34. ↩
- A. Scott Howe, & Brent Sherwood, Eds. Out of This World: The New Field of Space Architecture, (Reston: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Inc., 2009), 191. ↩
- Barry Bergdoll and Peter Christensen. Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling. (Birkhäuser Basel, 2008), 140. ↩
- Jim Heimann, ed. Future Perfect: Vintage Futuristic Graphics. (Italy: Taschen, 2002), 5. ↩
- Barry Bergdoll and Peter Christensen. Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling. (Birkhäuser Basel, 2008), 18. ↩