Space-Age Wisdom

What extreme environments designed for keeping humans alive in space can teach us about living on Earth

On Christmas Eve 1968 we watched as the Apollo 8 spacecraft beamed those first astounding images of Earth into our living rooms. As the glistening blue planet—the color of water and vapor, which scientists call a “perfect shield”—was revealed to us that day nearly 40 years ago, the first post­industrial environmental movement was on its way. Though it has waxed and waned in the ensuing decades, just as the first hot excitement of the space program has cooled, work being done in places like Houston’s Johnson Space Center retains its culture-shaping power. Previous innovations had already made possible our now famous connectivity: Where would Google Earth and cell phones be if not for the most ambitious publicly funded exploration in the history of humankind?

All this rushes into my consciousness at the “After Taste” symposium, organized by Parsons’ AIDL (Architecture, Interior Design, and Lighting) department in late March, as I listen to the architect Constance Adams. She is known for her work on TransHab, the inflatable habitat that is part of the International Space Station.

What does the space program have to do with the future of interior design, the topic of the conference? A lot, according to the promotional piece that preceded the event, as “a new agenda for the study of interior design” unfolds. The swank flyer also revealed that the symposium was supported by two well-known decorators, Jamie Drake and Kitty Hawks, whose success is often attributed to their “taste” and “style.”

“Who we are as humans is less about notions of taste and style, but more about our fundamental biological being,” Adams noted, basing her argument on documented observations of people’s behavior in extreme environments, where their relationships with enclosed spaces are revealed dramatically. In fact, we seem to become more human when we leave the Earth’s gravity, carrying with us our ingrained concepts of shelter and place.

Adams reminded us that we have a fixed sense of up and down (weightlessness wipes away the sensation, yet our minds are organized according to the cardinal directions); that we are creatures engaged with gravity (“in a constant dance with the earth,” and without gravity the fluids in our body shift, our senses of smell and taste alter, our muscles atrophy); that we need to face one another whenever important topics are discussed (with the ambient noise of the spacecraft, astronauts can’t hear each other if they’re not face to face); that we need to connect to the Earth’s natural cycles (with 16 sunrises in a 24-hour orbit, space travelers must be reengaged with the circadian rhythms humans are born into); that sensory deprivation “breaks down our feeling of wholeness” (attention to color, pattern, texture, signage, and lighting are as important in deep space as on Earth); that ergonomics as designers practice it on Earth is a primitive science compared to the complex need to interface people with technology and interiors in space. People, she concluded, require a sense of time, place, and wellness. Isn’t that on the agenda of both interior-design organizations?

What if our interior designers connected with what Adams and her crew are learning about habitation and human interaction in space? What if every designer took the lessons of our space travels to heart?

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