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Architecture: The lunatics’ colony � space architect-engineer charts a ‘synthetic’ course to the moon

by Inga Kiderra

Space architect/engineer Madhu Thangavelu introduces the moon colony presentations.

Photo by Inga Kiderra

The concept is everything.
� Victor Hugo, to August Bartholdi on seeing the cast for the Statue of Liberty

The most important part is not to be afraid of the concept.
� Nader Khalili, California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture, Hesperia Lunar Colony

Imagine this: One hundred Earthlings are living on the moon. They have habitats built of regolith (or moon dirt). They have emergency shelters deep in lava tubes. They have silicon trees. They have “luna-parks” and long, long staircases to glide along. All of this sited on prime lunar real estate � the south pole, because it is sunlit and because it faces home.

These are the visions of “lunatics,” and chief among them is architect and engineer Madhu Thangavelu, who devised and teaches Arch 599, Seminar in Extraterrestrial and Extreme Environment Habitat Design. Presented under the umbrella of the USC School of Architecture’s Master of Building Science Program, the course is an architecture/engineering hybrid that sets its sights on space.

“We are in the business of knowledge creation through synthesis,” said Thangavelu, a 1989 graduate of the MBS program himself. “The rigorous analytic methods in science and engineering are merged with the visionary and conceptual activities that are taught in architecture. Cross-pollination is the key to developing strong new concepts.”

As much as anything else, Thangavelu’s class is about concept � and inspiration, imagination. To build the dream, you must dream it first.

“The whole area of the imagination needs to be treated with awe and respect,” Thangavelu said. “We do that well in the arts and liberal education, but science needs to learn.”

The method in this madness? Expose the students to visionaries who have had some success in realizing their visions and hope some of it rubs off.

Individual projects at midterm and a team project during finals are presented to a panel, which this year included such visionary experts as architect Nader Khalili, director of the California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture; retired Air Force Col. Susan Wyatt, launch campaign manager for several Titan IV rocket lift-offs; retired NASA Associate Administrator Douglas O’ Handley; and Michael Moore, International Space Station principal systems engineer, Boeing.

Some of the panelists lob comments along the “It won’t work” line, pointing out problems with incessant cosmic radiation or with gravity one-sixth of Earth’s. Others admire the boldness of an idea. The innovation.

“There’s a tension between feasibility and desirability,” Thangavelu said. “But the conflict between what’s possible and what’s daydreaming is necessary to arrive at creative, passionate solutions.”

“Space is the arena for this class,” Thangavelu said, beaming above his bow tie, when introducing the midterm presentations. “And space is unique in that it brings together all the disciplines known to man.”

What space also brings together is men and women from the world over. The spring 2001 class roster reads like roll call for a U.N. delegation: Khaled Al-Jammaz, Alejandro Diaz, Felipe Hernandez, Sreemathi Iyer, Carlos Ortiz, Bryan Richardson, Miguel Rodriguez and George Whitesides.

A large proportion of the students are from industry, Thangavelu pointed out: “They simply do not have free time to dream up new concepts in the aerospace working environment. Our class offers a refuge to sit down and create new things or explore their pet ideas.”

By finals, the individual midterm presentations have been synchronized into one lunar colony. Richardson, a naval aviator and International Space Station engineer from Boeing, presents ways of transporting goods and colonists to the moon, using off-the-shelf technologies. Saudi Arabian Al-Jammaz has plans for a moon mosque. Whitesides, an Ivy-league graduate who’d heard about the course and just had to enroll, proposes an environmental plan, setting aside large portions of the unmolested moonscape as lunar preserves. Hernandez, Fulbright fellow from Chile, envisions an “SOS” telescope that serves to warn inhabitants of solar storms. And India’s Iyer, having switched from her magma-bubble concept, proposes building emergency shelters in naturally occurring lava tubes.

The ideas will now be presented, first, in Las Vegas, at July’s Third Lunar Development Conference. The projects will then travel to the Space Frontier Foundation conference in October and then in April to NASA’s “Human Exploration and Development of Space Universities Forum” at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Some of the proposals may one day fly. Others will likely be absorbed into the “thought projects” of other dreamers. But outcome is not highest on the list of Thangavelu’s priorities.

“I’m not asking for ‘correct’… . We know you can be correct, but can you be original? Can you dip into your imagination resources and pull out that bunny, that magical thing?

“It’s all about new perspectives,” Thangavelu added, paraphrasing the late, great drum-playing Caltech physicist Richard Feynman. “The moment we stop looking for new angles, for new world views, we are cooked.”

Architecture: The lunatics’ colony � space architect-engineer charts a ‘synthetic’ course to the moon

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