There was this rumor way back about spiders on Mars. Giant web-like patterns broke out at the polar caps when ice sublimated to gas. Fascinating, but no proof of life, an intriguing thought though: what if spider webs could be a beyond-anthropocene cognitive way to explore the red planet? Oh, sorry, my mistake, I shouldn’t have written ”us”, not ”exploring” either. When Elon Musk, taking over the space lord cloak from Robert Zubrin of Mars Society, proposes to land the first settlers on Mars already in 2026, a decade earlier than the plans by NASA, and for 10 billion dollars, not even a tenth of their budget, it’s all about conquest and profiteering. The present space race is not between what JFK dubbed nations engaging in ”peaceful cooperation”, but rather multibillionaires with exclusive access to NASA’s tech and infrastructure charging into space as the next frontier of capitalism. Back to the spiders. Tomás Saraceno’s ambitious and spendy exhibition at The Shed on the High Line in New York opens a territory as alien as outer space. Lie down on suspended wire meshes and sense the world through vibrations. Spiders might have 8 eyes but poor sight; they sense the world through their vibrating webs as body extensions. Saraceno seems mostly intent to reverse arachnophobia into arachnophilia, the exhibition not being so immersive multi-sensory as promised. But couldn’t arachnomancy be a way of exploring distant planets where you can hardly venture outside your airtight worm-structure into extreme temperature differences and deadly cosmic radiation? Not in the sense of building artificial webs by finely crafted wire like in The Shed, but by swarm robots and AI-powered avatars webbing alien worlds? Further down on Manhattan I slip through security into 7, World Trade Center. The view from the office of SOM (Skidmoore, Owings and Merryl) frames their nihilistic mirror patterned skyscrapers all pointed towards the sky to conquer. Georgi Petrov from SOM’s structural engineering group is one of the architects in charge of devising a lunar village for ESA, the European Space Agency. He admits the Red Planet is where he would go, if he ever gets the chance. ‘The big challenge is to hold the atmosphere in, the forces are tremendous. The solution is inflatable structures for the habitats, without any flat surfaces, but not the classic science-fiction space stations, rather horizontal structure that let you adapt to low gravity.’ Petrov agree that a lot of the research is on engineering solutions and machinery where the architects-engineers work with the packaging. ‘Being a human, what are your psychological and social needs, how do we test this? We can try interfere from submarines and Artic research, but this is still unexplored territory.’ Musk’s SpaceX Starships may have had 7 botched rockets in 2 years, but the challenge on site out in space are much more demanding, everything has to be fully fail-safe in order not to perish immediately. Nonetheless Petrov expects the next ten years to change everything, not the least with Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Elon Musk’s space tourism, along with China launching probes and moon robots. So what will space architecture look like? If it is too cost prohibitive to send materials out in space, it either has to be fabricated on site with lunar regoliths or bacteria shitting out brick-like calcite excrements terraforming Mars. The possibility of moonquakes makes BIG go for light toroidal structures while devising their own lunar base for NASA. But the architectural challenge of bonding to the past while leaping into the future with the least amount of material, and at the same time fully multifunctional in producing energy, air, and whatnot, seems to get lost among engineers appropriating everything earthly mechanical to outer space. Much in the same way as Musk and fellow space lords will try to recreate a libertarian Wild West in the rest of our solar system without any law and order than maximum profit. That might be just the billionaire’s dreams though, the real exploration instead done by learning from non-humans on earth and adopting spider cognition to assist space explorers building Ariadne-like webs for wayfinding.
Published in Form 2022