Terra Luna Incognita*

Alessandro Poli 01

Space exploration and colonization has been a source of architectural fantasies since the adventurous journey that started 40 years ago after the 1969 moon landing. The idea of a Moon colonization is something really provocative for the architects’ mind. As MUST wrote on its article Very Dirty Realism for Volume magazine:

So why do we want to go to the Moon? The prime objective is simple. If it is possible, Man will do it. However, there are other reasons for going to the Moon. Terra luna incognita is the territory of the explorer and pioneer pursuing new knowledge, new sources of income and adventure. The Moon is the next frontier in 3,000 years of opportunist exploitation.

Already in 1970–71 Alessandro Poli, from the radical architecture group Supersutio, designed the project Architettura Interplanetaria, based on a new idea of geography, that imagined a form for architecture at an interplanetary scale, including a highway from the earth to the moon.

Superstudio’s idea of avoiding traditional architectural response, involved with formal preoccupations on mega structures, led them to desigh this highway that would make possible to transport people from the Earth to the Moon. We can think that Superstudio knew about Konstantin Tsiolkovsky‘s proposal for a space elevator, which is dated around 1895 and based on the idea of a free-standing tower reaching from the surface of Earth to geostationary orbit.

Alessandro Poli 03
Alessandro Poli, Autoritratto con riflessa autostrada Terra-Luna (Self-portrait with reflection of Earth-moon highway), Photomontage, 1973. © Archivio Alessandro Poli. Photo: Antonio Quattrone


Space elevator render. Source: Gadget Blog

As a precedent we can remind here Yu Artsutanov‘s proposal in 1960 to go to the cosmos in a electric train, where he pointed that the creation of weightless, anti-gravitational ships was possible. And he adds:

Many designs exists for the creation of extraterrestrial cosmic ports whose celestial moorings might provide docks for both interplanetary giants and the rocket gliders of “local lines”: space station to Earth. We wish to propose one more design for such station, one directly connected to Earth. The realization of this design may make the trip into cosmic space only a bit more complicated than a trip today from Moscow to the suburb of Mozhaika on a electric train.

Bradley Edwards on his study The Space Elevator pointed out the relationship between science fiction with this kind of designs. And reminds us that Arthur C. Clark put together an interesting tale of the construction of the first space elevator in his book Fountains of Paradise, while he adds:

Outside of science fiction there was some work done on the space elevator during the first decades of the space age [Isaacs, 1966 : Pearson, 1975 : Clarke, 1979]. These early publications worked out the physics of the space elevator […] But even in the past few years the space elevator concept has often been discarded out-of-hand as inconceivable or at least inconceivable for the next century.

So, can we talk about a terraforming project on the Moon?

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Space Elevator render. Source Century 23

Why is the Moon re-entering the popular imagination?

We can read that the “once upon a time” science fiction concept of a space elevator has been envisioned and studied for real. David Smitherman of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center’s Advanced Projects Office has compiled plans for such an elevator. The illustration beyond, by artist Pat Rawling shows the concept of a space elevator as viewed from the geostationary transfer station looking down the length of the elevator towards the Earth:

According to Edwin Gardner and Julian Bleecker on Designing Fiction, at Volume #25: Getting There Being There, the utopian future, like science fiction future, also deals with social, cultural and societal aspects. Taking this idea, maybe we’re looking again to the Moon as a response to our needs within the current state of the world, within wars and disasters.

That’s why the idea of having settlement on the Moon as a logical step in the expansion of humanity beyond the Earth maybe is not the answer. If humanity succeed on having permanently occupied extraterrestrial bases, maybe it’s time to quote part of Fukuyama’s The End of History:

“All right, then, here are some excerpts from a Kuybyshev ninth-grader, written as recently as the 1960s: “It is 1981. Communism: Communism is the abundance of material and cultural blessings […] All of the city transportation is electrified, and harmful enterprises are removed beyond the city limits […] We are on the Moon, we are walking by flower bushes and fruit trees …”

So how many years does that make it that we have been eating pineapples on the Moon? If only we could someday eat our fill of tomatoes here on earth!”

–Audrey Nuikin, ‘The Bee and the Communist Ideal’

Fukuyama pointed that the traumatic events of the twentieth century formed the backdrop to a profound intellectual crisis as well. And he adds that it is possible to speak of historical progress only if one knows where mankind is going. So we just wonder if we really know where we’re going?


Lunar Base concept by Pat Rawlings

If we think on Fukuyama’s text, it’s inevitable to wonder if the idea of Moon colonization is an idea progress or simply the human ideal of power, that drives us to try to colonize every single square inch we find in our path. If our main task is no longer to improve human society but to save the planet from human society, why are we thinking to take human society to another environment?

Even now, that there are major discussions and conflicting positions regarding the safety and necessity of nuclear power, NASA raised the need of nuclear fission on the Moon, to provide the necessary power. According to their research, “a nuclear reactor used in space is much different than Earth-based systems. There are no large concrete cooling towers, and the reactor is about the size of an office trash can. The energy produced from a space reactor also is much smaller but more than adequate for the projected power needs of a lunar outpost.”

All this utopic ideas are quite provocative but even if we deeply believe in the need of utopias as a tool for architectural thinking, what if we simply stop for a while… and think instead of build?

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*Terra luna incognita – title taken from MUST’s article Very Dirty Realism for Volume magazine.

Related readings and interesting links:
GOOGLE BOOKS | A Tribble’s Guide to Space: How to Get to Space and What to Do When You’re There. Alan C. Tribble [Thanks to Samuel García for the link!]
SPACE ELEVATOR LIBRARY | Space Elevators – An Advanced Earth-Space Infrastructure for the New Millennium [downloadable PDF]
WIKIPEDIA | Space Elevator
ISSUU | Moon Life Handbook

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