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A course at the University of Calgary has Masters students building homes for Martian explorers

A design for a regional hub for a mining development by University of Calgary student John Ferguson.

In August, 2016, NASA awarded six contracts to companies to develop habitats for astronauts on Mars to support their ambition to establish a human colony on the planet by 2030. In September, 2016, SpaceX revealed its plan for a manned mission to Mars by 2022.

As the race to the Red Planet heats up, architects are starting to seriously consider what a habitable human colony there could look like and the University of Calgary has been fuelling the debate with a new course for Masters students called Mars Studio.

"Students have been working on two projects in the studio over the past three months," course instructor Jessie Andjelic says, "firstly to design a temporary settlement for up to six people for the year 2030 and secondly to design a settlement for up to 100 people for 2050. In preparation for that, we spent time considering what the opportunities on Mars might be; why would we go there and what the environmental considerations would be to establish life there."

The course has had six guest lecturers including a NASA Space Architect and the university's chancellor, former Canadian Space Agency astronaut, Dr. Robert Thirsk. Dr. Thirsk holds the record for the longest space flight by a Canadian with 188 consecutive days in orbit in 2009.

"We're already starting to consider what is the next human space flight endeavour beyond the international space station and it will likely be the moon," Dr. Thirsk says. "I wouldn't be surprised if we have a Moon habitat 10 years from now which would be a stepping stone to Mars, which is widely recognized as the ultimate destination."

"There are two planets in our solar system which have the potential to sustain life, one is earth and the other is Mars," he continues. "I would envision a habitat on Mars 20 years from now."

Dr. Thirsk says he believes space architecture is "set to be a blossoming field" and he's "tremendously excited that the University of Calgary is at the forefront of that."

His own experiences living in space orbit formed the basis of his lecture to students.

"Architects would do the astronauts a great service if they could design habitats that reminded us of home, of family, of nature and appeal to all five of our senses," he explains. "By definition, an expedition to Mars would be a minimum of 2 1/2 years in length. If we could hear the ocean waves and smell cedar and lilac and touch natural surfaces and not just cold steel, that would really help aspects of psychological stability."

Designs for buildings on Mars will likely have some commonality with Earth so that people living there still feel a connection with their home planet.

Ms. Andjelic, who is a founding partner at Spectacle Bureau for Architecture and Urbanism, agrees architecture would be an important "bridge" between astronauts and Earth.

"From Mars, planet Earth would be just a star in the sky and conversations with Earth would come with at least a three minute delay," she says. "So, for those first settlements there would definitely be a desire to create familiarity. We spent a lot of time looking at how to adapt typologies from earth to create a sense of connection and belonging for that first generation of settlers."

"We also had students consider vernacular architecture so, when you're bringing everything from Earth and all of your materials and reliance is still on Earth, how do you create a meaningful connection with a new planet?," she continues.

Dr. Thirsk speculates that aesthetics will also be driven by functionality, at least initially.

"The first buildings on Mars certainly won't look like cathedrals, they're going to be primarily functional and designed to deal with the challenges of radiation and such. But I think there will be some commonality with habitats on Earth. Windows for example; humans need to be looking outside, it feeds our curiosity which is part of our DNA. Mars also has one third gravity, which means architecture there will have an up and a down."

Ms. Andjelic says observing her students' design process for other-worldly architecture was "exciting and really eye-opening."

"Everybody looked at the project through a different lens. Some people focused on this idea of exploration in a new frontier while others focused on how you would establish a culture in the place. Some people looked at how resource extraction might shape a colony while others looked at what life might look like if space tourism existed there," she explains.

Student John Ferguson took the course as an opportunity to speculate on what elements of current culture might find their way to a new planet and how those might manifest themselves architecturally.

"I was interested in looking at corporate land ownership and how workers' colonies might begin to occur around mineral and water extraction," he explains. "I looked at oil sands and the way those communities grow. My architecture ended up being a mobile colony designed for resource extraction: like a mobile colony which strip mines its way across the landscape."

This image depicts an extractor as it slowly moves across the terrain, harvesting the Martian regolith for valuable minerals and crystallized water.

Ms. Andjelic says many students identified interesting parallels with establishing a new territory on another planet and the establishment of settlements in Western Canada.

"Here you had oil and the railroad which established settlements and on Mars resource extraction also comes into play but it would be a different way of expanding a territory because here you would land by flight and then expand from there," she says.

Mr. Ferguson admits his design is "a dystopian view rather than a utopian one, based on the idea that corporations are the controlling force on the planet," but says he enjoyed the freedom afforded by "designing for a context which is largely devoid of context."

"Lack of context means there's no reason to slap a gable on something or add a peaked roof," he says. "The only things you have to consider are atmospheric pressure and protection from radiation."

Ms. Andjelic says it's exciting for architects to design free from earthly constrains but warns you can't tear up the rule book for architecture just yet.

"It's not that there's no rules, there's different rules and we're still learning what those rules are," she says. "Because the processes are different; the process of accessing air and water, gravity, the construction process which would likely be using drones or automated robots or 3-D printing, that means the buildings will look very different."

While the architects continue to speculate on what habitats for Mars could look like, Dr. Thirsk is certain of one thing: That the future of humanity depends upon the establishment of habitats on other planets, and architecture has an important role to play in that.

"I don't think that earth is our cradle for humanity," he says. "I think we're destined to move elsewhere into our solar system and from there our great, great, great, great, great grandchildren will find humanity and civilization elsewhere, outside our solar system. That might sound like science fiction but that's what I believe to be true."