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Fifty years from now, says Brent Sherwood, there will be a different kind of honeymoon on offer. “Imagine a hotel with a view that’s changing all the time,” says the Nasa space architect, “where there are 18 sunrises and sunsets every day, where food floats effortlessly into your mouth – and where you can have zero-gravity sex. Who wouldn’t sign up for that?”
Born the same year as Nasa, 1958, Sherwood trained as an architect and aerospace engineer. Having spent the past 25 years working on plans for everything from orbital cities to planetary settlements, he is convinced it’s only a matter of time before space travel becomes a regular holiday option and we’re living and working on the moon. There’s only one drawback. “Nobody knows how to cook in space,” he says. “Until you can mix a martini or make an omelette, you can’t have a space hotel. No one is going to pay $1m a night and put up with microwave meals.”
As civilian space travel inches closer, from Richard Branson’s troubled but persistent Virgin Galactic ambitions to the plucky Dutch attempt to take reality-TV contestants to Mars by 2024, architects are becoming increasingly important. Until now, says Sherwood, space habitats have been about the bare essentials: “What’s the research we have to do, what’s the equipment we have to carry, and what’s the most cost-effective thing we can stick it all in?” But as more people travel to space for increasingly long periods of time, their physical environment and its psychological effects are becoming more important.
Surprisingly, the first space station, Skylab, which orbited the Earth from 1973-79, remains by far the most generous habitat ever launched. It was palatial compared with the current International Space Station (ISS), but only because it wasn’t purpose-built: it was recycled out of the fuel tank of a huge Saturn V rocket. Thanks to the insistence of designer Raymond Loewy, a tiny porthole was added – which became the most popular feature with the astronauts, who were otherwise trapped inside a grim tin can. ….