The Architect’s Guide to Life in Outer Space

Space stations have been a part of sci-fi iconography for more than a century. Propelled by the technological innovations of the Second Industrial Revolution—including the automobile, the airplane, electrification, and modern communication systems—the idea of living in space inspired a new era of science fiction.

The first manifestation of a space habitat appeared in Edward Everett Hale’s “The Brick Moon,” a short story in which a spherical satellite entirely built of bricks is inadvertently launched into orbit with people on board. Written in the form of a journal, “The Brick Moon” was originally published as a series in The Atlantic Monthly, starting in 1869, and is the earliest known reference to an inhabited structure in outer space.


An illustration for "The Brick Moon"

Despite this idea, the term “space station” didn’t take off until the 1930s, coinciding with the emergence of sci-fi pulp magazines such as Amazing Stories, Astounding Stories and New Worlds. The decades following confirmed the rising prominence of science fiction in popular culture; these stories served as inspiration for countless architectural visions. Examples range from functional manmade structures like the Venus Equilateral relay station, idealized by American author George O. Smith, to large-scale habitats of human and alien origin like the iconic Rama, a mysterious extraterrestrial vessel described by Arthur C. Clarke in his masterpiece Rendezvous with Rama.


Rendezvous With Rama, Arthur C. Clarke, 1972.

Space stations have served as platforms for numerous developments in sci-fi history: Earth-orbiting satellites, interplanetary communication hubs, research facilities orbiting over hostile planetary environments, transportation vessels for large colonies and even as relics of extraterrestrial civilizations long lost in the galaxy. But perhaps some of the most interesting space stations are visions of interstellar cities, fantastic creations that often venture into the realm of architectural conjecture, experimenting with the physics of huge, self-contained, and self-sustained artificial environments.


Elysium, Neill Blomkamp, 2013.

It’s been a long journey from 1869’s “The Brick Moon” to 2013’s Elysium. That summer-blockbuster extravaganza introduced the world to a new conceptual design, a utopian space habitat orbiting Earth during the 22nd century. The station itself is a technological marvel; it is a rotating structure 125 kilometers (77.7 miles) in diameter that includes buildings, landscaping, and water features, fully supported by an artificially enclosed atmosphere and centrifugal pseudo-gravity.


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Concept art for Elysium.

Article by Daniel Carrapa