In this month‘s edition of Science Journal: the final frontier. These are the voyages of Tomáš Rousek, a Czech spaceship architect who is going where no Czech has gone before, to NASA, the asteroids, Mars and beyond.
28-year-old Tomáš Rousek aims high in his work – he has redesigned Prague on Mars, conceived an orbiting lunar hotel and a moon module that makes building material out of moondust, and most recently his design for a ship using artificial gravity and a defunct International Space Station was rated the most innovative idea of a NASA conference called Explore Now. When he came to our studio this week I talked to him, among other things, about how one becomes a space a space architect.
“I started by doing futuristic architecture. We did an exhibition on visions of the future of architecture in Prague, how it could evolve in the next 200 years, up to the vision of a New Prague on Mars, which was like a colony on the surface of Mars. And when I was deciding what to do with the rest of my life the best thing seemed to be the biggest challenge, which was to help with space exploration and help get people to Mars.”
Well tell us about the project that NASA was interested in. I believe it’s a ship proposed for travel to the asteroid belt, it has a rotating kind of arm that would provide gravity? Can you tell me more?
“This proposal was designed for a near-Earth object – not the asteroid belt but one of the nearest asteroids. The spacecraft consists of two parts. One is the habitat and the other is the propulsion module. Once you get the trajectory to the asteroid you can detach the two parts, which are connected by Kevlar strings, Kevlar tethers...”
These are very strong strings of metal is it?
“It should be more like a carbon-based material, the best would be carbon nanotubes, but we have to wait a bit for this...”
And long enough carbon nanotubes cannot be made yet...
“Actually they’ve started producing them in endless strings, so now it’s becoming a reality.”
So what was it exactly about your project that NASA appreciated?
“This particular project was based on an idea of my colleague Brian Wilcox, together we designed a mission that showed the potential of artificial gravity utilisation and the potential of using part of the International Space Station. It’s possible for example to detach one module that would be connected using new hardware and boost it to the asteroid. It was a vision of what can be done with the space station at the end of its lifetime. It would be assembled at the space station and would then be disconnected. Then after the mission it would go back to the ISS – because it can’t go directly through the atmosphere, you have to get the astronauts back to the ISS before they can go back to Earth via common spaceships used for that purpose.
The rotational idea for artificial gravity is not anything new, we know that from the film 2001 for example...
“Yes, I love the film, that’s something you have to see many times when you are a scientist. Actually I have seen NASA’s official redesign of the spacecraft used in the movie to go to Jupiter, they really showed the flaws of the design.”
So you were actually inspired by this movie.
“Yeah of course, I like the movie. Actually the idea was first presented 100 years ago by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who was the father of rocket science. He was actually a high school teacher in Russia and invented half of the things that rocket science is based on, and one of them was artificial gravity.”
Is your proposal intended for a hypothetical mission or are there any missions currently planned that it would be used for?
“Actually this is for a real mission, because after the Constellation moon flight programme was cancelled everybody wanted to go directly to Mars, but it was impossible due to the current state of technology and funding. So in recent times NASA experts have been working on a new proposal to go to near-Earth objects, to asteroids. It was published one week ago and it really is a mission to an asteroid using new small, space exploration vehicles for two people, for example, and new infrastructure.”
So you can actually hope that you will see your plans come to fruition and actually be constructed?
“Not in this format as it was designed. But the real proposal done by other teams has similar features.”
You may be surprised to learn that I am also a spacecraft designer...
“Really? That’s cool.”
Really. I stopped when I was 13, and my work dealt primarily with improving on the starship Enterprise. You’re fulfilling the dream of many, many boys. Was this a love of yours when you were a child as well?
“Of course, I wanted to redesign the whole planet and start building space colonies and so on. And you get a bit disappointed that it doesn’t go as fast as you would like in the beginning. But this is something that you can really dedicate several lifetimes to.”
“I was always trying to combine commercial design work for example with things that were non-commercial but helping to improve something. And I tried to balance that in my life, I started a company for architecture and design, A-ETC.net and at the same time with friends I was organising futuristic architecture exhibitions. After studying at the college of architecture in Prague I got into the International Space University in Strasbourg and I got a scholarship from the European Space Agency to cover half of the fees. So thanks to this I was able to study space architecture, to travel all around Europe and America to see how rockets and satellites are built nowadays.
I understand you have some interesting projects coming up. You have a lunar module and hotel.
“Yes, it’s a lunar module and orbiting hotel. In the case of the module, it’s based on the technology of 3D printing with the lunar soil, using robotic technology that heats up the soil and actually bakes an entire habitat. It’s an emerging technology that would make it possible to build whole cities on the moon just thanks to solar power for example. If we had something like this on the Earth it would be totally excellent! And the other project is an orbital hotel that is the idea of Ondřej Doule, and both of these projects will be presented next week at the big space congress to be held here in Prague.”
When you come up with an idea and a design for something like a lunar hotel, you present it at a conference and where does it go from there? I mean, so far 100% of such ideas have ended up in a filing cabinet somewhere.
“Well with space architecture things are still very much in their beginnings, we are still in the first centuries of space exploration. It’s something that you can put into a file cabinet and people in 50 years will take it out and use it somewhere. So in these cases it’s not aimed so much at being directly applied in reality. But for example this lunar habitat was designed when this Constellation programme in the USA was at full speed, and the proposal worked very well with the infrastructure that America was planning. The leaders of the architectural teamed liked the module very much. So if we were to go to the moon it would be one of the designs that might be considered, because it effectively used the technologies they were developing. For example, now they are asking for new funding to test this technology and this lunar module is an example of the potential of that technology. So it’s used for research.”
It’s amazing, it shows all the children out there you really can make a living drawing spaceships and lunar hotels.
“Everyone is talking about space tourism and so on, and it’s a really important thing for the development of the whole plant. With these first pioneers who pay for a ticket to get to space, just to see the horizon on a short, sub-orbital flight, once hundreds of thousands of people start stepping into space then it will be possible to build more and more ships, to start a similar process like there was with aviation, when at the beginning it was a suicidal discipline and then it was for a long time only for the richest people. It used to be very risky and now it is safer to fly by Boeing than to cross the street here in Prague. So I feel it is like the same development.”
That was space architect Tomáš Rousek ending that edition of Science Journal.
The episode featured today was first broadcast on September 26, 2010.