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Beyond terrestrial norms: Imagining urban life in outer space

There is a lot to explore in the subversive and empowering function that space programs could play in the future of urban life.

In July 2019, the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing. Newspapers and magazines across the United States commemorated the event, announcing the dawn of a “new space race.” Inspired by a 1969 cover showing a Soviet cosmonaut and American astronaut racing towards some celestial body, an issue of Time magazine this time pictured four competitors—the China National Space Administration, NASA, and two private companies: Boeing and SpaceX.

In the past ten years, private companies have increasingly contributed to national space programs. Companies like SpaceX and Boeing promise to restore the United States’ autonomy over space launches; when the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, Russia’s Soyuz became the only vehicle to carry astronauts into space. But the Time cover did not feature a Russian, raising eyebrows at Russia’s space agency Roscosmos.

Before the Apollo program, Russia led the way in space exploration. It launched the first satellite and sent the first animal—and later the first human—into space. The first female cosmonaut was Soviet. The first spacewalk and the first probe on the Moon were all Soviet achievements. Save for the Moon landing, the Soviet Union drove some of the most significant advancements in space travel.

Expedition 33 Soyuz Launch. Image: NASA

But national pride and international competition are not the only motivations for a space program. In the era of anthropogenic climate change—which threatens to irreversibly damage our natural world—the exploration and colonization of space have acquired for some a messianic urgency.

Either by inspiring the development of new technologies to improve living conditions on Earth, or by becoming an alternative home for humanity, the Moon now appears as a (temporary) solution to our institutional, economic, and ecological crises.

The Moon helps solve our crisis of institutions by enabling the further territorial expansion of governments and states—creating an opportunity to exercise national sovereignty in outer space.

It solves an economic crisis by creating new resources and supporting the development of new technologies and innovation chains.

And, by extending our living environment through permanent settlements beyond Earth, the Moon offers an escape from the devastating effects of climate and environmental breakdown.

Russian cosmonauts, 2014. Image: Christopher Michel /

Russia plans to send its first humans to the Moon in the coming decade, following America’s renewed push. They are likely to be followed by the Europeans and the Chinese. This ambition is shaped by two opposing yet interrelated logics: historical dependency and potential revolutionary praxis.

Indeed, our vision for future Moon settlements follows threads in Russia’s past relating to territorialization; technologies and industrial know-how; political power and state centralization; urban design; the domestication of nature; and even cultural fantasies regarding outer space. The weight of history reproduces familiar codes, norms, and habits in our conception of space programs, rather than allowing for innovation.

But these programs also unwittingly challenge our usual ways of thinking about dwelling and working spaces. In doing so, they question urban futures that are increasingly shaped by technologies—from robotics to virtual reality, technologies aim to enable human life in a hostile environment, to capitalize local natural resources, or to support humans in their tasks as part of a division of labor. And they have overseen the renewal of ideals of collective living.


When Russians Choose to Go to the Moon

Fifty years after the first human Moon landing and almost three decades after the end of the Cold War, why would a nation state choose to go to the Moon?

For Russia, it is partly to pursue a historical mission that began in the 1960s with the Soviet Union’s first lunar robotic programs, and partly to remain relevant as international momentum for deep space exploration grows.

Soviet post stamps "Communists blaze the trail to stars," 1964. Image: Vizu

Human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit (where space stations are based) follows an international and incremental roadmap aiming at the colonization of the solar system. It involves testing new technologies and using the International Space Station (ISS) to learn about how space affects human bodies; testing critical systems near the Moon; returning to the Moon to simulate Mars missions; and reaching Mars—perhaps our final frontier.

Roscosmos recently accelerated its contribution to this international strategy. It has been developing the “Orel” spacecraft (formerly “Federatsya” or “Prospective Piloted Transport System”) and revealed a plan to send the first Russians to the Moon in 2030, six years behind NASA’s planned return. It plans to introduce space infrastructure in the “cis-lunar” orbit in the coming decade, and contribute to the international project of a “Space Gateway.”

Orel spacecraft. Image:

And it hopes to build a full-scale Russian Moon base by the 2040s and organize regular lunar missions with a view to its gradual colonization. Technologies are central to these ambitions.


Towards a Human-Machine Division of Labor

For Russia, Moon exploration carries strategic importance. It balances the American monopoly on human landings. It gives Russia access to an international space exploration agenda that includes even China. And it creates opportunities for Russia to benefit from a growing space mining industry that, today, is already worth several hundred billion dollars.

All this comes against a key challenge: human bodies are not made for outer space. Weightlessness leads to muscular atrophy, osteoporosis, unbalance of the vestibular system and blood flow, and so forth. Solar radiation, the lack of oxygen, and low pressure make for a hostile environment. Cosmonauts need technical support to survive, travel, and realize their missions. This is why cutting-edge technologies are a cornerstone in space exploration.

A conceptual rendering of a greenhouse on the surface of Mars. Image: NASA

Space mining instruments would enable the Moon base to use local resources, while 3D-printing technologies—already trialed by Roscosmos aboard the ISS—would allow for manufacturing and support daily needs. New technologies would then be developed to convert local materials, such as lunar dust, in suitable fuels.

Space technologies progressively shape an integrated man-machine interface as part of a problem-solving paradigm. While Moon programs imply major health risks, artificial intelligence can help manage the relative costs.

While there are uncertainties about remote systems and AI, the ISS can serve as a test bed for the progressive use of robots assisting cosmonauts (as in the case of “Fedor,” tested in August 2019). And while long-haul flights beyond low-Earth orbit would challenge the psychological state of cosmonauts, virtual reality systems can help manage homesickness by reproducing smells, landscapes, and even the physical textures of the natural world.

Yet, when it comes to breakthroughs, (almost) no one wants to see a fully automated space mission. Nor does anyone want a human expedition unsupported by robotics, as deep-space human exploration would be dicey without assistive technology.

Despite advancements in technology, then, future space missions will inevitably involve a combination of humans and machines, requiring enhancements in the ways humans and machines interact.


Space technology and the Soviet imagination

К звездам!—to the stars!” Until a few decades ago, these words appeared regularly in Russia’s magazines, in its streets, and in its subway stations. Soviet science fiction reveals how deeply the space conquest was embedded in the national political identity.

Yet, the fantasy appears incomplete. It places great emphasis on technologies like powerful rocket engines—as in the outstanding The Sky Calls (1959) and The Woman on the Moon (1929). Or, it depicts other planets and extraterrestrial life—as in Aelita (1924) or Planet of Storms (1961). It rarely imagines what human life might actually look like in outer space—or the conditions needed to make it a reality.

Aelita (1929)

Even films that depict life in orbit—Towards Dreams (1963), Ikarie XB-1 (1963), and Solaris (1971)—are tremendous in the genre; the settings are typically based on the reproduction of the conditions of life on Earth. Gravity is simulated and no important changes occur in daily life. Artistic production reveals itself as being incapable of imagining new living conditions, or at least being deeply shaped by what we are accustomed to.

Solaris (1972). Italian movie poster.

And precisely, in the era of the first Soviet space achievements, the stake was not to make a break with the familiar, but rather to demonstrate what life under communism could look like in the future. While artistic production was framed by the regime, and some films were directly commissioned by the government, the limited imagination proposed in Soviet science-fiction followed from the dominance of political idealism in art.

The first cosmonauts were actually presented as archetypes of the “new Soviet man” (as examples of the Soviet citizen contributing to the regime’s triumph), and space technologies were given a prominent place in the national pantheon of economic, scientific, and technical achievements.

The Soviet space program, then, was built on advancements in automated systems, because such technologies best reflected the regime’s power. Today’s conception of space travel—and application of technology—in Russia’s space program cannot be understood without this history.

Similarly, the way we imagine space exploration today is not through fantasy, but is inherited from our culture. Living in a society means living according to norms, values, and frames of thought that evolved over time. The future Moon program is itself dependent on a social history spanning colonialism and the expropriation of lands, urban design, and the norms of the domestic space.


Cosmic Baku and the Colonial Trope

Our imagination of outer space and its uses remains deeply wedded to colonial social representations. Here, the exercise of political power relies on territorialization—the appropriation and development of space for living and enriching. And, since colonial times, technologies and machines of all stripes have been seen as signs of modernization, justifying colonial settlements in cultures judged as backward according to Western frames.

But postcolonial studies largely overlook the role of technologies as instruments in the exercise of domination. In doing so, they ignore a powerful trope in the framing of contemporary politics.

Whether on Earth or on the Moon, building the conditions of human life means domesticating space and nature. This domestication is made possible by advancements in the technologies used to possess, modify, plant, extract, convert, sell, consume, earn, regulate, measure, build, wreck, expand, deprive, dominate, and subject people, land, and resources to the needs of the colonizers.

This is why political anthropology emphasizes the role of land (agriculture, mining, and so forth) in the emergence of modern models of government, based on the administration of territories defined by geographical borders. For anthropologist and political scientist James C. Scott, the domestication of resources (both human and natural) implied by such territorial administration marks the origin of the earliest states. Resources, techniques of territorialization, and technologies are inseparable in the constitution of modern political power. We pursue projects of space colonization with the same extractive vigor with which we colonize foreign lands.

Oil. Gas. Wealth. Industry. These are words that one wouldn’t associate with outer space. And yet, space mining is today central to human deep space exploration, recalling the Gold Rush that accelerated the conquest of America’s Western frontier in the late nineteenth century. Helium-3, a major element in nuclear power, is especially abundant on the Moon, while the broader solar system teems with valuable metals—diamonds, iron, pyrite, platinum, and nickel all abound. In addition to commodification purposes, some resources found on other planets, including hydrogen and oxygen, could be used as propellants.

Beyond this postcolonial frame, Russia’s space mining and Moon settlement plans also represent a continuation of socialist urban models. Back in the 1920s, Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, served as a site for experiments in socialist urban planning, mixing techniques from Central, Eastern, and Western Europe, as well as American green belts and park systems.


The aim was then to build on Baku’s foundations an archetypal “socialist man’s city.” This meant building a city that would provide the means to contribute to the development of the Soviet regime through industrial growth, while reflecting the achievements and ideals of the post-revolutionary society.

This model of the socialist oil city is not far removed from visions of space settlements, and still influences them. Whether we look at Soviet urban planning or the Russian Moon program, the principle is the same: to use local resources, including through the nationalization of land and means of production.

If the past influences the present in urban design, its impacts on Moon settlements are broader, subtler, and less explicit. They transcend the heritage of the socialist city.


Living Conditions as Embedded Values

The way we think about space and the ways in which we adapt to it are also historically defined and result from norms that we embedded while living in a particular social and cultural frame.

For instance, one easily forgets that the settled or sedentary life is not innate to the human race—nothing is innate, unchangeable, and universal when it comes to social life. Sedentary life gradually became a dominant paradigm of social organization. Once adopted by a social group, it arrives with increasing state control, and the development of agriculture and other forms of natural domestication. The ambition to settle the Moon and to “colonize” outer space is the desire to reproduce the sedentary modes of living to which we have become committed on Earth.

Woman in the Moon (1929)

If a desire to “settle” motivates space exploration, human space programs are also influenced by settled life in a more imminent way, reproducing the way we use physical space in our domestic lives. Consider a room: as we know it, the existence of the room as a unit of architecture is contingent on the existence of corridors. These, in turn, result from the emergence of the nuclear family and a “bourgeois subjectivity” that privileges the privatization of spaces and their rationalization for specific activities. Space stations—like homes, schools, offices, and factories—use segmented dwelling and working spaces, organizing the inner life of space explorers according to terrestrial norms.

Ikarie XB 1 (1963) © National Film Archive, Czech Republic

Thinking about urban spaces and the way we use them according to specific activities—sleeping, eating, working, relaxing, washing, and so on—relies on social norms and models that individuals have internalized throughout their lives. Since birth, we learn how to eat or behave in public spaces according to certain codes, but we also internalize the idea that our daily routines have their own spaces and rules. If showering in the middle of a living room feels odd to you, it is not because this is not “normal,” but because it does not fit with the norm that you have learned. Such rules become implicit guidelines in the design of space programs. In reproducing social norms, space programs mark their continuity with known forms of housing and construction, and attest the permanent seam between the organization of a society “and the aesthetic production of its (spatial) art”—to quote philosopher Frederic Jameson.

Envisioning permanent settlements on the Moon, then, is not only a matter of having the technological means, but also requires having suitable social norms to regulate the lives of groups cohabiting in space. It requires inventing a spatial language to make society (i.e. a social order made of norms and habits) beyond our planet.


A New Spatial Language

As mentioned above, one of the proposed solutions to the reproduction of Earth in space is through the use of virtual reality—replicating Earth’s sounds, smells, and tactility for homesick cosmonauts. Human space programs are, indeed, a simulacrum. From these technological solutions designed to ensure psychological wellbeing to the modes of terrestrial domesticity that space programs adopt, the difficulties of daily life in microgravity are overcome through the reproduction of what we are accustomed to on Earth.

A cross section drawing showing the vertically oriented lander surrounded by a greenhouse and double iceshell proposed to be 3d-printed by autonomous robots. Image: Mars Ice House

But the simulation and reproduction of terrestrial frames of daily life have limits. One day in 1968, NASA engineers working on Skylab, the first American space station, encountered the same questions that Soviet engineers had to deal with when designing Salyut 1, the first space station, a few years earlier. One of these challenges was to decide if Skylab should have windows. Windows are costly and undermine the structural integrity of the station. But not being able to see Earth during a space mission has consequences for the cosmonauts’ mental state. Windows are needed, in other words, because we are accustomed to them—even if they present a tremendous engineering challenge.

The Moon’s gravitational force produces some weight, but life aboard space stations orbiting in the void is weightless. There is no top, right, left, or down. Everyday movements and practices need to be reconsidered.

Think about it: how could we possibly conceive of an environment in which the phenomenology of the body as we know it does not play a role? That is why most space stations depicted in science fiction are based on the reproduction of living conditions on Earth—including gravity, as in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The alternative is both difficult to imagine and to reproduce.

But prospective space programs cannot avoid rethinking daily routines. Dwelling spaces, workplaces, mobility, storage, supply: none of the known ways to structure the quotidian can be neatly transposed from Earth to the Moon. Objects used for common tasks, such as furniture, also require revolutionary designs to adapt to an environment where liquid floats in bubbles and bodies cannot rest on a surface given the lack of weight.

Space programs—and Moon programs in particular—are an opportunity to develop a new spatial language. And, in the process, they may help shape a new utopian imagination for urban life.

Artist impression of a moon base. Image courtesy European Space Agency - P. Carril.

While the European Space Agency creates artist impressions of Moon bases staging solar cells generating power, greenhouses providing conditions to produce food, and rovers assisting crews after having been generated with 3D printers, Roscosmos has so far limited their impressions to robotic facilities, picturing some rovers and probes already launched rather than future bases conducive to human settlement.


A New Utopian Imagination

Space technologies already saturate our daily lives, from surgical instruments to water recycling systems, remote disaster management, geolocalization, and communications systems.

They could undoubtedly also transform Russian cities regarding storage, circulation, and so forth. Beyond such applications, could (or should) Moon settlements even fall within utopias that have changed paradigms of thinking and experiencing urban life since ideal cities appeared in past centuries—such as collectivization in Soviet Russia, “ujamaa” villages in Tanzania, Godin’s “Familistere,” Howard’s “Garden Cities,” and so forth?

A conceptual rendering of a greenhouse on the surface of Mars. Images: NASA / Human Systems Engineering and Development Division

Urban utopias are syntheses of social imagination and intervention in space. Somewhere in every utopian project lies the belief that the idealistic nature of a new world fitting some ideals should be incarnated in the form, shape, size, configuration, and material it takes.

Most attempted urban utopias were built on a disregard of the values, cultural norms, desires, and objections of the people they would house. In his earliest works on state planning, James C. Scott explains how the “high-modernist” ideology—the blind confidence in science’s ability to improve human life—contributed to the failure of such projects.

Yet, the previous paragraphs of this essay discuss some of the ruptures that human Moon programs imply, if only in terms of orientation, uses of the local environment, categories of perceptions, and even of human-machine interfaces. In this field of possibilities, the key weakness of Russia’s space strategy may be not be the loss of qualified engineers or corruption, but the lack of poetic imagination.

Inflatable habitat designed to be taken to outer space in a small package and then inflate in orbit. 1961-1962. Image: NASA

Human space exploration has always been subject to dreams and collective fantasies. But plans for space utopias are lagging. While Moon settlements and new forms of habitation in outer space could lay claim to revolutionary spatiality, actual programs appear as restricted in envisioning and enacting forward, more than incarnating an empowering “pragmatic utopian” imagination—in the words of architect Bjarke Ingels.

Despite historical dependencies and the weight of cultural heritage, the need for brand new goalposts is a chance for empowerment beyond current systems of domination and institutional hierarchy. After reviewing the pregnant heritage that frames our imagination–—the technologies, aesthetic codes, design frames, and land uses that have dominated our historical understanding of space and progress–—we begin to see that there is now a missing element in our quest for human flourishing: fantasy.

Julie Patarin-Jossec

A sociologist and expert in space studies. Patarin-Jossec holds a PhD in sociology from the University of Bordeaux and teaches at St. Petersburg State University. Her publications focus on science and technology studies, political theory, and European and Russian space policies. With a keen interest in design, she uses art-based methods relating to photography and documentary cinema in her work. Her recent research project is dedicated to the future of human urban life in space exploration contexts.

Cover image: "It's a hell of a town..." An artistic rendering by Rick Guidice of a toroidal space colony studied by NASA in the 1970s. Source: NASA Ames Research Centre

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