Foster and Partners’ design for the New Mexico Spaceport Authority Building—or, as it is popularly termed, “Spaceport America”—in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, shows the realities, fantasies, and even latent subconscious of space travel, as much as it shows us its (intended) image of the future. Its appearance is a willfully spacey version of an airport; but its iconography recalls equally the way in which the iconography of aviation was forced on spaceflight a generation ago. And also, therefore—whether intended or not—an unraveling of its iconography offers as much caution as optimism for the future of mankind in space.
For the first makers of vehicles that ballistically nosed out of Earth’s atmosphere—just as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo does today—the very notion of a launch building, or “complex,” was anathema. When the Nazi Wehrmacht started the operational launching of V-2 rockets against London and Antwerp in 1944, the launch infrastructure was, ingeniously, temporary. A system of wagons and portable platforms were used to erect a launch site in under twenty-four hours—the better to evade Allied detection and bombing—and the site was rapidly disassembled after the rocket had been launched. In order to camouflage the 40-foot-tall rocket, launches were staged in forests, or, just as often, in high-rise urban neighborhoods (for instance, in The Hague, where rockets, and their launch equipment, were quickly deployed at busy urban intersections, so as to better avoid bombardment, under whatever restraint remained in place against casualties in civilian populations).
To really get to the iconography of launch buildings, we need to move to the United States and Soviet Union after the Second World War. But let’s stop first for a moment to consider America’s first manned space rocket, Mercury-Redstone, which launched Alan Shepard into a ballistic orbit like that achieved today by Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo. While Mercury-Redstone’s form was very different from the V-2, its launching process was exactly the same, including the temporary “firing table,” Abschuss—or Startplattform—from which the rocket was launched. While the rocket above was an upgraded version of the V-2, now in a tubular profile to better accommodate the manned capsule at the summit, the launch platform was essentially identical to that of the German “vengeance weapon.”
Even as Alan Shepard was launched from a V2 Abschussplattform, American-sized rockets had induced American-sized buildings, and landscapes—the heritage of which is visible specifically in Foster’s Spaceport. The earthworks that shroud the structure’s back against the New Mexico desert (giving the building a front but no rear) explicitly recalls these buildings and landscapes in form and site. Beginning with John Glenn’s flight, the United States joined the Soviet Union in launching astronauts on modified nuclear ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles), an order larger in size and destructive power than the Redstone. For these missiles, a more complex infrastructure was developed in the 1950s, of blockhouses and berms borrowed from those used at airfields and artillery ranges, a constructed landscape that allowed a protection from the intended or unintended explosive potential of these technologies. (Unlike the United States, the Soviet Union developed no specialized architecture to launch its explicitly “civilian” missiles; Russian visits to the International Space Station start, like Yuri Gagarin’s first flight, with the slow winching of a modified ICBM to the vertical, above a shifting, sloped landscape in the former Soviet Union’s largest desert.)
If the back of Foster’s Spaceport berms into rocketry’s past, what about the front? One thing it does not resemble is the elaborate system of Vehicle Assembly Buildings, Crawlers, and Gantries used to launch American space shots from John Glenn’s onward. These structures were products of the massive, and public, nature of the American space effort, in which the massive and monolithic apparatus of spaceflight was a necessity not only for technical infrastructure, but also (and sometimes primarily) for public relations. (It was Eisenhower himself who decreed that US rockets should be painted white, and marked only with the letters “USA” instead of the logos of their military-industrial manufacturers.) In the case of Foster’s spaceport, the omission of any reference to these precedents is especially thought-provoking given the abundantly apparent inspiration for Foster’s own “high-tech” architectural heritage in the United Kingdom in the historical infrastructure and structure of US spaceflight.
Unlike the American architectural press, where the strange and beautiful infrastructures and structures designed to support the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs received barely a mention during their fifteen years of public prominence, British architectural audiences were rapt: the influential London journal Architectural Design devoted its entire February 1967 issue to the US space program. While the phantasmagoric design studies that followed from British practitioners (notably Archigram’s “Cushicles” and “Instant Cities”) did not immediately see construction, their megastructural truss-work, and NASA’s, was echoed explicitly by Norman Foster and his contemporary Richard Rogers in projects like Paris’s Centre Pompidou (Piano & Rogers, 1971–77), and Foster’s own reputation-making projects, the Sainsbury Centre (Norwich, UK, 1974–78), and Renault Distribution Centre (Swindon, UK, 1981–82).
Really, however, this “spaceport” appears to want to be, visually at least, an entirely different beast: a simple airport. Here the precedent are to be found in Foster’s own long experience in the genre; beginning with his Stansted Airport near Cambridge (1981–91), Foster has remade the typology: principally by articulating a system of light roofs above submerged infrastructure and suppressed structure, with adaptable circulation refined and extended in Hong Kong (Chep Lak Lok, 1992–98) and Beijing (completed in 2008). These spaces are futuristic-seeming, to be sure, but they represent the modern evolution of an architectural type no longer associated with chilling and thrilling futurism, but with a global yet everyday system of mundane, even exhausting transport. Foster’s compatriot, the writer Martin Amis, famously termed the modern airport “Somnopolis,” explaining that “it reek[s] of [sleep,] and of insomniac worry and disquiet, and thwarted escape.” The buildings that result are uncomfortable but predictable; in Foster’s hands, they achieve an image of the expressive fluidity and articulate mobility never quite managed by the actual travelers within.
The dream of air travel has always haunted space flight. Not so much the dream of fabulous jet-set mobility formalized in Foster’s curves and swoops—although, to be sure, some of that—but the dream of the everyday. From Werner Von Braun’s post-Sputnik proposals in Collier’s magazine, to the Air Force’s failed “Dyna-Soar” vehicle, and especially to the ill-fated space shuttle, an airplane image has been used consistently by those who have sought to make the complex technological systems of spaceflight seem predictable, and—as is explicitly the case with Virgin’s call for high-flying passengers—safe. The space shuttle—“Nixon’s gift to the space program”—has never lived up to its advertising; even on its first, rocket-like launch in 1981, we were told its launches would quickly become routine—the cost per pound of payload $20. The reality, of course, was (grimly) different. As they bid for the multi-billion-dollar contract to build the shuttle, and sought to convince NASA and the public that the complexities and uncertainties of large-scale technological systems could be overcome (despite explicit evidence to the contrary in Apollo’s own history), military-industrial contractors like Boeing and North American turned to images not just of the shuttle’s airplane-like design, but supplemented their proposals with a Richard Scarry–esque collection of renderings showing the shuttle hanging out in hangars, being fueled, serviced, and crewed with the everyday infrastructure of air travel. This conflict is even apparent in the shuttle’s name; officially the “National Space Transportation System” (with each mission thus labeled STS 1, 2, etc., to STS 135 in 2011), its immediate public marketing as the “space shuttle” was a deliberate reference to the short, inexpensive hourly flights that began with Eastern Airlines’ hourly flights between Boston and New York in 1961.
And here, there is a tragic symmetry. When committing the enormous resources of the United States to the Apollo Program in 1961, John F. Kennedy announced, “we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Space is, of course, not physically hard, but its unforgiving emptiness and extreme conditions will quickly bring any unfounded optimism to heel. In his strident supplement to the report on the 1986 Challenger disaster (two of the five American shuttles built would be destroyed in launch or landing, killing fourteen astronauts) physicist Richard Feynman would quip icily that “for a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations” because, as he concluded, “nature cannot be fooled.” Against the hard realities of rocket-powered flight and the failure to test flight conditions in realistic conditions (constrictive pressure suits and high-G conditions), an unexpected pilot error caused the destruction of Virgin’s only working spacecraft in 2014; a more automated replacement was unveiled in February 2016, with tests to begin next fall.
Which particularly begs the question; should the shiny airport-terminal-like hangars of 1975’s shuttle renderings be filed together with Foster’s silvery spaceport? In one regard, they certainly should. Unlike the spaceman-and-gantry renderings of 1960s architecture, which sought to bring the visuals of spaceflight to a new, spectacular way of life on earth, the heavenly hangars rendered in the 1970s, as now, are directed toward a much more ambitious goal: to convince us, by shrouding the audacity and complexity of human travel above the atmosphere with the humdrum of air travel, that we can control the uncertain reality of spaceflight with the simple outlines of its architectural frame.
For more on the Spaceport building, see http://www.fosterandpartners.com/Projects/1613/Default.aspx.