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.