Workshop at The Brigstow Institute, University of Bristol

Last week we ran a workshop at the University of Bristol supported by the Brigstow Institute and in collaboration with Dr Lucy Berthoud. We brought together a group of academics from different disciplines and with different specialisms to begin exploring our plans to build a Martian House. We want the project to be informed by both expert and non expert opinions, and we’re planning a series of public workshops for later this year.

This was the first time we’ve explored the project with an academic audience, which included Mars specialists working on projects like the InSight Lander (which is now on it’s way to Mars) historians, psychologists, botanists, engineers and public engagement specialists.

We kept the format of the workshop quite loose so there was room for people to bring up their own ideas and relate the project to their own research interests. Whenever we begin talking about this project to anyone, the subject matter just seems to keep on expanding. Here’s a few key topics that we discussed, that will begin to inform how we go about creating designs for the house.


Virtual/Augmented Reality, sensory experience and embodied cognition

If you couldn’t come back to Earth for the rest of your life, what would you miss the most? Whenever you ask this question to groups, along with family, friends, loved ones, you usually get people talking about the feeling of the sun on your face, the sound of birdsong, the wind in the trees, the grass beneath your feet. Are our sensory needs innately linked to the feeling of being human? Will our sensory desires always be linked to our home planet? When humans live on Mars how will we compensate for the lack of Earthly sensory experience? Could virtual reality help to stop people missing familiar sensory experiences? Whether virtual reality can suffice as a replacement for sensory experience is not yet know. We don’t know whether or not it would be able to produce the same responses in the brain as real sensory stimulus – whether over time health and well being might suffer for the lack of these real experiences. Theories of embodied cognition suggest an alternative to the traditional view that all responsibility for generating behaviour lies in the brain. Our sensory experiences and the environment we’re in may form a key part of how we form behaviour and translate meaning. If a second generation of people were born and brought up on Mars, and lived in a world augmented with virtual reality, would our processes of cognition change to recognise virtual experiences as meaningful as the real thing? Is this what we want? We hope to investigate the use of incorporating virtual reality into the design of the house.


Personal/Private Space and Social Space

One researcher in the workshop described himself as an introvert and that he is often happiest when alone but surrounded by people – as in the setting of a busy coffee shop, where there is a shared understanding of accommodating a personal space within a larger, social space. We have already begun thinking a lot about the need for privacy and personal space within the design of the house. In a small space where you can’t go outside this becomes really important – private space is something astronauts on the ISS cite as being very important to them on long duration missions. In the history of space missions and with the increasing lengths of time people are now spending living in space (Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov holds the record at 438 days aboard the Mir Space Station) the amount of space per astronaut has increased over time, with much more consideration now given to living quarters and the need for private space than on board the cramped early days of the Apollo program.

          Image: NASA. Apollo 11 astronauts inside capsule during tests

          Image: NASA. Private sleeping quarters on board the ISS.

As we’re looking at a future where people will live permanently on Mars, private space will become even more important than on settings like the ISS. With the design of our house we’ll be looking at how to create a healthy balance of social and private elements within a very small space.

What are the driving factors behind how much private and social space people need? Who are the people who will be living on Mars in the future scenario of our house? Will they be introverts or extroverts? The need for private space may vary simply from person to person, but it’s also worth considering how much the need for private space might be driven by cultural factors. Does capitalism and consumerism drive a perceived need for individualism?

The design of the house must also enable and encourage social interaction. Of course you’ll need personal space away from the potentially claustrophobic small pool of companions, but there will be a great need to create a cohesive, social group in order to combat the ill effects of such extreme isolation from the rest of humanity. On Mars there will be no capacity for real time conversation with people on Earth – there is a 20 minute delay in communications (this has been simulated on Mars analogue experiments such as NASA’s HI-SEAS and Russia’s Mars 500). The house that people will live in on Mars will be the center for all social interaction on an otherwise empty and isolated world.

We discussed how rituals and routine will also have a part to play in social interaction as well as the design. In experiments such as Mars 500, people suffered less mental health issues when they managed to maintain a routine of sleeping and eating at the same time as everyone else. The effects of falling out of sync with the routines of others around you, or not having a shared, communal rhythm to the day may have effects on mental health. Specific, modern examples of this have been studied, such as the effects of TV on demand services, which may ultimately impact well being by disrupting the moments when people might have spent time on communal activities together, encouraging less time doing things together. When I was a teenager I remember my mum worrying about exactly this effect when I wanted a TV in my bedroom.


Finding inspiration from other settings around the world

This theme kept coming up in relation to a lot of other things we talked about in the workshop. We posed the questions: How can we live well on Mars? How can we use our lived, day-to-day experiences on Earth to inform us?

Exploring answers to this by looking at relevant examples of places, cultures and settings on Earth that might inform us will become a focus of our design research.

For instance, when addressing the need for private space within a small space we might not only look at how people are living on the ISS or on remote stations in Antarctica, but also talk to children about their experience of siblings sharing bedrooms, or research into 12 square meter micro apartments in Hong Kong.

This project and the idea of living on Mars generally invites a re-imagining of how society might work – a look at how to start over again. The influences that make up the design should therefore be as wide as possible, and include experiences outside of our own and outside of our own culture. The same idea could apply to all sorts of elements of the project – like imagining what limited personal objects would be deemed essential enough to take to live on Mars. We could look at nomadic cultures and historical voyages to investigate what do people take with them when they move to another place?

The same idea will again apply practically to technologies that might make up essential elements of the house. We discussed how places that demonstrate living with scarcity, such as refugee camps, might lead us to examples of power systems and waste disposal that could be used on another planet.


Illustrator Andy Council documented our conversations throughout the workshop and produced this brilliant image, which includes many of the ideas and their applications to design.

We’re really looking forward to continuing conversations with the academics who attended the workshop as our design plans progress this year, and are grateful to the Brigstow Institute for making the event possible. Next week we’re giving a lunchtime talk at The Watershed at the Pervasive Media Studio, which is free and open to the public to attend. We’ll be exploring more of these themes and ideas in relation to the design, and you can ask us questions or give your own take on the project. More details here.