NASA Living Pod.
The decades after World War II, as the Cold War cast a shadow over the world, saw a period of speculation about new forms of human inhabitation that would fulfill the basic life-providing needs of humans. While some speculated about the construction of bomb shelters, others speculated about lightweight, portable structures, and others the possibility of inhabiting outer space. This speculation was not isolated within the engineering discipline but rather incorporated theorists, architects, and artists as well. These different forms of life pods must be looked at within the context of architectural theories that came out of the Bauhaus, Ulm School, and the Design Correlation Laboratory at Columbia University. Specifically with reference to the Design Correlation Laboratory, Friedrich Kiesler’s concept of biotechnique and his Endless House bear a resemblance to the ideas and forms present in the life pod. The General Dynamics diagram for the NASA’s Living Pod, pictured in this article, directly references both the Vitruvian man and Le Corbusier’s Modulor. This diagram was originally published in 1966 in the International Science and Technology journal.
As part of the space race of the 1950s-1960s, NASA embarked on scientific studies into how humans might be able to inhabit a closed-loop system. That is, a system whose resources are totally confined to itself and which cannot accept exogenous inputs, such as a long-term habitation in space or on another planet where regular supply missions are infeasible. Recycling of water and oxygen is necessary for the survival of the inhabitants.
In 1960, NASA carried out one such experiment with what it called the Living Pod. Four men were hermetically sealed within a small pod on Earth with electrical energy as the only input to the system. Special waste collection systems separated urine/wash water, solid waste, and carbon dioxide. The test subjects carefully ensured that their own byproducts made it to the correct container. However after several months the subjects began to experience nausea and headaches due to contamination of the filtration systems with human waste such as hair and fingernails. Other microscopic waste which did not make it to the containment system floated through the air and eventually accreted in the unit as well. This failure was a demonstration of the difficulty of ensuring the 100% recyclability of waste required of closed-loop systems.
When looked at within a theoretical context of the human relation to its surroundings, there can be similarities drawn with biotechnique in terms of the way that the pod becomes an extension of the human body. The pod is an absolute necessity for the functioning of the body, and is almost an external organ. We see reality given to Kiesler’s theory of “correlation,” in which the building form takes shape in accordance with the requirements of the inhabitant. Lydia Kallipoliti, an architect, engineer, and scholar, writes in her article “Feedback Man:”
As opposed to the Vitruvian Man and Le Corbusier’s Modulor, where man physically occupies space, the cybernetic model illustrates an operational fusion between man and milieu. Rather than a vocabulary of ergonomy, “feed-back man” illustrates a dissolution of the materiality of the body to the elements of space, a biotic de-synthesis, echoing, one could argue, a death wish. With feedback man, the com-pact images of Da Vinci and Le Corbusier are necessarily expanded, while the established boundaries between body and environment become elastic. Vitruvian Man and the Modulor indicate a passage from the cosmos to modernist abstract space, while feedback man speaks of an insular, closed techno-world that requires more information than form and geometry to be envisioned. (Kallipoliti, 117–118).
Kallipoliti, Lydia. “Feedback Man.” Log.13 (2008): 115–8. Print.