Astral tweaks

With the Government’s recent announcement of major investment in the UK’s space exploration effort, Angus Montgomery looks at how design is helping one private project – Virgin Galactic’s VSS Enterprise – to get off the ground

The launch of the UK Space Agency will give British designers more opportunities than ever before to work at an intergalactic level. Based in the distinctly un-astral town of Swindon in Wiltshire, the UK Space Agency, which came into effect last week, replaces the British National Space Centre, and brings all the agencies involved in the UK’s space race into one organisation.

The Government claims the UK’s space sector has grown by around 9 per cent a year since 2000, more than three times faster than the UK economy as a whole. The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills adds that the sector contributes £6.5bn a year to the British economy and supports 68 000 jobs.

One consultancy which has already benefited from this latest development is Folio Creative, which created the branding for the UKSA, having previously worked for the BNSC. David Bartholemew, managing director of Folio Creative, told Design Week at the time of the UKSA launch on 23 March that the new branding, which features a segment of the British flag turning into an arrow motif, ’reflects the forwardthinking nature of the new agency.

It had to indicate the exploration of space, but also reference Britishness’. Folio Creative client services director Ian Wilson, again speaking at the time of the launch, said, ’The new logo will play a key part in focusing attention on this hi-tech, high-skilled sector which is underpinned by a leading-edge scientific, technical and engineering capability in both industry and academia.’

Alongside the launch of the UKSA, the Government unveiled plans for a new £40m International Space Innovation Centre at Harwell, Oxfordshire, to sit within the European Space Agency facility that opened there last year.

Other plans to boost the UK’s space race include the development of a National Space Technology Strategy to promote the industry, and to investigate how space projects can help to deliver next-generation broadband. Saying, ’The Government’s commitments on space will help the sector go from strength to strength,’ Science and Innovation Minister Lord Drayson predicted that the UK’s space industry could grow to a value of £40bn a year and create 100 000 new jobs by 2030.

UK designers interested in working in the space sector will have few precedents to look to – the main one coming, rather surprisingly, from the private sector. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space travel venture is still approaching the launch pad, having been in development since the1990s.

Seymour Powell developed an interiors concept for the project, while livery for the spacecraft has been designed by Start Creative. Virgin Galactic’s VSS Enterprise craft completed its first ’captive carry’ flight at the end of last month, with the spaceship carried by its mothership.

The company says that the flight programme will continue throughout 2010 and 2011, from captive flight to independent carry and finally powered flight, prior to the start of commercial operations. Seymour Powell design director Nick Talbot issues a note of caution for those interested in exploring the final frontier of design, pointing out that in such a leading-edge technological environment, confidentiality agreements go above and beyond even the most draconian non-disclosure agreements signed by designers in other sectors.

This certainly seems to be the case with the majority of consultancies contacted for this article, which were gagged by their respective clients. Talbot says, ’The levels of security we had to deal with were so high that in some cases where we needed information to do our job, there was no legal way for people to get this information to us.’

Seymour Powell started working on on the interiors concept – which is designed to carry six passengers and two pilots – around five years ago, says Talbot, building on an existing relationship the consultancy had with Virgin. ’It got in touch with us and asked us if we’d be interested in designing the interiors of its space craft,’ says Talbot. ’Who would say no?’

The consultancy developed the interiors concept following meetings with Virgin Galactic’s team, including creative director Philippe Starck. Talbot says, ’In our first meeting with Starck he made a typically Gallic statement, saying, “The interiors should be like a cloud”.’

Talbot says Seymour Powell’s designs grew to reflect Starck’s vision, saying, ’We concluded that the spaceship’s interior should be a non-interior. The point about the experience is that it’s meant to be about the view – from a visual point of view, the interior had to nearly not be there.’

Hence specially designed seats that move from their 60-degree upright angle at take-off and flight to an almost-horizontal ’submarined’ angle as the passengers experience zero gravity. The focus is on the craft’s 15 windows, including floor windows through which passengers can view the Earth.

While noting that look and feel is obviously very important in commercial space design – Virgin Galactic flights cost $200 000 (£131 000) each, after all – Seymour Powell’s main design concerns were based on physics and physiology. Talbot says, ’There is a direct relation between the weight of the craft and the amount of time that people can spend in zero gravity.

There’s a saying in aerospace design that everything has to be light, but that in space design everything has to be VFL – very fucking light.’

Britain’s current space effort

The UK has interests in the European GMES and Galileo satellite projects

The UK also has a financial interest in the European Union Satellite Centre

Research Councils and the Technology Strategy Board are developing technology and intstruments projects

Latest articles