Astronautical Engineering Lecturer, USC
With an educational background in architecture (Master’s in Building Science from the University of Southern California) and engineering (Bachelor’s in Science and Engineering from the National Institute of Technology in India), Thangavelu conducts the ASTE 527 Space Exploration Architectures Concept Synthesis Studio in the Department of Astronautical Engineering, and teaches the ARCH 599 Extreme Environment Habitation Design Seminar in the School of Architecture at the University of Southern California.
Thangavelu is a graduate of the inaugural summer session of M.I.T.’s International Space University in 1988 and versions of his Master’s thesis, entitled "MALEO: Modular Assembly in Low Earth Orbit. An Alternate Strategy for Lunar Base Establishment" were published in several journals worldwide. His areas of expertise include architectural design synthesis, space architecture, space systems engineering, and lunar base design.
INTERVIEW WITH MADHU THANGAVELU
How did you become involved with the International MoonBase Alliance?
My family and I joined Henk Rogers for dinner in 2015; he wanted to know about the work I completed for NASA, specifically related to space architecture and lunar facilities. Then in 2017, he hosted a magnificent and visionary meeting on the Big Island that I attended. His goal is to build a Moon simulator, similar to his Mars simulator on the slopes of Mauna Kea. He thinks Hawai‘i is the right place to bring the world together, to unite as family, and I agree.
As a space architecture and engineering consultant, what are some of the projects you’ve advised on?
I’ve done work for NASA in space architecture with a focus on our Moon; proprietary projects for private space companies, both prime NASA contractors and small businesses; and in the entertainment sector, for Blizzard Entertainment to inspire them with the development of space games. I’ve built homes, assisted developing plans for spiritual buildings, and also proposed technologies to fly the last shuttle missions safely. In addition to providing concept creation alternatives to my clients, teaching is also a big passion of mine.
What are some of the reasons why we should return to the Moon and establish a permanent settlement there?
Our Moon is our sister planet. It’s not a dead, barren wasteland that it’s often portrayed to be. As Henk likes to say, the Moon is waiting to be born. Its presence beckons the entire world to go there, live there, and make it a vibrant part of our global economy.
Unlike New York or London or Shanghai or Amsterdam or Dubai or Mumbai or Singapore, we can see the Moon with our naked eyes every day. If we can settle there, it’ll serve as a reminder about our common destiny as a species and our ability to live in harmony; shedding petty quarrels and playing unimaginative zero sum games for resources. Our Moon would be the first step to making humankind a new species: Homo Sapiens Cosmicus, who live, dream, and dance among the stars.
What are the differences when considering architecture and engineering on Earth versus outer space and the Moon? What would a “moonbase” look like, or architecturally need to have to ensure structural integrity and to be within acceptable parameters for human use and settlement? For example, to resist against the high levels of radiation that come from the sun?
Everything about our Moon is different. The vacuum, the gravity, the extreme temperature range, the micrometeoritic bombardment, and the deadly radiation. How do we live there?
For a long time, scientists have looked at how we might build habitats inside natural caves and crevices on the Moon, until we slowly establish large structures that can protect us from deadly lunar surface environments. We have known for a long time that there are lava tubes on our Moon but we didn’t know how to enter these deep buried structures--until a decade ago, when a Japanese spacecraft spotted a roof breach on what appeared to be a lunar lava tube. Soon after, an American lunar orbiting spacecraft confirmed this discovery, which has changed the entire paradigm of permanent lunar habitats. Now, we believe lunar lava tubes are strong enough structures to support facilities and we’re proposing detailed exploration using robots and astronauts. Once we set up inside, we can develop methods and technologies to eventually build large settlements in safe locations, including habitats on the surface.
Can you share a little about your MIT's International Space University Master's thesis relating to low Earth orbit modular assembly? What are the steps to such a construction and how do Earth teams train for building modular assemblies on Earth (which has gravity, unlike in outer space)?
The concept is called MALEO: Modular Assembly in Low Earth Orbit.
Nearly 30 years ago, my friends and I proposed we build the first lunar base in low Earth orbit (near the space station) and then fly it to the Moon, rather than build it piecemeal in a harsh and dusty lunar surface environment. Most conventional concepts at the time suggested lunar base components be launched separately from Earth and landed one at a time on the Moon, where they’re then assembled by robots and astronauts in extra-vehicular activity. The goals and architectural drivers for the MALEO concept were the need to provide a comfortable working environment and assured safe haven for the astronaut crew working on the base, and the maximum exploitation of the evolutionary benefits derived from the assembly and operation of what would become the International Space Station.
What should humankind be mindful of when considering future space travel, to the Moon, Mars, and beyond?
Spirituality, which is often neglected in modern science and engineering practices. We live and are conscious only for a blink in geological time, but humankind is bestowed with something that we feel other living things may not have or are unable to communicate with others about. We feel the need to protect our Mother Earth, which gave us life, and we strive be better stewards of our environment. We know, deep within us, that we are part of something much, much bigger than what we can see and feel around us in our immediate presence.
We hear that from our elders. I heard it from the people of Hawai‘i, every time I visit. Henk knows this, and that is why he set up Blue Planet Foundation.
This oneness with the cosmos is most precious and we want more people of the world, especially the modern western world, to feel this. It is in our DNA but often obfuscated by the shallow glamour of materialism, associated technologies, and the regular bombardment of “things to do” in our daily lives. If we can better tune into our inner selves, to feel this oneness with Mother Earth and our fellow beings and the creatures and life around us, then I think the world will be much, much better off for all of us and for our biosphere. Human space activity is one way to help reach this sublime nexus.