Design in Space
What is life like in space? Galina Balaschova, the first Russian space architect and interior designer, has never found out first hand. Yet her designs were instrumental in shaping life in space for decades: harmonious, cosy and pretty much the opposite of high tech. Her watercolours and drawings are unique works of art from an era before computer and the Internet. Read More
For most of us, blasting off into space is no more than a forgotten childhood dream. While we imagine the infinite universe and scientists spin visions of travelling as far as Mars one day, real astronauts live in a very limited and confined space. According to 84-year-old architect Galina Balaschova, the Mir space station was around as big as the living room in her series I-464 concrete pre-fab housing estate in a Moscow suburb. Except that her living room is a little shorter.
Galina Balaschova would certainly know, given that she designed the Russian space capsule’s interior. And it was not the only one of her designs to orbit the earth: She also worked on the Saljut space station, the Sojus capsule and the Buran programme, names that have taken on an almost mythical status in the collective imagination. Galina decided whether it would be better to have the astronauts sleep vertically or horizontally, how to offer the best possible view from the porthole, and the optimal design for the toilet.
Yet while the names of the spacecraft have gone down in the annals of history, Galina Balaschova is certainly not a household name. When the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States was in full swing in 60s and 70s, her work for the Russian cosmonaut programme was highly classified. Now decades after her retirement, Galina Balaschova’s art can finally go public. Her work is exceptional, unexpectedly aesthetic, and very surprising. Perhaps because none of us expects beautiful and sophisticated artistic design in space, or has even really thought about the interior design of the space stations and ships.
The interiors of Sojus and Mir were designed using a pencil and water colours.
Space stations drafted on graph paper
As impossible as it is to imagine now, space travel began well before there were any sophisticated computer programmes to assist with the necessary calculations. The first space stations were built without the help of 3D-animated design software. The interiors of Sojus and Mir were designed using a pencil and water colours on transparent paper.
This was Galina Balaschova’s area of expertise and would ultimately prove to be her life’s work. In 1963 space pioneer Sergei Korolev invited her to draft designs for the living space on the Sojus space capsule. She was not even 30 years old at the time. It was shortly after Jurij Gagarin’s first manned space flight in 1961, and the Soviet space programme was starting to ramp up its first major phase. Galina Balaschova jumped at the opportunity and won the pioneer over with her very first design.
“Korolev needed a design for a compartment in which astronauts could live in in orbit. Engineers designed the spherical volume and placed all of the necessary equipment in two wooden boxes. They were painted red in an attempt to make them beautiful. Korolev was outraged by this decision and instructed artist Dyumin to turn it into a real living space. Dyumin knew me and my work, so he asked me to draw a sketch. I did the first sketch at home over the weekend. Korolev liked it, so I began designing spaceship interiors.”
Galina would soon go on to dedicate her life to creating living and liveable spaces in zero gravity. For the next 28 years, she designed the living quarters on the Russian space stations, along with the insignia and on-board devices. Not only was she the sole woman in an all-male team; she was also the only architect in a sea of engineers and as such the creative mind behind the Soviet space programme.
“An architect’s main job is to design a harmonious space that takes advantage every bit of the capacity available. It’s not an easy task, but it is also immensely satisfying to work hard and come up with the right solution. This gave me a great deal of pleasure.”
“An architect’s main job is to design a harmonious space.”
Efficiency is the most important factor for interior design on spaceships and space stations, as all the key technical functions have to be integrated into a very small space. But Galina did not ignore comfort, beauty and aesthetics in the process.
“We put a lot of effort into optimising the sleeping bunks. The cosmonauts requested additional nets to protect them from objects or crumbs floating around. I was grateful for these tips.”
Curtains to frame the porthole, a patterned spread on the sofa, books on a shelf: Galina Balaschova’s designs were anything but high tech and tried to make the cosmonauts feel as at home as possible as they floated high above earth. She used colours to provide a sense of direction in a weightless world: the floor in green, walls in yellow, and the ceiling in white provided at least the illusion of up and down. She added hook-and-loop fasteners to cups, plates, books and films so they could be fastened to the textile wall covering.
“Our astronauts really liked the spaceship interiors. Working in our ships was convenient and comfortable. During the Soyuz-Apollo program, American astronauts also praised the interior of our compartment.”
This was back in 1975, the first time the Americans and the Russians worked together to complete the Apollo-Sojus mission. Galina has innumerable stories and anecdotes from the cosmonauts who were on the space missions, but she has never felt the urge to leave the earth’s atmosphere herself.
“Although I was involved with space travel for almost three decades, I never wanted to fly into space myself. I loved my work as an architect and striving to create harmony and the right scale fascinates me to this day. To put it bluntly, space never had the attraction for me that architecture did.”
What was the most fascinating space story she ever heard?
“The most interesting story from the cosmonauts was a story cosmonaut Makarov told me in 1972 or 1973. At this time the whole idea of UFOs was still top secret and we were amazed when he told us that he saw an UFO during his space flight. He said that he saw a disk that followed the station for about 20 minutes before flying away. At the time this story really amazed me.”
Going public at age 83
It does not bother Galina Balaschova that her drawings and watercolours have been kept strictly confidential. Politics never affected her work, she says. And the ban on talking about it was not all that strict, she recalls:
“I couldn't give any technical details, but I could tell my family and friends that I designed the interiors of spaceships. My husband worked at the same company and he also knew about my work. Moreover, I did some of the sketches at home, when I didn’t have enough time at work or wanted to devote more time to the project.”
Still, the confidential nature of her work is probably one reason Galina Balaschova never achieved worldwide fame. Architect Philipp Meuser has now turned the story of this pioneer of space architecture into a book and the Frankfurt Architecture Museum hosted the first public exhibition of her work in November 2015.
Galina retired in 1991 and has lived in the town of Koroljow in a living room around as large as the Mir space station ever since. The walls are covered with her watercolours. Asked whether she still dreams about space and cosmonauts, she replies:
“I’m not particularly interested in space projects now. My daughter and her husband work with the space sector and I learn about the latest developments from them. The current ISS is pretty much based on the MIR space station; there is nothing new being made.”
As for her favourite space shuttle, she remembers:
“The interior design of the Soyuz-Apollo was my favourite project. I think it is the most harmonic and beautiful of all my designs.”
If you want to know more about Galina Balashova and her beautiful designs, the book "Galina Balashova - Architect of the Soviet Space Programme" by Philipp Meuser will certainly interest you.