Inspired by NASA’s research into “closed ecological life-support systems,” and the improvisational engineering feats of the Apollo 13 mission, SpaceCube is an ongoing project that attempts to counteract the adverse conditions of working in an office building. While astronauts brave the vacuum of space, office workers suffer the detriments of breathing recycled air and volatile organic compounds (VOCs.) VOCs are gases emitted by a wide array of products such as building materials, office equipment, computers, rugs, and cleaning supplies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says these chemicals have “short- and long term adverse health effects” and “many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors.” Possible health effects and symptoms include eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, loss of coordination, and damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Scientists at NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center studied the use of houseplants in sealed test-chambers to filter these chemicals out of the surrounding air, providing oxygen in return. SpaceCube employs six of the highest-performing species of plants, four of which are housed in reclaimed water bottles/food containers from the office’s kitchen.
The other two plants (Nephrolepis exaltata, Nephrolepis obliterata) are contained in a greenhouse chamber, with climate controlled light, humidity, and temperature. The chamber is made of BPA-free food containers, air duct tubing, duct tape, aluminum foil, LEDs, and a computer fan that gently blows fresh air toward the office worker. In the tradition of the famous Apollo 13 rescue, this hodgepodge of materials, while not the most aesthetically pleasing, gets the job done. During the Apollo 13 mission, the NASA engineers had to quickly find a way to fit square Carbon Dioxide filters into the Lunar Module’s round filter barrel to prevent a toxic, eventually lethal, buildup in the air. The resulting contraption was put together using cardboard book covers ripped from the flight logbooks, plastic bags, duct tape, and an extra spacesuit hose.
In the SpaceCube, a 3×3 foot prototype for growing vegetables has also been constructed. It features a timed fluorescent grow light, and a computer fan for ventilation and temperature control. It typically yields enough greens to make two turkey sandwiches (bread, turkey, cheese not included) or one salad per week.
In 1969, Buckminster Fuller envisioned our planet as “Spaceship Earth,” and suggested that we had to “keep the machine in good order,” or else it would “fail to function.” This project follows in that tradition, but also attempts to invert it by viewing the office cubicle as an ecological space, utilizing organic systems to mitigate some of the problems produced by industrial ones. In other words, constructing life-support systems for plants is somewhat ironic, since the plants themselves act as my life-support system.
Over the next year, this project will continue to grow, re-design, build, and adapt as needed.