Why space construction is light years ahead

29 August 2018 | By Sarah Fox

What can construction learn from the space industry? More than you’d think, writes Sarah Fox.

At the 2018 Construction Opportunities in Mobile IT (CoMIT) conference, Dr Ravi Margasahayam of NASA richly illustrated how space construction is light years ahead of earth construction.

His speech drew parallels between NASA’s work and the work of the less gravitationally challenged construction industry. Construction benefits from the innovation created by the space industry, but few of us would spot the concepts that we should be exploiting.

If a construction company used “Seeing the unseen and daring the impossible” as its tagline we would probably laugh. But most projects are unique, and on completion we are “seeing the unseen” for the first time in actual reality – even if digital modelling means we might have seen it in virtual reality.

Some of our projects do “dare the impossible” – they touch the technical edges of what is achievable. We know because often there is a court case to determine responsibility for bridges that wobble, skyscrapers that melt cars, wind turbines that collapse or glass walling that shatters.

One of the more obvious connections between construction in space and on earth is the use of offsite modular processes. Elements are constructed around the world. But instead of having a defects period, the elements for space construction have to match within a hairline tolerance. This is output-based design and construction, which is what we need to adopt here on earth.

Dr Margasahayam’s talk highlighted one significant challenge for global construction – moving to digital. But his siren call for action was not just about digital products or new processes. It was about people.

If we are to meet the demands of this century and the next, we need to collaborate beyond boundaries and learn from other industries.

We need to be prepared to take calculated risks and to learn from accidents, rather than finger-point when projects aren’t perfect. That will require a new approach to our current adversarial and fault-based contracting. We need to go beyond “on time and on budget” and set targets that demand a radical new approach. 

We will need new contracts, new insurance regimes, new processes, probably new laws. Are you ready to help construction make that giant leap?

Sarah Fox is founder of contracts business 500 Words

Image: Janeh15/

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