Constance Adams, an architect who gave up designing skyscrapers to develop structures that would help travelers live with reasonable comfort on the International Space Station, Mars or the moon, died on Monday at her home in Houston. She was 53.
MaryScott Hagle, a friend and the guardian of Ms. Adams’s daughters, said the cause was colorectal cancer.
Ms. Adams had been interviewing for an architectural job in Houston in 1996 when she took a tour of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The tour roused her curiosity and led to two decades of work that challenged her to create living facilities for humans in the rarefied environment of space.
“How could the child of a historian resist?” she said in an interview with Metropolis magazine in 1999. “This is a big historical effort of our time.”
Working with Kriss Kennedy, a NASA space architect, Ms. Adams helped design the TransHab (short for Transit Habitat), a three-level inflatable module that, attached to the outside of the space station, would have augmented the cramped quarters in which astronauts have lived and worked since the craft was first launched in 2000. It would have also been used on a Mars mission.
A full-size prototype of TransHab was built, but the project never received the government financing that was needed to deploy it to outer space.
“The basic module of the space station is absolutely the most stupendous engineering project ever undertaken,” Ms. Adams told The New York Times in 2002. “But to live in, it’s a shotgun shack.”
She added: “You don’t want to be conducting lab experiments next to someone on a treadmill. Remember, in microgravity, sweat floats. It’s gross.”
The prototype comprised 12,000 cubic feet of living quarters, communal spaces, a galley, a sick bay and work and exercise areas, all protected by thick, bulletproof woven Kevlar.
Ms. Adams’s role focused on the human and performance aspects of the interior design.
“She was very persistent and determined,” Mr. Kennedy, who recently retired from NASA, said in a telephone interview. “She was a strong, independent thinker who was not shy about sharing her thoughts and views and stood up for what she thought was right in the design.”
Marc M. Cohen, another former NASA space architect, added in an interview, “She turned the concept of an inflatable — a flat tire, essentially — into a viable interior structure.”
Though TransHab never reached outer space, Ms. Adams maintained that the design and testing of it had made it a success.
“Its formal goal was simply to prove the virtues and viability of the inflatable option,” she told the website HobbySpace in 2003.
(A smaller version of TransHab has found life. A private company, Bigelow Aerospace, licensed the technology from NASA and attached its expandable activity module to the space station in 2016. It is being used not as a living habitat but to stow cargo.)
Constance Marguerite Adams was born on July 16, 1964, in Boston. Her father, Jeremy, was a professor of medieval history at Southern Methodist University in Dallas; her mother, Madeleine de Jean, is a writer and Champagne expert. Young Constance often traveled to Europe with her parents and, after their divorce in the 1970s, with her father and her stepmother, Bonnie Wheeler, a medieval studies professor at S.M.U.
Ms. Adams graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in social studies and wrote her senior thesis on Le Corbusier, the Swiss-French Modernist architect. After earning a master’s in architecture at Yale, she interned with the architect César Pelli. She then worked in Japan for the architectural firm of Kenzo Tange and in Germany for the firm of Josef Paul Kleihues.
“I went into architecture originally because it involves so many different things having to work together — complex interactions of systems,” she said at an event sponsored by Microsoft and National Geographic last year to encourage girls to participate in science and math. “I knew that if I did that, I would never be bored.”
When business slowed in Germany, where she had worked on master plans, she returned to the United States. After touring NASA, she left her résumé; the agency connected her with Lockheed Martin, which hired her and brought her to NASA as a consultant. Her first project was the Bio-Plex, a prototype surface habitat that could support six people on Mars.
In her space work — through Lockheed Martin; Futron, another contractor; and Synthesis International, a consulting firm she formed in the 1990s — Ms. Adams also participated in the design of NASA’s X-38 crew return vehicle and its orbital space plane. And she consulted on the design of Spaceport America, built in New Mexico by the spaceflight company Virgin Galactic.
Last year she worked with a group of Ikea designers who explored space-saving solutions for their furnishings by living for several days in the simulated Mars habitat at the Mars Desert Research Center near Hanksville, Utah.
“The things we assume are a constant, such as gravity, change in these environments,” Ms. Adams told Wired magazine. “The only thing that remains the same is the human.”
Ms. Adams is survived by her daughters, Mathilde Adams and Valerie Wehring, as well as her mother and her stepmother. Her marriage to Charles Wehring Jr. ended in divorce. Her father died in 2016.
Ms. Adams expressed awe at what NASA had achieved with government funding under the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo manned-spaceflight programs, and she was hopeful about the future, as evidenced by her personal motto: “Originally from Mars, just trying to get home.”
But she was troubled by budget cuts that led to the elimination of TransHab and the decline of NASA’s once-vast ambitions.
“No nation in the history of the earth has failed to conduct great projects and remain significant,” she said in a 2011 TEDx Talk.
“What is our Sputnik moment?” she added, referring to the satellite launch by the Soviet Union in 1957 that galvanized the United States space program. “How are we going to move on? What do we do next?”
She added, “We’ll never get to Mars like this.”