Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Pratt students make the potential trip to Mars better designed

Posted 24 Jun 2016 / 0
2016-06-24aMars landscape image courtesy of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory via Wikimedia Commons

Scientific AmericanHome Sweet Habitat: Students Help NASA Design Mars Spacecraft Living Quarters

Anyone who has regularly read my posts on the subject knows that I am a space exploration grump, particularly regarding the idea that humans ought to try to venture out beyond the earth (or even beyond its atmosphere, to be precise). But I have a soft spot for my students and colleagues, so I had to acknowledge this feature article on the webpage of Scientific American. I have had some wonderful Architecture and Industrial Design students at Pratt over the years, so it is no surprise to me that they were selected to take on this project, which required them to design the inhabitable volume of a spacecraft that would shuttle astronauts back and forth between the Earth and a Mars colony.

There are some fascinating design challenges associated with this project. As this article briefly explores, there are very extreme spatial constraints imposed on these spacecraft. I thought that it was interesting that the students considered using expandable spaces that would “inflate” once the spacecraft began traveling through empty space: this makes sense given that once a craft escapes the Earth’s atmosphere there’s no longer any reason to worry about aerodynamics. However, this design also kind of scared me (perhaps fear of space is a big part of my dislike of human space exploration, but that’s only part of the story), as any leak in this inflatable system could be catastrophic for the astronauts inside. The article only briefly discussed the kinds of design features that Pratt students came up with to deal with these spatial constraints, but clearly this is a problem that is well-matched to the skills that architects and industrial designers possess.

More interesting to me are the psychological constraints that these design teams had to take on. Human evolution has shaped us to have particular sensibilities about the spaces we inhabit, the sound and light environments we experience, and especially the social arrangement of our homes. Many evolutionary biologists have suggested that humans are fundamentally mismatched to many of the environments that we have created for ourselves, and perhaps no space is a better candidate for creating extreme mismatch than a spacecraft designed to travel to another planet. If from a psychological perspective we are poorly matched for living in dense urban areas, how bad is the mismatch in a tiny spacecraft? Again the article only briefly touches on the issue of how students dealt with this constraint; I am curious how you design to optimize positive social interactions and minimize psychological stress in general and social psychological stress in particular!

Getting back to my space-grumpy self, I am also curious about the impressions that students walked away with on this project. Although I am not a designer myself, my experience with designers has made me realize that often the challenge of the project itself is motivating enough to sustain their interest and enthusiasm. This is a characteristic of designers that I respect, even if it’s not a characteristic I possess. But I do wonder whether any of the students walked away from the project saying “wow, manned space travel is kind of insane”. I think that when you truly consider the constraints imposed by space travel, it is easy to see how inviable it is on any kind of larger scale. We might put a few humans on Mars, but a meaningful Mars colony presents technical challenges that might very well exceed even the best practices of human-centered design. Are the students involved in this project endlessly optimistic about the prospects for designing feasible Mars spacecraft, or does a deep investigation of these challenges cause any of them to question the whole venture? You know what I am hoping for…

I was extra-pleased to see Envirolutions alumna Amira Selim featured in this article. Congratulations on this acknowledgement Amira!

A Minor Post, Architecture, Evolutionary Psychology, Human limits, Industrial Design, Mismatch theory, Pratt Institute, Psychology, Space Travel, Web

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