How human-centred is space travel? | PDD

How human-centred is space travel?


on July 16 2019

Exactly 50 years ago on 16 July, Neil Armstrong, Edwin Eugene (Buzz) Aldrin and Michael Collins embarked on the Apollo 11 spacecraft mission headed to the Moon. The 4-day journey from Earth to the lunar surface proved to be a time-transcending ‘leap for mankind’ with ground-breaking implications for future space exploration. This is the first article in a series of three that commemorates and delves into the greatest journey ever embarked on by humanity. Here we take a closer look at the ambition behind the lunar mission and the human side of the designs and technological processes that came together to propel the three astronauts beyond the Earth’s borders.

Conquering new horizons has always been a distinctively human trait and the blue sky is no longer the limit. Scientists know so much more today than they did half a century ago and technology is so advanced that the chip inside an iPhone XS runs about five million times faster than the Apollo 11 Guidance Computer. This means that the 21st century might witness private return flights to space, the development of ‘state-of-art’ small spacecraft technology designed by NASA, as well as establishing humans as Mars citizens. Some of the world’s most innovative space exploration companies, such as Blue Origin, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are now on a race to conquer cosmic horizons.

From flights past the edge of the Kármán line and cargo missions to Mars, to the first Red planet base scheduled for 2024, sending humans to space safely is anything but easy and a multitude of factors come into the equation.

Video credit: SpaceX

Not only are manned missions to space a matter of technology-centred engineering, but also of human-centred design. A holistic approach must be applied and that usually includes the development of models and prototypes followed by people-centred research, usability testing, user experience and interaction, as well as analysis and evaluation. Apart from knowledge and anticipation, designers must put themselves in the astronauts’ shoes and imagine what the entire space travel experience would feel like. ‘There’s really a lot more that we don’t know than we do know about how the social psychology and the personal individual psychology degrades when circumstances degrade’ states Ted Smith – Director of the Centre for Healthy Air, Water and Soil at the University of Louisville.

Taking a human-centred approach to design entails more than creating products that are useful and nice to the touch; an extensive range of unfamiliar experiences need to be foreseen. Sleeping and eating become challenging tasks due to constant light inside the ship, lack of gravity and the movement of fluids to the upper body. More than this, the body doesn’t react to drugs the same way it does on Earth, the shape of the brain changes and parts of the eye become swollen, while space radiation is likely to increase the chances of cancer. Also, the sense of isolation and the distance from Earth adds up to the list of factors impacting the human body in space. We explore the healthcare implications of space travel in more detail here.

The Apollo 11 Lunar Module (also referred to as ‘Eagle’) that carried the first three astronauts to the surface of the Moon was an exceptional ship equipped with the latest technology available at that time. Unfortunately, that left little to no space for the crew to do pretty much anything other than managing the control panels. The ship was only 3.3 m tall with a habitable volume of 5.94 cu. m. A 3D overview of the Eagle lunar module can be seen here.

Image credit: Smithsonian

A glimpse into the future

The 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing left us thinking about one thing: what will space travel look like in the next 50 years? The idea of private spaceflight is gaining momentum, but this concept has been around since 1962 when NASA launched Telstar – the first privately sponsored space-faring mission. In 2016, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration released the concept of a potential deep space habitat interior and six other companies, including Lockheed Martin and Boeing, were commissioned to come up with their own innovative prototypes.

Image credit: NASA

As stated by NASA, ‘the ground prototypes will be used for three primary purposes: supporting integrated systems testing, human factors and operations testing, and to help define overall system functionality.’ Deep space habitat concepts leverage on design, human safety and feature specific areas to accommodate the various needs of the astronauts. The Lockheed Martin’s proposed prototype has enough space for food and other ‘living essentials’, as well as workstations, fitness and sleeping areas. Since astronauts in space are exposed to radiations that are the equivalent of 150 to 6.000 chest X-rays, part of the storage would work as a protective shield too, mentioned Danielle Hauf – Spokesperson of Lockheed Martin.

Image credit: NASA        

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule also offers a clear insight into the design of future space flights. Dubbed as ‘the first private spacecraft to the space station’, the capsule takes a minimalistic approach to a design that accommodates up to 7 people, incorporates three windows from which the Earth, the Moon and the rest of the Solar System can be observed, a screen display with real-time information regarding the spacecraft’s abilities, position in space, as well as possible destinations.

Video credit: SpaceX

Both Boeing and SpaceX have contracts with NASA to get people to the International Space Station, but getting there requires protection within the spaceship too. The newly-proposed spacesuits take a closer look at the user experience and feature lighter and more comfortable designs that seamlessly combine functionality and innovation. But astronauts won’t be able to wear them outside the spacecraft due to the extreme temperatures, lack of oxygen and UV radiations that are likely to pass through the thin protective layer of these suits. However, these new designs feature touchscreen-compatible gloves, hearing protection during ascent and re-entry, as well as visors that give users a better peripheral view.

Image credit: Boeing and SpaceX

Mixing knowledge and expertise from an array of disciplines will ignite the most distinctive ideas, hence innovative solutions to the most difficult aspect of space travel: humans. Whether the future portrays astronauts orbiting galaxies accompanied by AI bots or VR pets, or whether their suits will act as a continuation of the ship is yet to be seen.

Nevertheless, a journey outside the Earth’s border is one many would embark on and space tourism is currently developed to the point where any earthling could become an astronaut. As Scott Kelly mentioned after having spent over 520 days and 10 hours on the International Space Station, as soon as you realize you aren’t going to die, space is the most fun you’ll ever have’.