RISD - NASA Collab Studio - Common Crew Habitat

Hello everyone,

I am currently a senior undergraduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design, and this semester I am part of the RISD NASA studio that some of you may know about. RISD usually has a studio class in collaboration with NASA every year. This year we’re designing what is being called a Common Crew Habitat. The official description is below, but the gist of it is for our final project we are designing a common habitat for crew to live in that could be adapted to different missions, rather than designing a new habitat for each mission.

I have started this thread for me, and my studio mates to post our work from this studio and get some valuable feedback from everyone here on the core boards. Any constructive comments will be appreciated!

Design for Extreme Environments: Common Crew Habitat, ID-24ST-07

What Are Extreme Environments?
Extreme environments create extraordinary challenges to human physiological and
psychological existence where common expectations for safety, comfort and performance
need to be radically redefined. Putting people into unfamiliar or highly dangerous surroundings
requires an extreme level of attention to design. It is not enough to design technologies,
systems, or equipment that function according to basic technical specifications. Human needs of
the users, and the people who will interact with them must be incorporated.

Gravity affects everything we do here on Earth. Designing for a zero gravity environment is
radically different – common assumptions no longer hold true and every aspect of a design must
be considered in a new context. This questioning of assumptions and the awareness of context
are essential for good design – whether in space, on Mars, the Earth’s moon, or here on Earth.
The “Design for Extreme Environments” studios fit into a long tradition at RISD of teaching
universal and socially responsible design as a means to emphasize a uniquely human perspective
on design and design methodologies. These studios teach design through the constraints
imposed by extreme environments, highlighting the design process with an unparalleled
emphasis on the user. This emphasis on creativity and innovation in tightly constrained
situations, along with the emphasis on human needs and interactions allows the work to have
far broader applications and influence than the exclusive focus on the space program.

For this semester, NASA has approached RISD with the objective of understanding how best to
design a “Common Crew Habitat” that would serve many different mission architectures. Could
the same habitat design function as well on a Mars mission as it would when sending astronauts
to an asteroid? If adaptations are required, how might they be best accomplished without
starting over on a clean sheet of paper each time? What is really possible?

During this semester we will work directly with personnel at NASA’s Johnson Space Center
to develop concepts for habitats, cockpits and systems that will demonstrate the idea of
a “common design” approach. We will build mockups to help visualize the problems and
understand what impacts the designs would have on astronauts on a long duration mission.
NASA will provide information and access to current requirements and past design studies to
assist our understanding of life for an astronaut. This studio will play a key role in helping NASA
explore possibilities for new approaches to the design of spacecraft and habitats.

Cool, looking forward to it. You aren’t under NDA? Nice.

Nope, I checked with the professor before I started this studio, since an NDA would be bad for my portfolio since I am graduating soon!

Our first project was to do with coffee in space.

Since any coffee drank in space would have to be instant coffee sucked from a bag/straw/capri-sonne pouch type thing, it isn’t very conducive to the coffee drinking experience. Sipping scalding hot coffee slowly is very different from sucking it in gulps from a straw. How could you make fresh coffee in a space station, and how would you enhance the experience of drinking coffee so that it was something social and comforting?

While we realized the project brief is not entirely realistic, and the products we design would most likely be completely impractical or not cost effective, this was just a 4 day warm up project to get us to think about designing for space. There are so many gravity related behaviours of materials, gasses and liquids that we unconsciously take for granted, it took some extra thought to think about how our products would function in space.

Here is my group’s design:

As you might be able to tell, we took this project with a light heart :slight_smile:

If the images are way too big, do tell me and I’ll resize them!

Designed with Nash Palazzo and Natalie Murrow

Constructive criticism and feedback would be greatly appreciated!

Nice process study, and intial studies made with “a light heart” are always encouraging, but then there’s the nitty-gritty part.

You’re taking up a bunch of “space” however … and not a little weight. With a per pound launch cost of roughly $5,000US , you may want to reconsider the “coffee shop-ness” of your concept.

Perhaps keying on the “what”, “how” and “why” we enjoy drinking coffee should be considered.

Aroma… there’s not going to be a whole lot of that coming from a sealed container, and it’s a major part of enjoying a cup of Joe. How do the molecules of “aroma” bearing moisture migrate through your proposed membrane and at the same time not contaminate the environment? How can aroma be compensated?

Flavor intensity…this may sound strange, but weighless-ness and the inhalation of mixed-gases tends to adversely affect the sense of taste.

Mouth-feel; notably temperature, but also “creaminess” and “thickest” (perceived as a “rich” cup of coffee).

Cultural associations; relaxation, community (not sure how much actual “socializing” over a cup goes on while in orbit), well-being, alertness, etc.

Maybe the product designed isn’t injection molded and machined. “Drinking” coffee may not necessarily be the answer … perhaps an intensely flavored, soft, melt-in-your-mouth, cube (akin to a caramel) that lingers on (and soothes) the tongue, and waifs up through the nostrils to the nose might be one way to achieve these sensations.

Or not.

Interesting project for sure. We have a some members who are in the confectionery, and coffee “industries”, it will be interesting to hear their take on it.

Functionally it looks pretty sorted out, in terms of the interaction… but why does it look the way it does? What is the manufacturing process? Seems to have lots of odd facets in odd places that don’t seem to connect to the coffee experience you are trying to create. Also, the cups coming out of the cup rack in bottom of the unit look much smaller than the cup cavities, and there seems to be several levels of sketch ability going on which is distracting. The main sketch for the astro cafe looks decent, but the sketches for the “how to use” page are rough… parody logo from Starbucks is a nice idea, but needs to be dialed in, looks half baked.

Looks like a good start to a project, not the final.

Hey all,

Thanks for the useful feedback. These are all very useful comments.

We were definitely aware of the size and weight restrictions, and perhaps it is true our design did not take this into account very much. We completely agree that a coffee maker for a space station would not be an effective use of time, money, or resources. However, the design was not meant to be realistic, and was just a warm up project to help us to think about the mechanics and the level of extra detail needed to design for space.

Your coffee cubes idea is very interesting indeed, and would probably be a much better solution. It would be much more efficient in all ways, and if it could deliver an experience better than drinking coffee from a cup in space, then I think it would be a great solution.

Glad to know the function makes sense. Since we only had 3-4 days to work on this project, we did not really take into consideration many of the things you mentioned, though I agree that they are important. The main aim of the project was to seriously consider designing a liquid system involving heating, brewing, and moving liquids in space.

I see that the aesthetics of the design do not really inform much about the way the product is made or constructed, which we could have considered more. The reason for the multiple levels of sketch ability is because it was a group project, with each person contributing some sketches. About this, would you recommend that in future for group projects only displaying the sketches of one person to keep it consistent?

Sorry its been awhile since I updated this, but school (and mostly this project) has really been taking up most of my time. But for anyone who’s still interested, here are some updates on our process so far. We’re about 6 weeks into the actual design of the cabin with about 3 weeks to go. The final design is coming together with some details being worked out through modelmaking.

We kicked off our project with a visit to the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Long Island NY. We got to see a lot of aerospace stuff and be inspired, and took lots of reference photos of the models of the Apollo modules there.

We got to talk to a few ex Northrop Grumman engineers who worked on the Apollo program and helped put the first man on the Moon. They had a lot of interesting things to say about how they did this. The thought of designing something that would be going into the complete unknown of space at the time was quite mind blowing. They pointed out some parts of the Apollo lander that were surprisingly simple in concept, though no small engineering feat.

Back at RISD, we received our official briefing from NASA through an early morning teleconference. We were tasked with designing a common crew cabin that could be used (perhaps with slight modifications or “kitting”) for multiple types of missions. Possible missions included lunar and Mars landings, asteroid explorations, and surface explorations. We were asked to design for four astronauts staying in the craft for up to two weeks. Spatial relations and an efficient use of space would have to be heavily considered.

We started conducting some heavy research on the systems involved in a spacecraft. There was so much we didn’t know about the what was in a real spacecraft that this was a very important stage of the design process. We split the research into manageable chunks and did it in groups, then presenting our findings to each other so we all had an overall understanding.

We looked through pages and pages of NASA documents with countless confusing acronyms.

Trying to synthesize the information into usable knowledge for the ideation phase.

As a group, we began to generate a large range of concepts. Even though we still didn’t have the clearest idea of all the systems on a spacecraft, the act of generating ideas helped us think through the craft and also identify parts we weren’t sure about yet.

Some of my own rough early sketches

We investigated different mission architectures for situations like manned Moon/Mars landings, surface exploration, space/asteroid exploration. Looking at these scenarios helped us generate ideas, and made sure we kept our original goal of designing a common crew cabin for multiple situations.

We discussed our initial ideas and evaluated them based on our research. We were careful not to confine ourselves too much yet, and were open to many different types of concepts.

That takes us to about week 2 of the process…

More to come soon! If you have any questions at all, please ask away!

I uploaded some vintage Loewy work from Skylab here which might be nice reference for you in terms of showing some of these ideas in a more visually compelling and self explanatory way:

Hi Michael,

Thanks for that. I’ve already looked up as many of the Loewy drawings as I could find when this project began. I really admire the sketching style and the clarity of the concepts shown. Unfortunately, I’ve found it hard to do my own drawings in a stylized and clear way as I usually would for products, because the project is so complex and so far removed from anything I’ve ever worked on before. Most of the sketches you will see are mostly for communicating ideas to teammates, so they won’t be flashy. Perhaps I will refine the sketches a level further to try and achieve more visually compelling and explanatory drawings now that the ideas are more solid.

It’s not about being flashy, it is about being clear, communicative, and compelling. Nothing less than the best you can possibly do. Make the viewer want to understand it and want to see it built.

Very true. I most definitely agree that being clear and communicative is the most important thing when sketching. I will have to work on the sketches I continue to do to make them communicate these complex ideas better.

Meanwhile, as a side note, here are some other sketches I have done for this project. If you don’t mind, could you give me some pointers on how to improve them both in terms of communication and style?


I totally missed this thread! It’s great to see that your sharing your work, it looks like some very interesting design challenges. I spent a couple years working with the guys down at JSC in the design dept, saw RISD Space Arch Studio’s design work, and we had a couple interns every year from there. The challenges for a low-g or 0g environment are very inspiring for innovative ideas, and understanding / respecting all the unusual constraints are a big part of successful design work

It’s cool that you looked at the space coffee experience - I did a take on a space coffee cup back in 08’, you might have seen it… I did it on my own, mostly because the innovation Donald Petitt invented was amazing but really needed a little bit more of a human touch. LMO’s right: a dedicated space coffee machine would never fly (literally) on a shuttle or in the station, there’s not enough room or justification for frills like that. You’re going to have to consider what’s already up there or how it could be more multi purpose (a little like that apollo 13 scene) and the get to know the compromises that are already in place there. I was trying to make my concept fit in with the heatable coffee packs they are using now, where they could squeeze it into a more comfortable lightweight cup and get a better coffee experience than a bag. There’s still plenty of room for improvement when you consider everything

From the stories and briefings I’ve been in, life is so different up there - It’s like living in a submarine but you’re floating and can’t do anything in the way you normally would. There really aren’t as many windows as you might think, until they recently installed the cupola, so you’re just floating around this boxy claustrophobic space. There are strange noises, fans going, creaks ect, and strange cold and hot areas, and moisture is really the enemy - it corrodes & ices things up and causes mildew. You wear the same clothes for 2-3 days then trash them because you can’t wash clothes (some astronauts clean stuff in ziplock bags). Not to mention the danger, nausea, etc etc… If you can get a hold of it, NASA has diary’s from the Skylab and other missions and it’s absolutely fascinating stuff - Astronauts go into detail about their daily lives, things that they have trouble with, innovations that did or didn’t work, discomforts, etc. Some of the more interesting parts were about shaving and daily routines you take for granted. This was back when they were testing some of the first concepts for orbital habitats, such as Lowey’s skylab shoes that click into the mesh flooring in the pic below (which apparently wasn’t so successful by the way.)

There are some interesting books about life aboard modern spacecraft as well and if you can get access, listening to the real astronauts talk about their experiences is very inspiring for designing solutions. Most people in the Space Industry are in it because they love it, and would be more than happy to help promote space flight, as I’m sure you’re already learning. Make sure to talk to as many as you can with intelligent questions and they will probably give you good advice

got to second what Yo posted too - sketches should be clear because in the real workflow as they would be going to engineers for review, not designers. Aesthetics are important, but never in a way that could compromise weight or engineering, though everyone appreciates little tweaks for a better environment. Since you guys might be showing these to product design companies and designers, you have a lot more leeway to flash things up

more later, but glad to see you guys posting!

Hey Travismo

Thats awesome that you worked at JSC. I’m actually going to be interning there this summer! Really excited for that.

The coffee project was only a hypothetical project to get us thinking about designing for zero G. A dedicated coffee machine would definitely never fly in space! We were specifically asked to design a coffee machine though, so we could think about the mechanics of liquid flow etc.

We did do a lot of research into how astronauts live, reading books, looking through NASA documents, even doing a confined living research experiment with 4 “astronauts” (I will talk more about this in a later post). We are actually pretty deep into the process now, ready to build a full scale foamcore mockup that will be completed within the next 2 weeks. I haven’t been able to keep up with posting our process pictures as the workload mounts, but I’ll definitely show the rest of the process and the final mockup in a later post.

That’s cool man… You’re going to have a fun time with the guys down there!

Talking about testing in confined spaces, I heard a great story from a vet designer who worked for Loewyin the 60s… it was that Mr Loewy himself had planned to drive down to NASA from NYC in a spacesuit so he could get a feel for what it was like to spend time in the same conditions as an astronaut. Apparently it was so uncomfortable he ditched the plan right outside the city, but changed back into the suit in the NASA parking lot so he could still impress everyone… total showman!

Sorry for the pause, I’ve been swamped this week and I missed your update! Thanks for posting more sketches, these are much better. Here is what I think will take them to the next level:

1: functional color: use color to tell me what is going on, for example shading everything in red that represents a section through a wall in your cutaway views, or using color to indicate floor surface consistently, so in every sketch I better understand the plan view of the floor. Which leads me to:
2: plan views: for spacial designs, having a plan view in the corner of each sketch can be very helpfull
3: calligraphic line weight and shading. Right now there isn’t much depth to these sketches because the lines don’t taper in thickness. Some heavy shadow areas can also pull some things forward
4: these seem like good schematic starts, but the designs themselves don’t seem to be worked up, even the most simplest design elements of things line up nicely would help this feel designed. Right now they feel like better sketches of what an engineer would design.
5: better more consistent representations of people. Develop a style to show the figure and be consistent. Do I need a guy on the toilet to understand it is a toilet?
6: a little less cartoony, a little more architectural

a little Syd Mead for inspiration:

Syd Mead 2010.jpg

5: better more consistent representations of people. Develop a style to show the figure and be consistent.

Something we all see every day of our lives, and is still the hardest to draw… the human body.

A good work ref … The Human Machine, by George Bridgman, 1939 (an oldie, but goodie).

Hey Michael,

Thanks again for all your comments. I’ll work on those things as I do some final presentation sketches. The Syd Mead stuff is great inspiration!

Will keep you guys posted!

Awesome, feel free to post work as you go. The NASA colab is an awesome opportunity. RISD has been doing this for years, I’d love to see you guys end with something that is as visually mindblowing as it is functional and usable. These guys are stuffed in these environments for a long periods, give them something that works, and give them something they can love.