Why NASA Needs Architects And Designers

Human-centered design is important on Earth. It’s even more critical in space.


As NASA and the private space industry race to put people on Mars, architects and industrial designers have already begun looking ahead to where humans will live once we get to the Red Planet. For example, last year NASA held an architectural competition to design a 3D printed habitat on Mars that could house four astronauts. The winning design was the Ice House, a luminous plastic igloo sheathed in a protective layer of ice.


But the challenge of building a comfortable, live-able environment doesn’t just start when the astronauts reach Mars. The journey is estimated to take six to eight months in a transit habitat, followed by an 18 to 20 month stay on the ground–until the planets align for the same return trip.

Then there’s the unsettling possibility that when the crew gets to Mars and starts to orbit, they find they’re unable to land due to dust storms or other hazardous weather. If that happens, “there is the potential that they will be required to live in a transit habitat”–the environment inside of a spacecraft where astronauts live during their journey–“for up to three years,” says Michael Morris, one of the architects on the team behind the Ice House.

What happens it the transit habitat becomes, well, just the habitat?

Morris, who is also a visiting architecture professor at Pratt Institute in New York, is tackling this problem with the help of his students. Together with industrial design professor Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman, the pair spent the last school year teaching an undergraduate course that asked architecture and industrial design students to design a transit habitat that would be provide an aesthetically pleasing and functional environment for a potentially multi-year stay. Morris and Pailes-Friedman were able to create the class thanks to NASA’s X-Hab grant for students, and the students had access to many NASA employees and resources.

The idea for the class was to lend a designer’s perspective to the NASA engineers and scientists working on space travel. “So much about space research is supporting life up there, so everything comes down to calculation; everything is quantified,” says Pailes-Friedman. With access to NASA’s engineering know-how, the design students could think broadly about how to design a transit habitat that met the astronauts’ needs while still enhancing their well-being.

The habitat was designed to use space in the most efficient way possible, while still providing an environment that would feel like home to astronauts under stressful and exhausting conditions. The big question at NASA is the payload, or the weight that a rocket can carry. They decided to design a light inflatable structure, much like the one that is currently attached to the International Space Station, that would expand to fill the space but not add much weight to the spacecraft. The students divided their structure into two separate pods: an upper level and a lower level. The two pods not only breaks up the space to give astronauts more options and privacy, it also provides a back-up area were something to happen to part of the habitat.


Within the pods, the upper level is a sleeping pod that is divided into private rooms and a communal area. The lower pod is a modular area that supports everyday activities. At the center, a “Toolkit” contains six doors that pull out to open into their own contained spaces to support certain activities. There’s the kitchen door, for instance, and a health door that operates as a self-contained hospital unit. There’s also a communication door that will afford privacy to people calling back home.

All of this was designed with the astronauts’ physical and mental health in mind. For example, when the students asked NASA astronauts what brought them the most joy while in space, the most frequent answers were looking out the window and growing plants in the habit–so the students added a hydroponic garden to the kitchen. They also included a 3D food printer to provide different food options.

NASA engineers and scientists offered their critiques on the project along the way. Besides the dual pods, one of their favorite aspects of the design was the lighting. The students designed a lighting system that would adjust throughout the day to coincide with circadian rhythm, and there is even an option to sync up your lighting with those at home. So, for example, if it is snowing where an astronaut’s family is, the light will adjust to look the same in her room in space.

The professors are hopeful some of the ideas from the class will make their way into future habitat designs, and indeed, that’s part of why NASA has set up these education grants. Morris says that NASA is beginning to recognize some of the shortcomings of a strictly engineering approach and the importance of a humanized environment that feels like a home. “That’s why we have a double job,” he says. “To design the habitat, but also show them why there is an important seat at the table for architects and designers.”

Full-scale prototypes of the students’ work is now on view at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in Manhattan through July 18.

[All Photos: Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman]

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.