Design is key to beating monotony on long trips to Mars or the Moon

Dr Raffi Tchakerian, professor at the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation, looks at how design can help to overcome boredom during outer-space travel

ISS024-E-014263 (11 Sept. 2010) --- NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, Expedition 24 flight engineer, looks through a window in the Cupola of the International Space Station. A blue and white part of Earth and the blackness of space are visible through the windows.
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Less than five years from now, ­Yus­aku Maezawa will become the first private passenger to fly around the Moon. He will make his journey aboard SpaceX's Big Falcon Rocket, a next-­generation, fully reusable spacecraft that is capable of making humankind a space-faring civilisation.

The Japanese entrepreneur is taking six artists with him as his crew, with the purpose of inspiring humanity on their return. The fact that the art-lover and collector has chosen a civilian crew presents an interesting challenge for space designers: how do they ensure the mental and emotional well-being of untrained astronauts during missions to outer space?

Lengthy space missions with auto­nomous crews may well be a future many of us will be part of, and the role of the designer will be a critical one.  It will be their job to create a flexible, human-centric environment, and to ensure that man-machine interactions and solutions can be carried out intuitively in the harsh conditions of space.

Barriers to space travel

Humans are still relatively new to travelling beyond our planet; only about 500 people have left the Earth's atmosphere. There are still scores of barriers we need to overcome, such as propulsion, radiation protection and full resource autonomy. Not all of these issues are technical, though; many are psycho-physiological.

Humans tend not to do well when they are in isolated environments for long periods of time; monotony and boredom have been identified as serious causes of stress that can hinder the growth of entrepre­neurial space travel.

These can be caused by several factors, including low workloads, spatial confinement and limited social interactions due to separation from family and friends. At the same time, without equilibrium, you move between under-­stimulation and over-stimulation.

The psyche is also affected because of reduced sensory variety. Think of it this way, healthy human consciousness, perception and thought can only be maintained in a constantly changing environment. A state of sensory deprivation sets in with the absence of variety in our surroundings, which in turn has a negative effect.

Variety is the key to space design

The role of designers in preventing such stressors, or at least designing countermeasures, is crucial. Creating environments that remain unvaried for the entirety of a space mission is not the answer. Confined spacecraft environs should have built-in flexibilities, from morphing to interactive partitions, which can simulate light and textures following certain themes. Variety occurs on Earth because individuals encounter more than one theme in the course of a day.

Also, variety isn't only tied to the tangible environment. In many confined Mars simulations, crews have sought to hack hardware and materials on board for entertainment, or even to overcome unexpected problems. If environments are designed to allow for that in the first place, damage could be prevented and environments can be transformed into a sort of Swiss Army knife.

Altering the environment

Static and unchanging basic requirements, such as the atmosphere and temperature, could also contribute to sensory deprivation over the long term. But given the advances we have made in artificial intelligence and virtual reality, physical alterations to environments could be reduced by transforming the space craft themselves into alternate realities.

Many solutions are designed to map our physical environment already and transform it into, for example, an oceanic cruise experience or a rainforest, which you can wander through or play games in. By combining VR with atmospheric variations, experts could potentially design Star Trek-like holodeck simulators on board spacecraft.

What is certain is that the design of monolithic environments is not the solution any more, as it has been for the past 50 years. Flexible physical and atmospheric environments will be one of the many ways to combat ­monotony, and give crew on board, both trained and untrained, some moments of relief from the static atmosphere, to remind them of home and to encourage spontaneous activity.  

The role of design will be fundamental in the development of space missions in the coming decades and academic institutions should realise their value and invest more in the ­science of design.

Raffi Tchakerian is a space specialist and professor at the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation