Mission to Mars

Pratt Design Reaches for the Stars

Pratt Institute is one only of a handful of universities selected in 2016 to participate in NASA’s eXploration Habitat (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge—part of the space agency’s goal to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s.

And an IDSA Student Chapter officer is among the 19 industrial design and architecture students taking part. Dillon Chen, S/IDSA, presented a scale model of the Toolkit—a kitchen, medical center and communications hub that would be part of an anesthetically pleasing and highly functional "Human Centered Design: Mars Transit Habitat" that could get astronauts to Mars. He calls it "a once in a lifetime opportunity."

"I think our role as industrial designers is to step into the shoes of other people and understand their environment. In this case, it was not only to understand and empathize with astronauts, but also engineers and architects," explains Chen. "The project was a great chance to work collaboratively and be apart of something bigger than myself or my own environment at Pratt Institute."

Indeed, NASA sees the need for design. “Most of the habitat concepts that come out of strictly engineering teams look very utilitarian, and when you start thinking about putting people in there for 1,000 days it doesn’t work well from a psychological perspective,” Robert Howard, Jr., manager of NASA Johnson Space Center’s Habitability Design Center, tells Scientific American.

The class was co-taught by Professor of Industrial Design Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman and Professor of Architecture Michael Morris.

"X-Hab... or more casually the Pratt Space Studio, is an incredible experience that brings many diverse disciplines together to work on a really big idea, travel to the Red Planet,' says Pailes-Friedman. "This year-long project was an exploration and discovery on many levels. Students stretched themselves and achieved more than they ever thought they could to understand, define, create and build full-scale prototypes."

Students learned about space travel, weightlessness, aerospace engineering, collaboration, communication across majors and tight time constraints, Their designs—cutouts of what would be the full volume of the spacecraft—are made of low-tech cardboard, plastic and fabric, with what SA describes as a “decidedly futuristic edge.” 

Students consulted with astronauts to find out what part of space travel is most enjoyable. “Going to the absolute extreme of where humans can go really takes thought,” says Amira Selim, an industrial design student. “The first thing that struck me was zero gravity—you realize how bound you are to the Earth. You have to design around that and think around that. That’s the only way to come up with these design solutions.”

“It’s a delicate balance because on one hand you have efficiency of design in mind,” says Madeline Profio, another industrial design student, “and then on the other you want to project yourself into the lives of these astronauts and imagine how you might enrich their lives to ensure their overall well-being.”

The Mars Transit Habitat designs will go on display July 14-18, 2016 at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City. The students will present their work this fall to more NASA scientists, doctors and engineers. And NASA is impressed; Pratt has been selected for a 2017 X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge!