SPR Pressurized Rover
Evan Twyford and Carl Conlee are two of three industrial designers working in NASA's Habitability Design Center (HDC), and in just over 2 years they have transitioned the department from one that dealt only with small isolated ergonomic projects to working on arguably the most exciting project at NASA todaya next generation pressurized lunar rover. Since working at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) they have had robots walk past their office door during meetings, experienced zero-gravity flight, had their bodies 3D scanned, and worked alongside some of the most talented engineers and scientists in the country. The thing is, NASA doesn't actually have an industrial design department. They don't even have a design department. Not technically, anyway.
Pictured left to right: Richard Szabo, Travis Baldwin, Carl Conlee and Evan Twyford
Meeting the team
"Things have changed so much since we started, people here don't really understand what Industrial Design is or how it fits into the bigger picture. But once they work with us and see the services we providevisualizing information, realizing conceptsthey see the value of what we do," explains Evan.
Both Carl and Evan graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design's Industrial Design program in 2005, and they both did internships at the HDC. Evan stayed on as the first industrial design hire, and Carl joined later. Travis Baldwin, 32, recently joined the team, moving from San Francisco where he worked for a number of companies like IBM, Frog Design, several start-ups, and ultimately running his own business. He graduated in Industrial Design from North Carolina State University in 1997 and actually attended space camp as a kid. The opportunity to work at NASA was a childhood dream come trueand he is still swimming in the euphoria. "For the first few months it was thrilling; people were talking about how it is on the moon, relaying stories of astronauts bouncing around in 1/6git felt like being at a space port 20 years in the future." The first six months were the toughest, he reports, since it's such a specific application of design: understanding the unique constraints of manned space flight and figuring out how to navigate the overwhelming protocol that comes with an institution the size of NASA.
Johnson Space Center
Johnson Space Center
The freeway commute from Houston, Texas to the Johnson Space Center is about 50 minutes, and it is easy to see the appeal of opting for a motorbike over carpooling. It's a Friday, and today's schedule is exciting for Carl and Evan, some custom-built seats they designed for the Rover project are finally arriving. Firstly though, Carl has to take a safety exam which he was routinely selected for by the computer (a byproduct of working at a government facility and a not-so-infrequent occurrence).
The daily challenge
Like most people who work at the Johnson Space Center, the HDC team is made up of contractors who work on site. In fact, the entire workforce at the JSC is comprised of 15,000 contractors (compared to roughly 3,000 civil servants), including 110 astronauts. Not only does this create a huge amount of bureaucracy, it means that job security is project-based. Those who have carved out a long-term career at NASA periodically change from one contract company to another, exchanging their requisite ID tags to follow choice projects. But from a day-to-day perspective, it feels likes one big community working for a common goal and organization.
Security at JSC is similar to what you might encounter as an alien at JFK airport's immigration. To the left of the entrance is a massive hanger housing the Saturn V. It is unbelievably huge in real life, but NASA will never build something of that scale again; the preference now is to build smaller modular units and not risk losing everything in one big ship. For some reason, I imagined NASA would have official transport like golf carts everywhere to maneuver between buildings, but it is really just a massive campus with huge car parks, and everyone uses their own vehicles to get around. I note some bikes parked outside as we enter Building 15, but that's gotta take real commitment in the summer months here.
Rendering of Small Pressurized Rover
Building 15: The Office
There is nothing glamorous about the design studio, located in a two-story industrial building that looks like it was built in the 50's and renovated in the 80's. The interior is defined by beige linoleum-lined corridors, evenly lit with fluorescent lights and decorated with photos from space, posters of projects and communal notice boards covered in memos and photocopies. The building's foyer is like a mini science museum with glass cabinets full of mechanical artifacts
some cut to show cross sections and many of them actually used in space. There is an overwhelming sense of history and nostalgia here, with many areas dating back to the halcyon Apollo era. To this day, veteran engineers talk about how things were done during the Apollo missions, holding them up as benchmarks for today's efforts.
Habitability Design Center Office
The HDC office is reasonably sized yet looks crowded with shelves packed full of ring binders, manuals and stacks of printouts everywhere. Like any government office, the furniture seems to have been pilfered from decades of previous workers and has all the hallmarks of an institution. Nevertheless, the HDC office is regarded as one of the most fun studios in the building, with intriguing scale mock-ups everywhere, walls covered in high-concept sketches, inspirational clippings and my favorite itema poster illustrating the basic striking points on the human body. There is some obvious reference material like Gundam, Syd Mead and Star Wars. The influence NASA's endeavors have had on Hollywood and sci-fi runs deep, but it is well reciprocated. "So many people here are inspired by Star Wars, you'll go to a meeting and someone will say, 'let's make it like that like thing in Return of the Jedi.' There really is a direct connect between science fiction and what we do here," says Evan.
Richard Szabo, 33, has a background in ergonomics, and is the team's contract manager. He explains that there isn't really a place for industrial designers at NASA. Here the engineers are considered the designers, and the team has only been able to exist under the guise of human factors, a quantifiable soft science that is acknowledged as necessary. NASA deals with absolutesblack and white facts with a very clear goal: find the most efficient way to complete a mission and get the crew back to earth safely. Period. But the HDC team is lucky; it's an opportune time to be working at NASA, as operations ramp up in preparation to return to the moon in 2020. The Constellation Program is the biggest initiative since the Apollo mission nearly 40 years ago, and some people at JSC have been training 30 years for this moment.
The Mock-up Facility
Next door to the HDC office is the mock-up room used for building full-scale, first-generation lo-fidelity mock-ups of space habitats, typically from Foam Core, Sintra sheets and occasionally more durable materials if required. Most of what they produce is not pretty; there is a high turnover of quick-'n'-dirty prototypes for evaluating factors like the optimum size of a cabin in a spacecraft, or the minimum stowage areas needed for all the scientific equipment. Tests are conducted wearing mock space suits and occasionally a real astronaut is brought in for first-hand advice; anyone who has actually experienced space flight carries a lot of clout and can significantly influence the direction of a project. Evan jokes that the challenge of storing bulky scientific equipment into the cylindrical-shaped habitats is like trying to solve a puzzle with too many pieces that needs to fit inside a Coke can.
Travis Baldwin demonstrates mock space suit
They spend a lot of time in here, preferring to get to the heart of a problem with real physical constraints rather than trying to figure things out on paper or screen. Typically working at the 0-3% stage of projects, the deliverable is often not even the prototype, but rather a requirements document passed onto the team who are developing the project, setting the foundations and specifications. Everything is archived, adding to NASA's vast knowledge base, potentially pulled up and used on another project in ten-years time.
The research is similar to that found in military environments, but there are the added necessities of understanding the psychological effects of space travel, and of addressing issues related to being confined in a small space for an extended period of time. For example, an astronaut's sense of spatial volumes can fail, completely losing their perspective on the size and relationships of the objects around them. And of course, comfort and personal hygiene is an issue on longer missions: "You can't even take showers," comments Travis. "Imagine getting up every morning for 3 months and rubbing gel on yourself to clean." Not to mention going to the toilet. The team is constantly looking for ways to improve the astronauts' comfort and humanize their experience.
HDC Mock-Up Facility
Although they are ultimately disposable, the design prototypes are precise, clean and well-constructed. When Evan started, he immediately drew parallels between the work produced at the HDC and the work of a favorite artist Stephen Hendee. Hendee's signature sculptures and installations are made from sheet material with faceted polygon sides to create futurist 3D forms. Evan was moved enough to make contact, emailing him pictures of their work, and after a brief exchange received an autographed book from Hendee. (You can imagine Hendee was pretty enthused to get a random email from NASA.)
The X-38 Crew Return Vehicle (CRV)
We jump in Travis's car and head over to Hangar X, which sounds dead cool. Hangar X is the former location of the X-38 Crew Return Vehicle project, an escape pod for the crew working on the International Space Station (ISS) to return to Earth in case of an emergency. Literally hundreds of people worked on the X-38, millions of dollars were invested developing prototypes that were realized to the point of a drop-test vehicle, before being canceled in 2002 due to budget cuts. It now sits on a trailer under tarps in the Hangar X car park as a monument to the cycles of power and priority, how Congress is voting, and the political relations with our allies and enemies.
Hangar X, Johnson Space Center
Today Hangar X is used to test various habitat prototypes, and it is here that the HDC team has constructed a rig for determining the diameter of the Lunar Lander, which will sleep 4 astronauts on the Orion shuttle. The Altair Lander-Airlock mock-up is for evaluation purposes; astronauts in space suits simulate daily life on a mission negotiating the airlocks, trialing bunk-bed configurations and moving equipment around the limited space. A team of researchers documents their comments and records observations of discomfort levels. The most critical part of HDC's brief was the ability to change the size of the mock-up's diameter quickly between tests so that the three variations could be trialed on the same day. Travis explains that they kept the budget down by using much cheaper materials than what the original specs called forsheet metal. There are no real rules about what materials can be used, but unlike most design firms who can run out to the hardware store the night before a major presentation, purchasing approval at NASA can take weeks and requires prodigious planning. Often the team will have materials and parts shipped to their homes to expedite the process in order to meet deadlines.
Building 9NE is one of the most popular destinations on the visitor tour of the Johnson Space Center, mainly because it's full of awesome-looking space hardware including a full-scale replica of the International Space Station for training astronauts and simulating missions. A Hollywood-style tour trolley is parked outside, but there's not much to see today. Massive yellow tarps are draped over most of the equipment due to a hurricane warning, which actually hit Houston after my trip, causing major blackouts, flooding and shutting down the facilities for an entire week.
Building 9NE, Johnson Space Center
At one end of Building 9NE is the Vehicle Mock-up Facility, where different teams of various expertise converge to work together. Carl and Evan have been working side-by-side with 20 to 30-plus-year veteran engineers, and they are very aware of the eyes on them. Still, they hold their own. When they first started out, they were all about establishing a profile for their department and having a sense of identity within NASAeven creating a logo. But the experience of working with a diverse range of talented people toward one common goal has led them to embrace the team culture and to think of NASA as one big company.
Carl and Evan are working on the cockpit of the next generation Lunar Rover, arguably one of NASA's coolest-looking projects and becoming a regular stop on the tour circuit for high profile VIPs, politicians and the press. Carl is open that they're under great pressure to get a job done, but he acknowledges that dealing gracefully with the interruptions are part of the responsibilities of being an ambassador for NASA. Everyone that comes through, regardless of their title, is also a taxpayer of course, and deserves to see how their money is being spent, so there is a desire to have visitors learn about the program and walk away proud. Clearly everyone at HDC has spent many hours in the media spotlight, and is extremely confident explaining any aspect of the projects with well-versed, articulate answers delivered in the relaxed manner of a schoolteacher who knows the subject infinitely better than anyone else in the room.
SPR Pressurized Rover
As this is written, Evan and Carl are camped out in Black Point, Arizona, for 10 days with a team of engineers and scientists testing the battery-powered Small Pressurized Rover where the lava field landscape is remarkably similar to the lunar surface. The next generation Rover will accommodate two astronauts in a pressurized cabin, allowing them to sleep, wear normal clothes and undertake missions for up to two weeks at a time. Mounted on a modular chassis with six wheels that can drive in any direction, the Rover can reach speeds of up to 6 mph, and its crab-style driving ability makes it easy for docking with another Rover or spacecraft. One of the most interesting design elements are the 'suitports' at the rear of the vehicle that allow astronauts to enter and exit without ever having to bring their spacesuits insidedramatically reducing the amount of harmful space dust that gets into the cabin.
(Evan notes that the experience of astronauts transitioning from space suits to a mobile habitat to a space station loosely reflects the ideas of experimental avant-garde architectural group Archigram in the 60's. Their modular city 'plug-in' concepts portrayed a future where intelligent buildings made from independent life-sustaining pods could reconfigure, allowing their nomadic inhabitants to roam free.)
Working on the Small Pressurized Rover prototype
The HDC team was invited to work on the first Small Pressurized Rover prototype after proving themselves during the mock-up phase. There is no rule book on getting the choice projects at NASA, outside of bidding on jobs within budget and meeting the necessary requirements. It is through building relationships and networking that you get to pick and choose what you work on, and perhaps more importantly, with whom.
Gravity and Style
Both Carl and Evan have had the opportunity to experience zero gravity in a jet commonly referred to as the Vomit Comet (about one in three first-time fliers get airsick). Travis is hoping for his turn to observe astronauts using a control panel he just designed for the next space shuttle, which will be operated while wearing gloves. The waiting list for the physical exam needed to fly is almost a year. For Carl it is one of the coolest parts of the job: "You just push off the wall and float 4 inches over a surface, gliding slowly. It's like the feeling you get when you go over railroad tracks really fast, when all of your insides get that tingle, but it just stays there instead of coming back down." The experience of weightlessness can only be enjoyed in short burstsabout 25 seconds at a timebut each flight does 40-60 parabolas, named so because of their geometric shape. Evan agrees that it's an awesome feeling...at least until you get sick.
With suborbital space tourism from companies like Space Adventures, Virgin Galactic, Starchaser, Blue Origin, Armadillo Aerospace, XCOR Aerospace and Rocketplane Limited around the corner, I was curious to know if the work of design superstars such as Philippe Starck and Marc Newson (who've worked on some of these initiatives) had influenced any of their concepts. "It's hard to compare," replies Carl. "They're really designing an experience for very expensive tours, where there is a lot more opportunity for style. It has to look cool, futuristic and comfortable. NASA's objectives are very different. The criteria is performance-based, and it's about getting results and having an efficient place to work."
Concept sketch for a modular habitat
Indeed, Carl doesn't see much changing the look of the spacecraft in the immediate future: "NASA is an administration continuing to evolve; the constraints of mass, power and volume will remain. Things aren't going to change until there are new materials and technologies that are more efficient than what have been used until nowbasically machined aluminum, riveted sheets and a military approach to designing interface controls. You might see more organic shapes in the future if they start introducing molded carbon fiber composites as the main material form."
Working with NASA's rigorous bare-bones assessment criteriaDoes it sustain life? if not, then what does it do?has changed the team's perspective on what good design is. More so for Evan, who has recently started teaching a design class one night a week. "If I see something that's pure style and aesthetics, it still speaks to me in a visual, sensory way, but I see that as being the fat and happy. Now it's the extremely efficient, minimal and economical design that appeals to me. I see that as real problem solving, and that's good design." There are less prosaic changes too: He has even started to think of the moon differently, since it's become a tangible destination where his work might actually be used.
Concept sketch by Evan Twyford
Travis feels much more patriotic now: "I came from San Francisco where it's so liberal, and they can be so critical, all red state this and red state that, and now that I've been here, I see that America is really doing such cool stuff." Certainly a lot of the great work goes unnoticed by the general public, and even for those working at the Johnson Space Center, it is hard to grasp the scope of all the various projects.
Carl has an interesting perspective. He sees all the technology NASA has developed as directly applicable to improving life on Earth. "As excited as I am to be working on stuff that will travel to the moon, I would rather see us focus all of these resources and great minds to bring the efficiency that has been developed and refined in the spacecraft to Earth: Essentially, you have a small life support system where you recycle as much as you can with minimal waste and have localized energy production. It's an awesome model for living. We have people who don't have fresh clean water and are dying of dysentery, and technology NASA has developed can recycle wastewater into potable water. The population is always growing, and we're constantly fighting for space. This problem is not going to go away, and one obvious answer is to be more efficient with the space we have. This is a great modelsort of an extreme model, but an applicable one."
In the end, there is a strong loyalty amongst the design team at NASA. While their classmates may have opted for more traditional ID positions, their willingness to take on unconventional design work has paid off in ways beyond their imaginings. By applying their design skills and analytical thinking to these unique problems, they have not only established a good reputation among their peers, but actually created more demand for the HDC's services. Hiring a third industrial designer is a testament to this. When asked what they hoped for in the future, they unilaterally responded that they wanted to do more projects, and to do them better. Surely that's the answer anyone running a company wants to hear from their design team.
End of day Friday afternoon sharing youtube clips
Glen Jackson Taylor is a designer and contributing writer for Core77.