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Why Design in Space Matters




2015. This was the first time I asked myself this question. Do we need a designer’s touch in space? Apparently, my answer was yes back then since I spent the next 9 months working on a product which was a concept for the ISS. Today, after five years, I am asking myself again if we need products, experiences, and design-related problem solutions for a spacecraft? Back in the 2017/18 period, I had the opportunity to visit the Johnson Space Center in Houston and gained an insight into what engineers and designers were working on for the International Space Station, Mars Rovers, and for nowaday’s missions like SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner capsules. The answer in my head was very clear. Yes, the design approach was a necessity. Maybe not much for the present, but unquestionably for the future.

The change of the User Profile in Space

Industrial Design, and design in general, is based on solving problems and creating experiences, products, and services with the ‘user’ in mind. In today’s world, we have the time and the privilege to train the people which we want to send into space. Starting from the educational background, till their physical capabilities, we select and train our representatives in Space since the early days on. But assuming exponential commercialization in the Space industry, we probably won’t have the same time and amount of resources to train and prepare the people who are traveling with the Spaceships, especially to the long-distance Mars adventures. But what will be the outcome of this? Can we still let people stick every single item onto the walls of a shuttle with some Velcro tape? Can we say people that a floating ‘poop’ is normal in Microgravity during a 9-month long journey? or can we say people that you need to get used to living in a 9000 Kelvin illuminated environment with some migraines because that’s how we did till now?

Astronauts, Cosmonauts, and all the other -nauts are getting an enormous amount of training before they get launched into the orbit. This is a safe method especially for a niche like Aerospace, to let things keep under maximum control, to reduce the need of change to a minimum, to save resources and time for future, and from my perspective to let -questioning the system- stay a bit in a shadow. What do I mean by that?

Design is based on solving problems and creating experiences, products, and services with the ‘user’ in mind.

Let’s try to imagine 10 years from now on, with an increased number of passengers on a spaceship and a variety of professionals/personas on a flight. The possibility of dealing with such a wast psychosocial load on a long period, within a closed environment will be a very challenging task to achieve. And at that point, we need to design products and solutions, like we are doing on earth, every single day. These will be not only key products which are necessary for the missions but also the products which we got used to using on earth, the products which we got deeply connected with, and subconsciously feeling a void in their absence.

Living in Gravity, Designing for Microgravity

Designers /and design-oriented minds are the ones, who observe and find out problems that are affecting our daily life quality. Just before the Corona crisis, I have been asked from a high executive “Then what is the difference between an engineer’s problem solving and a designer’s problem-solving?” during a design workshop, and the answer was clear: An engineer solves a problem within the boundaries of facts and science, with a calculable outcome. While a designer can find the solution by social observations and our evolution-based daily life routines.

If we apply the same principle to space-related products, a designer’s improvements would be based on increasing the quality of the experience for a product, minimizing the complications, and making the products much more earth-likely to neutralize the learning/adaptation curve. Sometimes the solution of a problem comes with the simplest clever observations, rather than putting hundreds of man-hours into engineering it. Current numbers and projections show us clearly that, with an increased number of private companies entering into the Space-flight market, we will need much more design-oriented solutions for comparably untrained individuals who will be the customers, yet explorers of the future.

A Designer can find the solutions by social observations and our evolution-based daily life routines in the Space Industry.

How to improve the adaptation

Let’s think this more with real-life examples. What SpaceX recently did in its Dragon capsule was the most ground-breaking user experience improvement ever on a space mission: Placing a touch screen control panel to a crew-capsule! A touch screen not only creates a more earth alike experience to the Astronauts but also increases the sustainability and the compatibility of the product for future missions. With a glimpse of an update, a function can be added/removed without any hardware need, a well-known gesture can be added to the interface for improving the interaction quality, and more than that the same pixels can even be used for things like entertainment and joy.

Like in this example, designing more earth-likely experiences and products for the future will reduce the difficulty of orientation for common people, both during the training and during a space-flight. Improving products relating to basic needs like sleeping, sanitary, entertainment, nutrition, and health will probably not only make travelers happier but will also reduce the social difficulties during a flight.

As a designer who believes and foresees that our future as a civilization lies in between the void of stars, combining the scientific knowledge that we gained through the history of space missions with better design experiences, will make this industry of the future more appealing, much more solid, and humane. While the baby-steps of the past are becoming almost well-balanced leaps, embracing the importance of design for the space industry will give us the capability to, maybe, even run sooner than ever…


 

Since we designers have finally been invited to the Glorious Gala Night of this new industry, it is time to use this network accurately. Let’s not waste it.


 

This article will be the first, of my long-term focus on the importance of Design for the Space Industry. I will expand my interest in many of the ideas and concepts above, in future articles. Stay tuned, and don’t forget to get inspired by the night sky. 🚀


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