Give me space, man
“From here am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do.”
David Bowie’s 1969 hit, Space Oddity, paints a bleak picture of an astronaut’s surroundings. He wasn’t far wrong, the early space pioneers are known to have suffered from psychological distress, in large part due to the sterile and confined environment they were forced to endure. And while space travel may have vastly improved since the “tin can” days of Apollo 11, the experience can still be a mentally corroding one for those onboard. “It’s a challenge to live with a small group of people for a long period of time, and there are definitely issues with stress, conflict, and sometimes depression,” former Space Shuttle crewmember Jay Buckey told The Verge.
With an eye on Mars, NASA tech-heads are looking at ways to adapt the spacecraft’s surroundings so the crew are kept happier and healthier during the 55 million km trip to the Red Planet. Of course, ultimately, a spacecraft is a place of work and so functionality takes precedence. But it also acts as a living space. The Mars mission is likely to last three years, so comfort is an important consideration.
In order to boost their astronauts’ emotional wellbeing, NASA is implementing a number of design initiatives, such as ensuring the Mars craft has a cupola (pictured above). This large, round window allows astronauts to take time out while taking in the view. Since a cupola was installed in the International Space Station it has quickly become the go-to spot for crew members to hang and chill. The materials used in modern spacecraft is another area that’s being given serious thought by NASA engineers. Traditionally, in the interest of hygiene, a spacecraft’s interior is white, with little texture. For the Mars mission, NASA plans a makeover by introducing more colourful, tactile materials.
During the trip, four people will be sharing a living space about the size of two shipping containers so utilising that space to the max will be paramount. As will providing crew with comfortable personal quarters so they can unwind and have some space to themselves. To that end, engineers are considering using a component called Spatial Flux — silicon structures that can be easily assembled as pop-up furniture or even makeshift rooms.
Then there’s the ambience to think of. To tackle the sense of remoteness, there are plans to simulate the onboard environment so as to indicate different times of the Earth day; scents and sounds paired with VR headsets will also be introduced to remind crew members of home. As for entertainment, there are plans to provide “space-specific” musical instruments that can perform in zero gravity. No doubt Space Oddity will be a crew favourite . . .