RISD Industrial Design Students Given a NASA Challenge

Science-EVA by Natalie Murrow

Interview by China Blue with Michael Lye, Industrial Designer, Senior Critic and NASA Coordinator at Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI and presentation to the students by John Connolly, Systems Engineer, NASA.

 Michael Lye speaks to China Blue about NASA’s challenge to his students.

John Connolly is an engineer who has been heading up the Lunar Landing projects (at NASA) and is a good critic for the students He’s the one that proposed to see if it’s possible to design a common cabin for 4 people for 14 days to be used over a variety of missions on the surface of a planet, the moon, or flying in space.  Right now NASA tends to design every thing specifically for each mission that they do, so when they design a new rover, they are designing it specifically for one situation – so they are wondering if it is possible to create one design that can be used more broadly in order to save costs.  It also makes the design process a lot faster and easier. 

A common design introduces some interesting problems though, because if you are designing for surface use you have assumptions about gravity.  For example, the moon is only 1/6 Earth’s gravity, but at least water falls. When you are out in space, in micro-gravity water does not fall, it just keeps floating around so you cannot do things there that you can do on the surface. The different effects of gravity can impact other aspects of the design including how much space you allow for astronauts. Perceptions of space can be different in micro- gravity than when in a gravity field – the space above your head becomes suddenly more usable in zero gravity because up and down have no meaning and that area is no longer above your head.

The students are really at a preliminary stage now, looking at how to design one cabin for multiple mission scenarios. But the cabin has got to be basically the same thing when used on a surface – maybe with wheels added to it – or when a rocket is on it and used in space. There are some constraints, for example it has to have a docking port to connect to other vehicles.  It has to have ways for the astronauts to go outside in space suits.  And it has to have controls so you can get to where you are going, of course. Controls are interesting because you don’t necessarily use the same cockpit for driving something on a surface as you would for flying – so is it better to try to make those the same and give every pilot something like the X-box 360 game controller? Or do you swap controls in and out and make it modular in some way?  We will try to come to some conclusions about that by the end of the semester.  Right now they are at a very early stage on this. 

CB:  How far do you expect to progress on this topic between now and the end of the semester? 

ML: We have 6 weeks between now and the end of the semester. I think we are going to reevaluate a little bit after John leaves, but the goal is probably to have one concept for the interior cabin layout well resolved by the end of that.  That might include cockpit ideas, galley ideas, food stowage, sleeping areas, hygiene – all of that but have it a fairly realistic, highly resolved representation of that concept. That might include drawings and renderings, and it will probably also include some sort of full scale representation done in foam core or something similar, where people can actually walk inside and see what it feels like.  Might not be able to lie down in the bunks (laughing), we’ll see about that, but something full size so people can really experience it.

CB: Well, to get that done in 6 weeks is pretty aggressive.

ML: I think I will have to light a fire under the students.  They came back after spring break and they were a little bit slow.  But they are amazing and able to pull off a lot in a very short period of time.  We have 13 people so it is definitely a doable task.  They just have to keep to a schedule and to their deadlines. 

CB: Do they work amongst themselves to delegate areas of development or is that something that you are overseeing. 

ML: Up to now I have been overseeing that.  We are going to talk about it after this crit with John and we see his suggestions on directions, what ideas he likes and which he thinks are the most productive ones to follow. Then we’ll make some decisions on our approach – are we going down the path of one final model or multiple smaller ones? I think we’ll probably do one larger, detailed model because there is enough interest from the students in that. They will coalesce around the different areas they might like to work on so there may be 3 or 4 people working on the cockpit, 2 or 4 people working on the flight deck or 3 or 4 people working on other aspects on it. I suspect there will be a lot of blurring of boundaries there. At the end of the semester it will come down to some people who are really good in the shop doing a lot of fabrication for all of the different areas and some people who are good with telling the story putting together the presentations.

CB: And will John come back at the end?

ML: Don’t know yet.  I’ll try to twist his arm but we will see.

John Connolly’s presentation to the students:

Thank you for taking this studio course.  Every year we try to come to RISD with a problem that has been bugging us at NASA but which out feeble left brains do not allow us to solve in a good way.  And so what we do is to look to folks like you who have a more balanced approach to design and a more functional right brain then most engineers do to try to help us create some kind of ideas for how we handle some of these problems.  Michael (Lye) has probably shown you what we have handled in the past. We have done ways to offload Lunar Landers and oh, you know we have many, many different types of coffee makers.  But the challenge we picked for you guys this year is one that is very current for us at NASA because we have a different fiscal situation in NASA these days.  They want us to design things as affordably as possible and one of the ways to do that is to have common components between different space vehicles, so one of the ways we are proposing to save some money is to have a common crew cabin between a few different space vehicles.  This is typically not the way we do things in NASA.  Normally, we very much optimized every space craft we design for the job it has to do.  This is very new for us. Because what it means is if you are trying to use the same crew cabin for different kinds of space craft it will probably not be optimum for any of them.  But hopefully the cost will be less in aggregate.  So, this is very different for us.  Normally when my team is given a design challenge what we do is try to list every last requirement that the spacecraft has to perform and then we specifically design the space craft to do exactly those requirements and not one iota more.  You never want to do more then what you are asked to do especially when you design stuff because everything is costly as it is.  So that’s typically how we design things.  But now we are in a little different mode.  We are trying to use things across different vehicles so that’s why we gave you guys the design problem we did.  It is a little bit uncomfortable for us because we typically do not design things this way.  We like optimized designs and I am looking forward to seeing what you guys are going to come up with here and what direction we are going to send you guys for the rest of the semester.  So thank you again for taking this studio (course).

A little background, I have been with NASA for 25 years and I’m what most people call a Systems Engineer.  I guess that is you don’t do anything particularly very good but you are good at putting the pieces together.  So that’s basically my expertise, it is taking a lot of information, a lot of data about lots of different things and molding it all together in something that is a lot like what you guys do but you probably do it intuitively.  In the engineering world we have lots of different tools we have to help us.  Especially with the designs we work with.  They are kind of complex.  It is hard to intuitively design a big rocket.  Other then the pointy end has to go on top (laughter). Some people have challenged that, you know fire comes out the bottom and pointy end is on the top, but maybe that is old school.  I don’t know.  So anyway in the last 5 years I have been leading the office that has been designing the new Lunar Lander for NASA.  You know in your history books we went to the moon in 1969 through 1972 so it has been almost 40 years since we last walked on the moon and we were given a challenge back in 2004 to return to the moon as a stepping stone to sending people to Mars.  Mars has been our ultimate goal and it still is.  Politics have changed a little bit in the past few years, so we’re looking at other ‘waypoints” on to the way to Mars like asteroids.   So the Lunar Lander work that I have had a team of 100 engineers designing for the last five years is being bundled up and put on a shelf – it will all come back at some point, but right now I am working on Mars Landers, deep space habitats and something called a multi-mission space exploration vehicle.  So it is design at a very ‘spacy’ level.  It is fun stuff.  Anyway that is why we have you guys involved.  We have all these new vehicles on the drawing board and we have to figure out how we can afford them.  So thanks for taking on this project, I am looking forward to seeing what you guys have created.  I hope something looks like the Millennium Falcon.  Oops, maybe I have given away too much (laughter).

M.L. We have a large range of preliminary ideas here and hopefully with your feedback we will get a good direction here.

Anson: My name is Anson and I am going to give you a little over view on how we approached our concepts.  So, we thought about all of the stuff what we had to cram into this vehicle and really thought we needed to organize it into a logical way to help us design this vehicle.  Otherwise we would be totally lost and coming up with ideas randomly and not coming up with something cohesive so we came up with this chart of personal space vs. shared space so how many people will interact with this space at one time versus individual or group activities.  So how many people are doing something for like one person vs. 4 people.  So we came up with these main categories of places.  We have a common room, a command room an exercise area, air lock, work room, bathroom and sleeping area.  All of these are color coded in their respective boxes and you see these colors are referred to in our concepts as well.  We have three main categories of concepts: round disk UFO concepts, horizontal, cylindrical, extruded concepts and a lot of modular concepts actually.

CB: The students spent the next few hours presenting their drawings and ideas and discussing with John Connolly his thoughts on them.  Here you can see the challenge that this group of students have been faced with and we cannot wait to hear what the results will be at the end of the semester.

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