Art Students With the Right Stuff : NASA Official Praises Designs for Spaceship Components

June 11, 1986|JOHN DREYFUSS | Times Staff Writer

A group of students in Pasadena has been staying up nights--sometimes all night--wrestling with the problem of how to make space travel easier and more productive for ordinary people.

Some of the proposals from the Art Center College of Design students seem likely to find their way aboard spaceships before the end of this century.

"Many of these (Art Center) projects are immediately applicable to our needs," Malcolm Johnson, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration official from Houston, told the students at a recent review of their work.

Environmental Projects

"Some of you are actually working the problems better than some of our people are," declared Johnson, a space station integration subsystem manager, noting that he plans to "spread some of (your) ideas to our people who are actually working on the problems."

The students are in an environmental projects class at Art Center. In conjunction with NASA and the McDonnell Douglas Corp., they have designed aesthetically pleasing prototype space station components for laymen who will one day be orbiting through space, as opposed to the severe existing designs for previous astronauts, ultra-trained and hand-picked for their "right stuff."

The components--such as living quarters and galleys--are designed for installation in cylinders 38.7 feet long and 13.8 feet in diameter that will serve as habitats in space stations designed to be spinning around the earth by 1994.

While the Art Center students have come up with some specific innovations, what seemed to impress Johnson the most was the overall aesthetic attractiveness of their designs.

Until now, aesthetics have rated a low priority for space vehicle design, if they have been a priority at all.

"They've always treated man as something that can be stuffed in anywhere," observed Fred L. Toerge, referring to previous space vehicle designs. Toerge, a designer and an Art Center instructor who helped supervise the student space station project, noted that he was head of a team that "was hired to bring Skylab up to habitable standards" when he worked for industrial designer Raymond Loewy in the late 1960s and early '70s.

NASA is not interested in aesthetics for aesthetics' sake. It is interested in aesthetics for productivity's sake.

Aesthetics and Productivity

"We have enough evidence that aesthetics are related to productivity in Earth environments," said psychologist Trieve Tanner, acting assistant division chief of the Aerospace Human Factors Research Division at Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, a NASA installation.

"There's evidence that if a place is pleasant it affects your productivity positively, and if a place is unpleasant it affects productivity negatively. Also, there is evidence that aesthetics affect the general emotional and psychological health and, over the long run, that affects productivity," Tanner observed.

One reason for the new interest in the aesthetics of space environments is the "new astronaut."

Future space stations will house relatively ordinary folks: engineers, scientists and laymen charged with performing experiments and other duties without the benefit of the intense training required of earlier astronauts.

"It is extremely important to give these people the psychological and physical comforts that heretofore we have not really been concerned with for two reasons," said Don Magargee, a McDonnell Douglas Corp. industrial designer who serves as liaison with the Art Center students.

Machine to Fit the Man

"In the first place we have had, as our astronauts, totally dedicated test pilots, and in the second place, because of the characteristics of people picked as astronauts, we have always before been able to have men fit the machine. Now we have to have the machine fit the men."

An Art Center student proposal that indeed must fit men--and women--in space proved to be one of the least technical among those presented at the school, yet it appeared to impress NASA's Johnson the most: good-looking, adjustable space clothing for both sexes.

Johnson called the student-designed clothing "a terrific project," and noted that "we have contractors working on all these problems, but I haven't seen anybody take it to this extent, addressing the psychological impact of variation and color in clothing."

When astronauts spend three to six months in the cramped environment of a space station, the psychological impact of how they dress is likely to become a factor in their attitudes and, by extension, their productivity, Johnson observed. The cotton outfits pictured at Art Center represented not so much new suits of clothes as a new way of wearing clothes, explained the garments' designer, Lama Khalaf, 22, a junior from Amman, Jordan.

By designing clothes in pleasant pastel colors, with detachable pant legs and shirt sleeves, Khalaf makes a single outfit suitable for day or evening wear, work or leisure.

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