Living in outer space is no longer a fantasy, but the trick is to provide a quality environment for people who will be confined for long periods in zero-gravity on a manned space station orbiting Earth.
To that end, NASA-Ames Research Center at Moffet Field near San Jose has extended its grant monies to the Institute of Future Studies, Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-ARC), for design development of the station's crew quarters.
According to David Nixon, professor in charge of the student design team, "SCI-ARC is the only architectural school in the country to be directly involved in the manned space station program."
The design project was one of three winners in the $10,000 Los Angeles Prize competition sponsored by the Los Angeles chapter, American Institute of Architects.
While NASA is proceeding with plans for the $8-billion manned space station program, the schedule for assembling the station in orbit has been purposely vague, a result of the Challenger disaster and expendable-rocket explosions earlier this year.
The station would be built by the United States, the European Space Agency (a consortium of 10 nations), Japan and Canada.
The U.S. would build modules for habitation, logistics and microgravity research. The European Space Agency would supply a life sciences module. Japan would be responsible for an advanced technology module and Canada would develop a satellite servicing and repair center.
All of these modules and an assortment of antennas and solar panels would be interconnected by a metal truss system.
Nixon sized up the design problem this way: "Given the fact that 30% to 50% of the interior volume must be storage, there is precious little space to live in.
"The major challenge, therefore, is to design a livable environment that is both physically and psychologically comfortable for eight crew members, whose tour of duty could be as long as 90 days.
"Architects are particularly well-suited to solve such problems. With an understanding of the physical constraints, we are not only concerned with the efficiency and function of the interior spaces, but with psychological implications of every aspect, including products, colors and light."
According to NASA's specifications, the habitation module would be 44 feet long and 14 feet in diameter.
The students constructed a mock-up (which looks like a vertical slice, one-third the size of the actual module) to test their theories.
Areas under design include the wardroom (for meetings and for meals), an exercise area, sleep compartments, library and hygiene facilities.
"We designed a kit-of-parts," Nixon explained, "in which a set of items could be used for a variety of purposes. One key point is that everything must be demountable."
For example, a circular table with a top that can be expanded and flipped over was designed so that crew members could simply float into position and strap themselves in.
One side is outfitted with Velcro fasteners to hold plates and eating utensils; the other side is similarly set up to keep pens, papers and books from floating away in the zero-gravity environment.
This design not only saves space, but minimizes weight, also a critical factor.
Lighting was explored in conjunction with surface colors. In general, low-level ambient lighting has been used throughout the mock-up, with task lights illuminating work surfaces.
"We researched light levels and foot candles, fixtures and their placement," Nixon said. "And in doing so, we had to study how light changes the perception and appearance of surfaces and colors."
One of the most significant issues yet to be decided by NASA is whether to have portholes in the module. From an engineering standpoint, any such break in the exterior surface represents a potential safety problem. The human appeal, however, is the great joy of being able to see outside.
"Without portholes," Nixon said, "our job is much harder. Since our primary role is to design for the human being, we must weigh the physical safety factors with the 'mental safety' factors."
Perhaps the most ingenious solution is for the sleeping quarters. The students designed a 150-cubic foot linear "container" with a top that latches.
Transportable like luggage, it becomes the personal property of the astronaut, who carries it on and off the module as his tour begins and ends. Within the sleeping compartment is a section outfitted with pockets, various fasteners and netting for personal items.
Also provided is a hydroponic greenhouse, which serves not only for scientific research but adds a "touch of home" to combat the artificial environment.
NASA's grant has provided an unusual design experience for the students, while serving worthwhile experimentation.
In fact, this program has received special attention from NASA's Space Human Factors office, whose liaison, Marc M. Cohen, is also an architect.
As Nixon sums up, "We believe that we have designed a humanistic technology with a stylistic approach."