Dec. 8, 1999 FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Traditional desks don't fly well with astronauts trying to get work done in space, so University of Arkansas researchers and their students have designed work surfaces for use in the International Space Station.
Ted Krueger, assistant professor of architecture, Jerry Wall, professor of architecture and David J. Fitts, B. Arch. '80, Flight Crew Support Division of NASA, asked 20 fourth-year students in Krueger's studio to create work surfaces for zero gravity.
"As we stay in space for longer periods, human issues of habitability become crucial to the mission," Krueger said.
The International Space Station consists of narrow tubes and square boxes -- an environment inherently difficult for humans to live in.
Issues facing the astronauts include psychological support in the form of meaningful work, cross-cultural integration and social interaction. This translates into a need for socializing places, personal space, a comfortable work environment and space for recreation.
The expected stay on the space station will be at least 90 days, and astronauts must function at their best while in orbit. On earth, people can change their environments to suit themselves. But in the space station, with limited mobility and zero gravity, the usual rules don't apply.
Krueger and Wall's students focused on portable, personal work surfaces the astronauts could use for eating, working and socializing. But their designs look nothing like regular desks and tables. Desks on Earth hold things, but in space there is no gravity to hold things on a flat surface, Krueger said.
However, tables serve other functions. They help people structure their environment and social relationships, give people a common orientation and organize thinking. If two people talk while one is upside down, both parties can miss non-verbal cues, and that may interfere with communication, Krueger said.
With these and other functions in mind, the students created models of wearable desks that might be attached to one another to form small or large groups.
The group visited the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where they talked with an astronaut, consulted NASA's technical and design staff, visited a full mock-up of the International Space Station that is used for astronaut training and mission planning, and sat in the space shuttle simulator. They learned about issues astronauts face while they live and work in space. The astronaut's description made the experience sound like living inside a robot, Krueger said.
The students formed small groups, created computer drawings and sketched their ideas. Then they created work station prototypes to present to NASA.
The prototypes address issues not apparent on earth.
"When we take gravity away we see different kinds of things," Krueger said.
One team looked at the body's natural movement in zero gravity. They learned from conversations with astronauts that the fetal position was comfortable, so they accounted for this in their design, said team member Frank Graham.
Their work surface features a solid, pogo stick-like apparatus that fits in front of the body and is held in place by small bars behind the knees and ankles, said Ladd Garey. Small, table-like surfaces, with screened tops and tiny fans in the middle, can be attached to the top of the pole. The suction fan holds things on the surface. The bottom of the box is a regular surface that someone could use to write on, said team member Sarah Broaddrick.
As an added bonus, the astronauts can use a pneumatic pump on the stick to exercise their legs. Astronauts must exercise several hours each day or they lose their muscle mass quickly in zero gravity, said team member Sabine Kruger.
Another team, including Chase Garrett, Casey Hargrave, Ethan Hardwick and Scott Wahl, tested their equipment underwater to simulate zero gravity conditions. They created a wearable table with a belt that attaches to the waist with a flexible arm that can move the table in many directions. They adjusted several factors on it after their sub-surface experiences.
"Wearing it under water gave us an idea of what it's like to wear the thing in an unfamiliar environment," Garrett said.
The third team concerned themselves with ergonomic issues. They created a curved surface that fits against the torso with circular spaces on both the left and right -- like a giant eight. A symmetrical table makes it easier to store things, write and eat, said team member Nick Kozlowski.
The symmetrical, circular surfaces make the work stations easy to attach to one another in a variety of ways, said Gustavaus Fergusen. The units have seams down the middle and can swivel when attached. They can be joined to form a long, narrow dining table, to create a wide conference table or a table for two. They can also be swiveled to the side or back of the astronaut for different purposes, said Grant Smith.
"The astronauts say they don't feel like a community," said Brent Ruple. The flexibility of these work stations allows for plenty of social interaction, he said.
Eka Masli, Walter Jennings, Arthur Banks and Marina Skiles created a series of rhombus- or diamond-shaped tiles that can be attached to the leg, either separately or together, to be used as work spaces. The rhombuses will contain a suction fan and a central processing unit; the fan for holding things down, and the cpu so the astronauts can "call" the rhombuses to their aid.
The team based their concept on two scientific theories -- chaos theory, which says that even random happenings follow certain mathematical models, and flocking, an explanation for how large groups of fish and birds move together.
In their design, the rhombi would float around the space station randomly. When an astronaut needed a work surface, he or she would use a signal, "the electrical equivalent of a dog whistle" to signal the rhombi, Jennings said. Then rhombi in the vicinity would flock to the astronaut.
Through the rhombi, the group seeks to mitigate some of the stress astronauts experience when working in space.
"We're a mediator between geometric systems and random, chaotic behavior," Skiles said.
Clay McGill, Matt Galbraith and Cary Blackwelderpair designed a simple work surface that can also function as a space divider. The three built a square surface that connects to two other squares on adjacent sides to form an "L" shape. The two attached squares can pivot up to form three sides of a cube. This can offer astronauts an enclosed work area, where they might perform a difficult task that requires concentration. Multiple surfaces could also be used to create partitions across corridors if necessary.
"The students are offering these possibilities to NASA," Krueger said. NASA has to consider all of the physical, spatial, social, psychological and architectural features of the space station's design. A project like this may help direct future efforts.
"One of the great initiatives of our time is moving people off the planet," he said. "These students could have an effect on this program."
In addition to helping NASA, designing furniture for extreme environments elucidates issues in earth-bound architecture that previously remained obscured. The students now know more about elemental human needs and how to design for those needs, Krueger said.
This work was funded in part by a grant from the Arkansas Space Grant Consortium.
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