Astronaut-in-the-Loop: An Iterative Design Research Framework for Space Environments



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50th International Conference on Environmental Systems


In order to sustain human life in space, designers and engineers must overcome many challenges unique to space environments and missions. While challenges such as life support, thermal control, and radiation are well researched and considered, space can alter systems and people in unanticipated ways. The effects of space environments are not always intuitive to Earth-based designers, due to a lack of experiential intuition that can only be gained through time spent living and working off-planet. While access to space is currently limited, we are at an inflection point for how humans will interact with space, particularly with low Earth orbit (LEO). Privately funded individuals have visited LEO since the early 2000s, and May 2020�s launch of the first commercial rocket carrying astronauts to the ISS marks the beginning of increased access to LEO for more people and activities. This access indicates an emerging need for space environments that are designed to encompass a variety of experiences. Given the continuous twenty-year presence of humans in LEO, we have the opportunity to leverage the experiences of today�s astronauts to envision a more human-centered approach to environmental design for space. This paper outlines how qualitative design research methods can be used to derive insights from astronauts and other individuals with unique, experiential knowledge of space, on topics from environmental design to crew psychology. We synthesize these insights into a series of design principles for future interventions in space environments. Leveraging both generative interview data as well as evaluative interview sessions with astronauts, we describe human-centered insights, develop design principles, and iterate on those principles using an astronaut-in-the-loop iterative design research framework. These design principles and framework also serve as vehicles to learn more about human needs when working and living in space.


Sanjana Sharma, MIT Space Exploration Initiative
Sands Fish, MIT Space Exploration Initiative
Ariel Ekblaw, MIT Space Exploration Initiative
ICES502: Space Architecture
The 50th International Conference on Environmental Systems was held virtually on 12 July 2021 through 14 July 2021.


environment design, habitation, human factors, design research, astronaut, qualitative research, human-centered design, microgravity, ISS, LEO