Decoding Design

Exhibition explores the design challenges of space travel

Exhibition explores the design challenges of space travel

Posting in Aerospace

"Beyond Planet Earth," on view at the American Museum of Natural History, presents the next-generation of space-related gear and gadgets, from clothing prototypes to vehicles and habitats.

An inflatable moon habitat from Bigelow Airspace, on view in "Beyond Planet Earth"

NEW YORK --Space is the final frontier for scientists and engineers to explore, of course--and space travel is also a promising sector for ambitious industrial designers to pursue, too. This is a conclusion that design-minded visitors to "Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration," an exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, will likely arrive at.

For although the United States' Space Shuttle program ended last year, coming decades could see people landing on asteroids for the first time, human settlements on the Moon or Mars, and civilian space tourists launching into orbit regularly. And these phenomena point to future needs for new, space-friendly chairs, tables, sleeping pods, clothing, food- and supply-delivery systems, and user-interface graphics for gadgets and software. The list of design opportunities suggested by this show goes on and on.

The exhibition, which opened on November 19, 2011 and is on view through August 12, 2012, begins appropriately with a bit of history. In the first galleries of the sprawling show, visitors get a brief and inspiring introduction to the history of space travel, from the former Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik, the world's first man-made satellite, in 1957, to the launch of the International Space Station in 1998.

The voice of U.S. President John F. Kennedy's can be heard, piped in via speakers, talking about NASA's programs in the early 1960s, and there are early astronaut suits and helmets on display. These lend a human touch and illustrate how the clean, sleek aesthetic of space-age design began. Although this show is about the future, the presence of the past reminds viewers of all generations how quickly science fiction can turn into reality.

SPINNING SLEEPING PODS AND SPACE ELEVATORS

Although the exhibit begins with references to historical national space agendas, it presents a variety of scenarios, products, and prototypes by a number of sources and doesn't intend to promote specific government initiatives. Yes, the U.S. space program is clearly a presence--on view, for instance, is a full-scale model of the Curiosity, NASA's next-generation Mars rover, a car-sized robotic mobile laboratory that NASA launched on November 26, 2011 and should land on the Red Planet in August.

A full-scale model of NASA's Curiosity rover

But there are also examples from high-profile private sector projects, such as a small, suspended model of Virgin Galactic's Spaceplane and a model of Sir Norman Foster's architectural design for Spaceport America, which opened in New Mexico last summer. There's a one-third-scale version of an inflatable moon habitat made from shiny reinforced fabric designed by Bigelow Aerospace, another private space-travel company. Plus, there are academic prototypes of gear, such as the BioSuit, a form-hugging garment designed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology aeronautics and astronomics professor Dava Newman. It is custom-fitted using a laser scanner, and maintains pressure even if its fabric, made of a new, patented polymer, spandex, and nylon, is torn or ripped. The curators have made available a BioSuit display that visitors can pose behind, so that they can be photographed looking like they are wearing one. It's a cute, amusement-park touch that hints at how real space tourism is today.

Dava Newman's BioSuit prototype

Some of the most intriguing elements of "Beyond Planet Earth" are the displays that present the challenges that space travelers will face in the next 50-100 years. These are challenges that designers, entrepreneurs, and established product manufacturers would be wise to consider as potential new markets, as more astronauts and tourists venture into space. For instance, one section examines the difficulties of addressing basic human needs and habits when there is no gravity. How can people sleep better when traveling through space? One solution: rest in spinning compartments, "where artificial gravity could prevent bone loss and other health problems," as the wall text explains. One can't help but wonder, how will this idea be adapted aesthetically and ergonomically for commercial space flights, to attract customers? And how can it be improved for the next generation of scientists perhaps spending more time in orbit?

In another section addressing the possibilities of building a human base on the Moon, the curators present the idea of a lunar elevator, which would deliver and retrieve items and resources from the Moon's surface. The model on view is sculptural and eye-catching-- beyond mind-blowing. While it seems fantastical, the wall-text points out that it is practical: it's a cheaper alternative to launching a spacecraft from Earth to transport supplies to crews mining the Moon for energy resources, such as Helium-3, which is rare on Earth but could be used in creating clean energy.

NEW TECH, ENGAGING EXHIBIT DESIGN

"Beyond Planet Earth" also points to another set of innovation opportunities for designers: visualizing complex space-related science for mass audiences, just as they are in the show itself.

A design for a lunar elevator

The exhibition's curator, Dr. Michael Shara, and his staff have made excellent use of current technologies to communicate the latest discoveries made and obstacles faced by scientists, businesses, educators, and governments seeking to develop next-generation space vehicles and human communities on other planets. For instance, the show includes an interactive video-game-like installation where museum visitors can attempt to alter the atmosphere on Mars (symbolically, of course) by manipulating digital graphics on a multi-touch table. Museum-goers can destroy asteroids to unleash frozen carbon dioxide to make the Martian atmosphere thicker and more human-friendly, and then add trees.

There's also a free iPhone app (which also works on the iPod Touch and iPad 2) that the curators have commissioned, which can be downloaded via Wi-Fi at the exhibit. The app allows users to see 11 augmented reality icons throughout the galleries, such as a spaceship and an asteroid, which prompt them to download additional content.

The app and the video game help to establish "Beyond Planet Earth," which is in essence a well-researched science and technology presentation, as an engaging entertainment experience for all ages. And that's the hallmark of effective exhibition design, no matter what the subject matter. In this case, the thought-provoking mix of content and layout both transcends and compliments the compelling premise of this show: turning yesterday's sci-fi into tomorrow's tech.

All images: copyright American Museum of Natural History, used with permission. Photographs of Bigelow moon habitat, BioSuit, and lunar elevator by D. Finnin. Photograph of Curiosity rover by R. Mickens.

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure