Building rocket ships out of cardboard boxes is a standard make-believe activity. But a class of Pratt Institute design students in New York City have taken it to the next level. In a partnership with NASA 19 students designed and built scale models of Mars spacecraft interiors over the course of a school year and presented the final products to a NASA representative on May 5. The design and architecture students brought a human-focused eye to their designs, striving to create an home that was both fun and functional for long hauls to and from the Red Planet.

The project may sound like a flight of fancy, but Robert Howard, Jr., manager of NASA Johnson Space Center’s Habitability Design Center, stresses that these university projects provide out-of-the-box insight into real design problems the space agency faces—none of which have a single correct answer. “While we hope everyone has fun doing it, it’s not for fun,” says Howard, who had come to Pratt’s Brooklyn campus for the final presentation. “It’s a good educational opportunity for the students, to let them see what the real challenges are in designing for other planets, and we get to pick their minds. You never know where the right creative answer is.” This is the latest in a long series of NASA-funded student projects that look at the difficulties of life in space.

Industrial design student Dillon Chen presents a scale model of “the Toolkit,” an eating and social area for the Mars-bound spacecraft. Credit: Clara Moskowitz/Scientific American

NASA has issued Exploration Habitat (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenges for the past six years, with tasks ranging from studying how to best grow food in space to designing a better air lock. Only a handful of universities are selected to participate each year. The program is part of NASA’s overarching goal to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and on to Mars in the 2030s. Toward that end, Congress instructed NASA to spend $55 million, under the 2016 appropriations bill, on developing space habitats, with funding primarily going to major engineering partners such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK and Bigelow Aerospace. But the X-Hab efforts are also aiding the push.

For Pratt’s students, the challenge was to create a transit vehicle that could get astronauts to Mars that was both aesthetically pleasing and highly functional. This human-centric approach is one of the reasons NASA partners with design schools, which often take a different tack than the typical teams of engineers that might tackle this challenge. “Most of the habitat concepts that come out of strictly engineering teams look very utilitarian, and when you start thinking about putting people in there for 1,000 days it doesn’t work well from a psychological perspective,” Howard says. The task was also an optimal test to push the students’ skills forward. “It was the most imaginative [assignment] possible, and came with extreme constraints,” says Michael Morris, a visiting assistant professor of architecture at Pratt, who helped organize the partnership with NASA. Having to work with limited volumes of space available and accommodate complex engineering needs as well as design for astronauts living under stressful and exhausting conditions was a supreme challenge.

The Pratt students’ Mars transit habitat designs will go on display at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City this summer. This miniature model shows the planned exhibit. Credit: Clara Moskowitz/Scientific American

The students’ finished designs—cutouts of what would be the full volume of the spacecraft—were constructed of low-tech cardboard, plastic and fabric, yet had a decidedly futuristic edge. The mock-ups depicted the crew’s sleeping quarters and the “Toolkit,” a space that served as the habitat’s kitchen, medical center and communications hub. The structure was designed to include inflatable sections that expand to offer extra living space without dramatically increasing weight. The students also presented smaller-scale models showing a cross-section of the full habitat, with seven distinct zones for storage, exercise, sleep and other activities. “We took a more human-centric approach, as opposed to what NASA usually does, which is engineering-based,” says Elvira Melamed, an architecture student involved in the project. “They needed bathrooms, a place to prepare food, to sleep. And we wanted to have it be comfortable and appealing.”

Although the class had to design within the engineering constraints of space travel—being mindful of weight to keep costs down, accommodating four adults, using space efficiently—the students prioritized creating a living space that could be home as well as lab on the trip to Mars. They consulted with two astronauts to determine what parts of space travel were most enjoyable to them—simply floating, according to astronaut Mike Massimino, who met with the students—and made sure to incorporate that into their designs. Getting astronauts’ insight was vital because the students were designing for an environment they may never inhabit or experience. “What this project has really taught us is to empathize with the user,” Melamed adds. “We’re always taught to do that, but in space it’s a much more sensitive environment. We had to be very conscious of the astronauts’ every move and everything they do throughout the day and make sure every single detail relates back to the body.”

Architecture student Elvira Melamed explains designs for living spaces inside a spacecraft meant to take astronauts on a roughly 1,000-day journey to Mars and back. Credit: Clara Moskowitz/Scientific American

Designing for space living opened up possibilities that could never be implemented in a gravity-bound environment. The walls and the ceilings were just as utilizable as the floors, and the students had to pay careful consideration to providing ways for astronauts to orient themselves in a microgravity environment. “Going to the absolute extreme of where humans can go really takes thought,” says Amira Selim, an industrial design student. “The first thing that struck me was zero gravity—you realize how bound you are to the Earth. You have to design around that and think around that. That’s the only way to come up with these design solutions.”

Access to other humans is vital to prevent feelings of isolation, according to the consulted astronauts. So although the designs provided options for privacy, they focused on making sure fellow astronauts were always accessible. The students also wanted to include possibilities for astronauts to control their own environment—somewhat of a departure from the usually regimented approach NASA has typically taken with space missions. “It’s a delicate balance because on one hand you have efficiency of design in mind,” says Madeline Profio, an industrial design student, “and then on the other you want to project yourself into the lives of these astronauts and imagine how you might enrich their lives to ensure their overall well-being.”

The final models built by the students will be on display at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City this summer. In the fall the students will present their work to more NASA scientists, doctors and engineers.