Designing Beyond Earth

type - big idea
Big Idea
category - design
sector - health & wellness
Can human beings not only live, but thrive, in environments beyond Earth? Melodie Yashar discusses designing for privacy, ethics and wellbeing in space

This article was originally published by SPACE10, a research and design lab on a mission to create a better everyday life for people and the planet.

What is the trajectory for getting into your line of work?

A series of events led to thinking about additive manufacturing for Earth and space seriously and developing expertise. I was in a group of graduate students who came together to submit for NASA’s 3D Printed Habitat Challenge. We won first place. It was a big surprise. We all had day jobs and we were working on this project at night and at weekends – and, honestly, it shifted everyone’s lives. Winning the next phase of the same competition a few years later led to collaborations with Apis Cor, NASA, and more recently ICON.

You work with questions of wellbeing and privacy. What is privacy in the context of outer space?

Standards for long-duration astronaut privacy in space, particularly as they would be relevant within a Mars mission, for example, don’t quite exist yet. There are certain protocols for confidentiality and sharing personal health information aboard ISS, but these types of questions are being researched and are yet to be conclusive for future long-duration spaceflight. This is predominantly because there are so many unknowns about future missions that we cannot yet answer.

Two years ago, I was working with Los Altos-based start-up Nahlia, which had developed an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm for predicting and diagnosing medical health conditions – for people on Earth and, eventually, in space. The notion of autonomous medical care, particularly issues related to emergency response in space, implicate questions of astronauts’ privacy. If you have a crew of five, and one becomes ill, at what point should that condition be communicated to ground control or to the mission lead? What if the crew physician or surgeon is the one who falls ill? Offloading certain types of (time-critical) decision-making onto the AI could pose substantial risk to a mission if the crew doesn’t actually trust that technology. What if the crew has issues with adopting, believing or following the prognosis of this AI system? How could we anticipate that in research? We could be risking crew members’ lives.

This prompts questions of ethics and trust and harks back to the story of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Absolutely. A common misconception tends to be that in the future people are going to be completely hands-off when it comes to AI. Or that introducing autonomous operations via AI means that humans will no longer be needed or necessary, even in a supervisory capacity. But the truth is that, particularly in environments as extreme and remote as space, I believe there will always be varying degrees of operations support from ground control – support personnel who are looking at data (even if it is not in real time), monitoring what the intelligent system is suggesting and recommending, and bringing their own interpretation to the table.

Transparency and explainability are hugely important topics right now in AI. For a Mars mission, there can be up to 24-minute one-way delays in communication. AI can be a big help in reducing the risks involved with medical care and systems design in space, particularly when just-in-time decision-making is critical for emergency response situations. But it can also introduce a slew of risk and trust issues between the crew and whatever the assistive technology might be. Things could potentially go very wrong.

Published by:

24 October 2022

Author: Matt Poile and Linsey Rendell

Image: Icon and NASA, US


Icon and NASA, US

We’re talking about building for a reality that doesn’t exist yet. How do you adapt and develop designs when engineers are still trying to figure out how to get to the destination?

That’s really the core of the issue – we have to make certain assumptions to achieve a certain fidelity in the work, particularly when we are discussing future long-duration Mars or Moon missions. Some research suggests it will be a crew of between four and six that will journey to Mars. That introduces the functional programming: how much living space, crew quarters and personal space do we need for those astronauts? How much storage space for consumables? The issue of how many crew members introduces a host of interdependent questions and constraints within the design process.

We need to make certain assumptions in order to progress a design forward, recognising that they might change or be modified in the future. We need a starting point in order to think holistically about how to build these habitats, how to inhabit them safely and how to have them function for mission success. Imagine you have a system that’s not only monitoring the environment of the interior, but it’s providing the air that’s keeping you alive. We’re hoping that all kinds of assistive technologies are going to help us get there.

There is scientific evidence that six people make the perfect dinner party. Are there any recommendations for who these six crew members should be?

The human research programme actively studies and researches crew composition and the dynamics of crew psychology. There are studies that have suggested that an all-women crew would enable the greatest mission success. It’s contested. None of this is conclusive by any means, but I personally think some of the greatest opportunities for testing are in research analogues and simulations where people are isolated over several weeks or months in a mission-like environment. It’s in these contexts that researchers are able to acquire data that can inform standards for future missions.

Speaking of dinner parties – food is a huge cultural and social aspect of living in space. The astronauts aboard ISS frequently get together to eat, and food is a very, very big component for maintaining morale, but also for leisure, recreation, culture and ritual.

‘The issue of how many crew members introduces a host of interdependent questions and constraints within the design process.’
Icon and NASA, US

What does wellbeing mean in outer space? And what does designing for everyday life in space teach us about what human beings need?

In much of my architectural work, I have worked to promote human-centric elements of design for the psychological and physiological betterment of people. Some of these tactics are purely architectural, such as through spatial programming, the separation of private from public or shared spaces, and access to natural light and greenery. These types of design elements are infrequently perceived as high-priority items, particularly with respect to the far more salient structural, thermal and radiation challenges we face in spaceflight engineering. But essentially I’m asking: how can we ensure that these environments are enabling people to thrive and not simply survive? How can we ensure that crew members’ environments are enabling a balanced and healthy lifestyle? What is an aspirational space that celebrates a human presence in a new world, and that aligns with the dignity of being a pioneer in a new land?

What have you learned through this work about what is essential?

In designing environments for space, we are ultimately asked to identify: what is most essential or fundamental for human beings to function, to feel comfortable and to feel fulfilled? It’s just a really interesting exercise to start by identifying essentials such as your oxygen supply and the amount of food and water you need – we take these for granted here on Earth but of course that’s not the case in space. As we continue to ask questions, we inevitably work up to: what technologies do I need to bring from Earth? What will support a more robust and reliable system? How do I build a closed-loop environment that can support the needs of the entire crew?

What is the value that you as a designer bring to NASA?

As a designer, in many ways, I have the benefit (or curse) of being a generalist. Habitat proposals are challenging because they encapsulate so many problems – collaboration and interdisciplinary thinking are absolutely necessary. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with planetary geologists, space radiation experts, space medicine experts, robotics experts and material scientists. One rarely gets to be at the centre of so many disparate fields. A designer can serve as a translator across multiple disparate disciplines, bringing decisions together in a graphical way that people can understand, respond to and iterate on very rapidly.

Melodie Yashar is a designer, technologist and researcher focused on large-scale 3D printing and the development of construction technologies to build off-world habitats. Yashar studied architecture and human-computer interaction with an emphasis on robotics. She is director of building design and performance at ICON. She was previously a co-founder of Space Exploration Architecture (SEArch+) and a senior research associate with the San Jose State University Research Foundation at NASA Ames.

‘What is an aspirational space that celebrates a human presence in a new world, and that aligns with the dignity of being a pioneer in a new land?’

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