Inside Rensselaer
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Architecture Students Tackle NASA Design Challenge
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Architecture Students Tackle NASA Design Challenge
As if designing for NASA isn’t enough of a challenge, how do you design equipment to be used in the low-gravity of the moon, but still be tested on Earth? Witness one conundrum facing Associate Professor of Architecture Ted Krueger’s architectural design studio.

The class, 13 third- and fourth-year architecture students, is designing a medical workstation for a lunar module, a NASA project that will be tested this summer — at Earth gravity — in Arizona. Students recently returned from a visit to Johnson Space Center, where they presented their preliminary designs and toured the center, including a walk-through of the lunar module that will house their prototype. They were joined by biomedical engineering students who developed select aspects of this project for their capstone design course.

Michael Kehoe said the visit was fascinating. “We saw a lot of neat things,” Kehoe said. “A full-scale shuttle cargo bay and robot arm, a wheeled lunar rover, and an earlier model called the ‘spider’ that moved on hydraulics.”

The students also gathered, from conversations with NASA Habitability and Human Factors experts (who are testing the module), that their work is more about generating and testing ideas than providing a finished product. “This workstation supports health maintenance, life sciences research, and trauma care in an extraordinarily compact space, and is the first design work that has been done for medical activity beyond low earth orbit,” said Krueger. “Doing work that raises the right questions is an important step in finding the right answers.”

Habitability Design is NASA’s human-centered design studio but, even if the work station performs spectacularly well, its future hinges more on the funding of the manned space program than on test results.

Having discussed their conceptual plans with NASA, the class is now finalizing the design and building a working prototype that they plan to ship to Johnson Space Center on May 20.

Medical operations are one of four activities envisioned for the interior of a module meant to serve as a mobile laboratory. Students worked within the constraints posed by the other workstations — geology, mechanical maintenance, and extravehicular activities — that will share the module. One challenging requirement called for an exam table that provided 360-degree access to a patient, and could be stowed when not in use. Students prepared individual workstation designs that included concepts for the exam table, then narrowed their results into three different approaches from which NASA chose one for further development.

Early in the semester, Krueger observed, students often waited for direction. Now they get to work even before he arrives. During a recent class, students pulled together in groups discussing the tasks at hand. Then they disbursed: two students went to the hardware store for supplies, three students built a mock-up of the module, and more students set to work disassembling a display created as part of the recent exhibition “Dancing on the Ceiling: Art & Zero Gravity” at EMPAC.

“They have to learn how to organize work, to frame a project so that other people can work on it, or tackle a project as a team,” Krueger said. “It’s an important aspect of their education.”

Student Amy Vander Heyden said the class has been “more like real life.”

“Especially that we went to NASA and we got feedback and that we really work as a whole team,” Vander Heyden said. “That’s how it is in a firm: Two people never design a whole building on their own.”
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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 4, Number 9, May 14, 2010
©2010 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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