"We can make our furniture a lot lighter, a lot less strong (than Earth-bound designs)," says Laura Blumenschein. "That sounds like a bad thing, but if you're trying to reduce weight, that's a good thing when you're sending things to space." (Credit: iStockphoto)

astronauts

NASA asked students to make space furniture

At NASA’s request, five mechanical engineering students designed and assembled a prototype table and chair for astronauts in space or for places like the moon or Mars.

The furniture could serve many functions in environments where maximum flexibility with a minimum of fuss would be a plus.

“You’re going to have very limited space, so you can’t just send any furniture up,” says Laura Blumenschein, a member of team “Lunar Lounger,” whose capstone project took shape at Rice University’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen.

“And then you’ve got the partial gravity,” she adds. (Roughly one-sixth of Earth’s gravity on the moon, one-third on Mars.)

“In addition to changing how humans interact with the furniture, it’s a lot easier for astronauts to stand and work,” she says. That requires tables, in particular, to easily adjust for both standing and seated work.

Designing light

The team also had to consider gravity while balancing weight and strength requirements.

“We can make our furniture a lot lighter, a lot less strong (than Earth-bound designs),” Blumenschein says. “That sounds like a bad thing, but if you’re trying to reduce weight, that’s a good thing when you’re sending things to space.”

The chair and table pack flat for shipping and are designed for maximum adjustability. “The largest pieces are the foam pads,” Schmidt says. The table sits on gas springs for easy height adjustment, and connection ports allow it to be paired with other tables. The chair fits users between 5 feet and 6 feet 2 inches tall “because astronauts come in all sizes,” says team member Dan Peera.

Both the chair and table are meant to be floor-mounted to keep them stable in low gravity and the chair has pin-and-hole mechanisms to adjust it for use as a traditional seat or a back chair with a knee rest. Restraining footrests allow for use in zero-gravity environments, the students say.

Furniture journal

The team members’ learning curve involved a study of their own habits. “We did a lot of brainstorming and research and kept a furniture journal, where we wrote about every piece of furniture we encountered for a week,” says Archit Chaba. “So, for a couch, or a table, or a bed, we thought about each one and its design points.

“It was really interesting because we started thinking about furniture in an entirely different manner,” he says.

“Part of our mission requirement was to focus on the daily activities of the astronauts and not their sleep habits or anything like that,” says Rey Amendola. “When we thought about what astronauts do every day and what kind of furniture they need, we narrowed down the scope of the project to chairs for sitting and tables for working, relaxing, or for mealtimes.”

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They got extensive help from NASA representatives, including advisers Nancy Currie, an astronaut and engineer with four space shuttle missions to her credit, and her engineering colleague Christie Sauers. “Step by step, they were there with us for the whole process,” Amendola says.

Schmidt says Currie helped gather opinions from a number of astronauts about what would be most useful in space.

“Ultimately, we’re just brainstorming the first prototypes,” Peera says. “Hopefully they’ll take this design and experiment further to finalize it and eventually get it up into orbit.”

NASA and ConocoPhillips sponsored the project.

Source: Rice University

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