JDC Fall-1998 v1 - Computer Simulation and the Design of the Interior of NASA's Habitation Module for the International Space Station

Issue 1
Fall 1998

Computer Simulation and the Design of the Interior of
NASA's Habitation Module for the International Space Station

Patricia F. Lindsey, Ph.D.
East Carolina University
E-mail: lindseyp@mail.ecu.edu


The purpose of this class project was to design an unconventional interior environment while completing a series of presentations using a variety of 3-D CAD techniques. Students produced variations of the interior of the habitation module of the International Space Station in order to make it more functional for life in a micro-gravity environment. The project required that students revisit design and anthropometric basics and apply alterations required by a micro-gravity environment. This exercise expanded abilities of observation, cognition, and required a high level of 3-D computer graphic presentation in order to describe solutions to this difficult environmental challenge. Students agreed that the lack of space and privacy should be addressed by module designers. The project holds implications for research. Comparisons may be made between this project and a more conventional, CAD based senior studio project.

Purpose and Objectives
The Design Problem
Preparation and Module Description
Evaluation and Conclusions


During three consecutive years, students participating in an Advanced Computer Aided Design studio at East Carolina University produced interior design solutions for the habitation module of the International Space station (ISS). This senior level interior design studio focuses on the use of 3-DCAD to solve design problems and present solutions. Participating students produced design solutions based design concerns involved in the planning of the habitation module.

The students consulted NASA engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, AL, and officials of The Boeing Company's operations in Huntsville, primary contractors for construction of the ISS (Boeing, 1998). MSFC is the site of the construction of the ISS.

In 1997 completed ISS modules and full-scale models of the modules were moved to Kennedy Space Flight Center and Johnson Space Flight Center in preparation for transport into space and construction of the ISS. Launch of the primary modules of the ISS is currently planned for fall/winter, 1998 (Boeing, 1998) and the habitation module, used for the project described in this paper, is scheduled for launch in 2002 (NASA, 1998). Eventually the ISS will be composed of six laboratories and connecting or port modules designed and managed by Japan, Russia, Canada, and the United States, and a group of eleven countries in the European community (NASA, 1998). Each module will have a dedicated function such as command and flight, research and testing, or habitation.

The primary purpose of the space station will be its use as a base for research including the study of the effects of long-term living and working in space (NASA, March 1992). It will provide an interim long-term living experience, while research takes place, in order to discover if humans will be able to tackle the next space exploration step, expeditions to other planets.

Unique to the design of interior environments for survival in space is the problem of how humans interact with the built environment in micro-gravity conditions (Dunn, 1995). Unlike Earth gravity environments, every surface of the micro-gravity environment must be designed to be benign as well as functional since it is likely that humans living or working in such an environment will come in frequent contact with all surfaces.

Adding to the complexity of the design problem are the issues of privacy and enclosure in a limited space. Privacy cubicles were excluded from the habitation module due to cost and spatial considerations. Areas for display of personal items, such as photographs, are not designated, but are frequently chosen by each astronaut, as might be done by participants in any common workplace gathering area. When sleeping in this module, astronauts will slip into a piece of equipment that looks like a sleeping bag with armholes. The bag attaches to the ratcheted tracks on each of the four walls by a tether. While they sleep, astronauts float freely, attached to their tether, in the micro-gravity environment. There will be multiple modules in the space station and astronauts will be able to seek privacy by moving to another, unoccupied module. This is an important consideration since the interior space in the subject module measures only seven feet by twenty-seven feet.

This class project was generated by the instructor's research with NASA and by NASA's commitment to provide resources for education. Engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center suggested the design project and provided precedent for the need for interior design in micro-gravity environments (Wise, 1990). Wise writes, "The lessons to be learned here are that questions of space station interior design are as amenable as those of engineering design to rigorous analysis, and that there are some surprises in store that take the evaluation of interiors well beyond their visual or other casual impressions (1990, p. 10)." The process of this class project is discussed in this paper.

Purpose of the Project

To design an unconventional interior environment while completing a series of presentations using a variety of 3-D CAD techniques along with traditional rendering.

Objectives of the Project

  • To demonstrate an understanding of design in a confined, micro-gravity environment adaptable to clients with varied anthropometric characteristics. To demonstrate an understanding of designing an environment in which all surfaces must be suitable for functional and tactile contact by its occupants.
  • To demonstrate ability to convert written and verbal information on an unconventional environment into readable and understandable graphics presentations.
  • To demonstrate ability to use a CAD system for drawings, slide presentations, and importation of non-AutoCAD files while using traditional rendering media.

Background of the Project

MSFC's Crew Systems Branch and The Boeing Company contributed necessary dimensions, data, and some of the literature. A dialogue between students and NASA personnel provided information during class trips and conference calls to MSFC. During these interactions, class members accumulated additional pertinent information through demonstrations, lectures, and readings on micro-gravity environments, and the history, feasibility, and design of the space station. At MSFC, class members visited: (a) the neutral-buoyancy training tank [a water filled four story building containing a full scale model of the shuttle bay and the Hubble telescope] where micro-gravity task training takes place, (b) the full scale models of the ISS modules, (c) the virtual reality training lab, (d) the flat floor training surface [a minimum friction surface that follows the curve of the earth's surface], and (e) the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.

The first year that this design problem was presented to students, the class communicated with MSFC via conference calls. The succeeding classes traveled to MSFC before beginning their design project. In order to prepare for designing for life in space students studied changes that occur to the human body in a micro-gravity environment, what humans do to adapt to the change from Earth's gravity, and how to design a living and working environment suitable for these changes and adaptations. Students participated in demonstrations and lectures by NASA engineers and Boeing officials who challenged them to create a more comfortable and functional habitation module.

The Design Problem

Students were asked to refine existing spatial designs for the module and to create new, anthropometrically appropriate equipment, including a work/dining table, exercise equipment, a folding medical examination table, adequate storage for extra vehicular activity (EVA) gear, a glove box and a directional orientation device. Graphic design solutions were to be presented using 3-D CAD.

The work/dining table is to be a horizontal or suitably angled surface that could be used to support food trays and laptop computers. A glove box for sensitive or dangerous experimental materials will be located in the habitation module. The cover of the glove box is made of a transparent plastic that permits astronauts to see and manipulate the experimental materials without directly touching them. This is accomplished by slipping hands through ports in the cover and into gloves attached to the ports. The class participants were challenged to provide a redesigned cover for the glove box that would provide for comfortable and safe use by a wider range of body types than did the existing glove box cover. Class members were also asked to include a design tactic or color strategy that would help astronauts identify "up" and "down" within the module to aid in the reduction of confusion and space sickness. Although there is no up or down in space since there is virtually no gravitational pull, astronauts have reported that they are much more comfortable if they can visually orient themselves to a recurring vertical position.

Preparation for Class Project

Students were provided with a CAD drawing of the exterior of the module and a rack, based on the NASA dimensions. NASA requirements, plans of the existing environment, function of the environment, anthropometric implications, and specific equipment needs made up the background information for the class project. Additionally, class participants accommodated NASA human factors standards that require all environments and equipment to be designed for a range of human body sizes from a 5th percentile Japanese female to a 95th percentile American male (NASA, 1989). Students were informed about many of the materials that would be used in the module; materials that were unfamiliar to them such as the graphite epoxy used in the modular racks. Students carefully studied the unfamiliar materials and proceeded with their designs.

Module Description

Based on planned activities, astronauts will use the habitation module of the ISS for a combination of storage, rest, and work (Figure 1). They will sleep, prepare food, dine, use shower and toilet facilities, utilize computer workstations, and monitor scientific experiments. All of this takes place in an uncommon environment to be designed to support these activities.

Figure 1: Module profile showing end cones

The shape of the exterior shell of the habitation module is cylindrical. with a shallow cone at either end. Openings at the narrow end of the cones providehatch entry openings into connecting modules that, in turn, open into one or more of the adjacent activity modules.

The interior shape of the module is defined by four flat seven-foot high surfaces. All surfaces are approximately twenty-seven feet in length and height placed at 90 degrees to one another forming an elongated quadrilateral box placed inside a cylinder. A cross section (Figure 2) of the module reveals a square (the interior living space) within a circle (the outer module shell) (NASA, 1992). The four crescents formed between each straight interior wall and the curved outer shell of the are module are used for storage and utilitarian spaces such as the shower/toilet area. These spaces are fitted with standardized, replaceable modular units called racks shapes, (Figure 3.) molded from graphite/epoxy material, that serve as support for storage and other functions (Dunn, 1995). They must be are fitted side by side with their faces forming the four sides of the interior box that is the living/working space of the module. Each rack is rigged with cabinetry for storage or equipment for flight activities, therefore all equipment and storage must be designed to fit into one of these crescent-shaped racks The pie piece shaped corners formed by installation of the modular racks are utilized for HVAC and water ducting. This requirement became part of the design problem for the students.


Figure 2:  End view of module showing racks and triangles.

Figure 3: Profile view of one of the modular racks that make up the interior of the habitation module.


Students worked alone or in pairs. Each student or group created a 3-D CAD model representing the interior of the habitation module. Each rack was designed and put in its place on each the four walls. Additionally pairs students were assigned one of the pieces of equipment that were requested by NASA engineers (e.g., the dining/work table or the glove box) as part of their design assignment. Models of equipment were made available to the entire class. Members of the class were free to use these models or to create their own. Models of equipment racks (figure 3) were inserted into the 3-D models of the module. Construction of the modules and placement were based on knowledge of the dimensions, effective spatial planning, and knowledge of micro-gravity environments.

Students "created" four fictional astronauts from differing cultures, educational backgrounds, and of both sexes. Their astronauts' body types ranged across the NASA standards requirements. Each constructed two of their astronauts using Mannequin software. Students placed the astronauts in appropriate neutral body posture, the position that humans assume when in a micro-gravity environment with head forward, elbows out, and knees slightly bent. The two astronauts, being of familiar shape and size, were used by students as a constant in observing the shape and size of the environment. The astronaut models were used for testing reach for specific objects such as the dining/work table, door pulls, and foot restraints.

The number and range of design details (e.g. drawer pulls, foot restraints, and sleeping bags) were determined by the students depending on the needs uncovered during data gathering. Computers, monitors, and EVA suits were placed in view or in storage, based on the individual's research and design (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Clipped view of interior of the habitation module with folding medical examination table on the left and folding dining/work table on the right. Ducts are visible in the triangular spaces between the racks.

Solutions to the orientation problem were varied. The most common solution was to make each wall of racks a different color. One student or pair designated two of the rack faces as "walls", one as a floor and one as a ceiling. The floor and lower part of the walls bore a darker color than the ceiling and upper walls. Another solution incorporated large triangles on the rack faces, with the base of the triangle at the "bottom" of the racks and the point of the triangle at the "top".  Labels for equipment and racks were placed on separate layers. These labeled layers could be turned on or off depending on whether identification of specific objects or areas was needed.


Final presentations were made in several formats. Design solutions were displayed as computer generated models and printed on drafting film for color rendered presentation on boards. Physical data about fictional astronauts was presented in matrix form. The entire module and various components were presented as AutoCAD slide shows. Each participating group of students made oral presentations at the end of the semester. At the end of the spring semester, 1996, students presented projects to administration and local newspaper representatives. The project received media coverage (White, 1995) across the eastern half of North Carolina (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Student Kelly Baker presents habitation module design to class, school administration and local newspaper reporters.


In addition to evaluation by the course instructor, students presented completed projects to school, university, and media officials. During the summer following each of the spring semester classes in which this project was completed, the presentation boards were shown to engineers at MSFC. Reaction to the students' work was favorable and it was noted that clearly they had a good grasp of the design problem and used a range of feasible solutions.


This project was a challenging one for students and instructor. However, its challenges were rewarded with usable knowledge of 3-D CAD presentation and with the experience of visiting, observing and learning from unusual and non-traditional interior design environments and client needs. Students were challenged to create objects with shapes and for an environment that they had never experienced.

The project required that students revisit design and anthropometric basics and apply alterations required by a micro-gravity environment. Over the three-year period, most of the students enjoyed the experience and have reported that portfolio presentations of the project are well received. Others thought that the experience was too far outside the normal interior design project environment, but observed that the task expanded their abilities of observation, cognition, interview and presentation techniques, and required learning a high level of 3-D computer graphic presentation in order to present solutions to this difficult environmental challenge. Most students agreed that the lack of space and privacy should be addressed.

Aside from access to facilities outside the usual range of interior design students' experience, the experience gained from the project may help develop skills required when facing design challenges in other non-traditional design areas. The student who has had this type of learning experience may be better prepared, for example, for design challenges for critically ill or physically restricted clients or environments where toxic materials are handled. Due to the necessity of learning about specialized materials, challenging anthropometric problems, careful programming, and the presentation skills gained in learning 3-D CAD presentation, a project of this type should be helpful in graduates' professional pursuits.

Implications for Future Class Projects

The project was comprehensive and is a worthy senior studio project. It requires that the student already be competent in basic CAD, anthropometric understanding, and space planning. The student must be able to travel to a location, like MSFC, where the concentrated, intense information may be gathered visually and from experts or spend long periods of time on research and a semester for the project may be required. The project holds promise for research. Comparisons may be made between this type of project and a more conventional, CAD based senior studio.


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