Wrap-around windows and smart design should be key features of the next generation of space stations, astronauts say.
The SpaceX Crew-4 cohort of four astronauts, which returned to Earth on October 14, have several years of spaceflight experience between them working on the two-decade-old International Space Station (ISS). They told reporters at a Thursday (October 20) press conference that their home in orbit is a great place, but the next generation of stations can take the technology even further.
“We’re trying to take these next steps in deep space exploration,” said Bob Farmer, Crew-4 pilot and NASA astronaut. “I think we really need to start thinking differently about a lot of these things. But first and foremost, if we’re going to do human exploration, you need to put ‘the human’ into the equation.”
While the ISS is healthy right now, NASA plans to transition to commercial space stations as soon as 2030 — and has contributed seed funding to support the effort. The agency selected Axiom Space in January 2020 to build a commercial module that will be the genesis of a fully independent private station, and it expanded the list of commercial Low Earth Orbit (LEO) destinations in December 2021 to concepts designed by Nanoracks, Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin, which is partnering with Sierra Space on its project.
Related: NASA looks to private outposts to build on International Space Station legacy
Farmer said these companies should start thinking about new technologies that might come to commercial space stations. The ISS has pioneered its fair share, he said; although he did not state specifics, a prominent example is the recycling of water from urine to reduce the need for expeditions from Earth.
Farmer insisted that whatever technology companies tackle, they must have efficiency and sustainability in mind. And then there’s the science to consider; Crew-4 mission specialist Jessica Watkins, a Mars geologist who published a science paper in space, urged a next-generation design to include a 360-degree cupola window similar to the one the ISS received in 2010 (or for that matter, the one that the Inspiration 4 mission flew on a modified SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule in 2021.)
Related: SpaceX shows off Inspiration4’s stunning view of Earth and new dome window
The ISS cupola allows astronauts to “look out the window, see the Earth below us and make scientific observations,” Watkins said, adding that the window also provides “more opportunities for members of the crew to interact with the environment they find themselves in, be it a view of Earth, or a view of the moon, or even further afield – on Mars.”
ISS Expedition 68 Commander Samantha Cristoforetti, who has two long-duration missions under her belt, encouraged flexibility in design as much as possible, especially in light of possible other users like tourists of space who come on board.
“We’re going to move to commercial space stations and have space pilots who may not be flying in space as professionals, but who may be flying in space for fun,” she said. declared. She urged engineers to consider designs “built with humans in mind”, rather than asking humans to adapt to the environment.
Cristoforetti said designers should be brought on board to assess “the usability and fun of using such an object or feature,” but added that it’s already something common in spaceflight. “So I’m pretty sure it will happen naturally.”
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