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That’s why conversation with Michael Lye can feel a bit disconcerting. He’s a design consultant and adjunct faculty member, and with his scruffy beard and the blue jeans and athletic footgear he favors on campus he certainly looks the part. But then he starts talking, and what comes out has nothing to do with aesthetics or style or any other art school esoterica. Lye is a self-described “science nerd” who studied physics at Johns Hopkins for several semesters before he found his way to design. Get him going on his childhood memories of watching Neil Armstrong’s first steps onto the moon, and he sounds damn near poetic. “My whole family was crowded on the sofa,” he says. “I was about nine. I don’t know if I understood everything, but that tone in Walter Cronkite’s voice made it clear this was a profound experience. To me, it seemed as though I’d witnessed the beginning of a whole new era.”
At RISD, Lye has the title of “NASA coordinator.” He serves on the Rhode Island Space Grant Consortium as the RISD affiliate representative, an association of schools that share funds NASA provides for research programs. And those hoping for one of the coveted space agency internships talk to him. What’s made him a campus celebrity, though, is a course called “Design for Extreme Environments,” where students warp-speed into the future by tackling NASA-sponsored, beyond-the-stratosphere design research.
Just what sort of projects does NASA toss to budding designers? Several years ago students teamed up with agency engineers to look at the moon dust problem, a puzzler since the Apollo missions back in the seventies. When astronauts went on their first moon strolls, they found everything covered with a fine grit, the result of meteoroids pounding the lunar surface for millions of years. Should some future space crew track that stuff into their living quarters, the tiny, razor-sharp particles could endanger their health and wreak havoc on sensitive equipment. At this point, of course, there’s no certainty where America’s next space destination will be; Obama has said we should aim for Mars, but first with a stopover on an asteroid midway on that voyage. Yet regardless of where astronauts land next, they’ll likely face the same housekeeping challenge.
The NASA team began by mulling some sort of habitat mudroom, where astronauts could leave their dust-contaminated boots and suits. The RISD crew then conducted an in-depth investigation into functionality and ergonomics. Students quizzed the contractor who produces the spacesuit, examined real astronaut gloves, built a full-size mock-up of an airlock entryway, and made themselves a bouncy body harness that simulates the one-sixth gravity of the moon.
The end result of the team effort: an entirely new entry system, the “suit-lock.” The astronaut returning from a walk outside will lean back against a closed hatch, allowing his suit to attach to a special air-tight seal. Once everything’s in place, the hatch will open, his suit will unzip from behind, and he’ll do a backward slide out of his gear and into the habitat. The suit — and anything stuck to it — will stay outside. NASA has already incorporated the system in prototypes of the Lunar Rover, a wheeled vehicle that could someday be used to explore the moon or other planetary bodies.
The collaboration has resulted in several other success stories. Past classes developed a shower for astronauts living in zero gravity, and a space station labeling system that uses colors and icons to better accommodate an international crew. One year students were charged with helping design the interior of a storage module, a structure that could be attached to a spacecraft and transported to an off-Earth landing site. Lye had them build a full-size model of the cylindrical warehouse that nearly filled an entire RISD studio.
“Engineering students graduate with a lot of theoretical knowledge, but they don’t have the hands-on experience,” he says. “That NASA comes back to RISD year after year says something about what design has to add.”
As each class wraps up, NASA engineers review the results to glean the best ideas. There’s no predicting, however, which RISD plans — if any — will be used in space. As Lye points out, NASA tinkers with everything for years before a mission, and makes infinite changes along the way.