Draper Develops Method to Improve Future Spacecraft Design

Draper_logoSystem being developed to help Astronauts take full advantage of usable room inside long duration space missions.

CAMBRIDGE, MA (Draper Laboratory PR) – The useable area aboard a spacecraft is at a premium once you fill it with people, supplies to sustain them, equipment for experimentation, and that which is needed to operate the craft. Yet, weightlessness creates opportunities for astronauts to expand their working and living environment because they are not constrained by being bound to a “floor.” However, NASA has yet to map how astronauts take advantage of weightlessness to expand the useable area of their vehicles.

NASA has selected Draper Laboratory to develop a wearable device that will track astronauts’ location and orientation as they move around the International Space Station. From these devices, three dimensional models of the crew’s use of the habitat can be created and validated. These models could inform and improve designs of future spacecraft to maximize the space astronauts have to work. This is critical when planning long duration exploration missions like NASA’s planned mission to Mars.

“The habitable volume of the ISS is 13,696 cubic feet—nearly that of a 2000 square foot home,” said Jana Schwartz, Draper’s Human Centered Design & Engineering group leader. “That’s a lot of room up in space, and Draper’s technology can help NASA determine how to better use it when designing future spacecraft.”

The device incorporates optical sensors to determine an astronaut’s location within the ISS relative to other objects, as well as inertial measurement units (IMUs) and algorithms that, when packaged into an integrated system, can provide continuous information about movement and orientation.

Draper will deliver a wearable prototype system for NASA to test.

Elements of the algorithms that will integrate into the system were matured under a previous NASA-funded effort—Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC), which developed a spacesuit technology that introduces an artificial force similar to gravity to increase astronauts stability and health. That spacesuit technology could also stabilize walking and other movements for the elderly, and assist with injury rehabilitation here on Earth.

“Tracking an astronaut in motion, in three-dimensions and in any orientation, is a unique and complex challenge associated with living and working in space,” explained Kevin Duda, Draper’s principal investigator for the project. “The integration of this technology into a small, wearable form factor also has the potential to quantify biomechanics and movement here on Earth.”