Just as the fictional Mark Watney depended on his habitat module to survive the extreme Martian environment, future Mars astronauts will need a shelter that not only protects them from unpredictable weather but also offers some of the psychological comfort of home.
Students in the Human Factors Psychology program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Daytona Beach, Florida, campus have just the solution: a refurbished 1976 Airstream trailer. Led by faculty advisor Jason Kring, the students have transformed their Airstream—the same kind of vehicle used by NASA decades ago to quarantine returning Apollo astronauts—into the Mobile Extreme Environment Research Station, or MEERS.
“I’m just really fascinated by how you could get six people on a roundtrip to Mars, how you would design the vehicle, how you would train them, how you select the crew,” explains Kring, an associate professor of Human Factors. “That’s where the MEERS project came from. It’s a way to have our students have a test bed to look at some of these issues.”
International Space Station modules were designed piece-by-piece, and were connected to each other over a span of many years, on a timetable determined by their availability, launch schedules, and factors other than livability. Because of that, the layout of the station is not very astronaut-friendly.
“From a human factors perspective, it’s just not laid out in a logical way,” Kring says. “There’s one location where the water is for brushing their teeth. They have to go someplace else to get to the toilet facility.”
MEERS has more of a deliberate design, which can be modified to test the most efficient configuration for astronauts to work, eat, sleep, exercise, and generally stay sane. The students work on improving the functionality of everything from living quarters to lighting.
“How bright should lights be?” Kring asks. “Should we dim them at different times of the day so that the crew will get ready for bed?” Mars won’t have the same day-night cycles as Earth, and in orbit the sun rises and sets multiple times each day.
Timothy Disher, the team’s lead graduate student, says much of the MEERS research is connected to how astronauts will move about inside the module.
“How people utilize the space, how people think when they’re in the space,” Disher says. “We’re putting a lot of emphasis on making sure it’s intuitive.”
Danielle Rosales is a senior at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University majoring in Communication. She will spend the spring semester as a communication intern at Space Tango in Lexington, Kentucky.