HUMAN-CENTRED DESIGN FOR MARS COLONISATION

Dr. Olesya Myakonkaya, Founder of Mars Nation, discusses the need for a beginner’s mind when attempting to design the environments for the first explorers on Mars.

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You know that really annoying colleague you’ve been avoiding? When they ask you if you want to hang out, you tell them, sorry, I have too much work on! Sorry, I have other plans!

It is inconvenient at best and really annoying at worst but rarely it causes serious problems... Unless you are an astronaut...In space there is no escape...Routine stuff becomes life-threatening.

In the 70s, the Skylab 4 astronauts lived and worked in space for almost 3 months. It was the longest mission of its time. NASA demanded essentially a 24-hour schedule. They packed day and night with science experiments, observations of Earth, and space walks. After hours of exhaustion and arguments with the mission control, the crew switched off their radio and decided to take a holiday, spending a day ignoring NASA...What was NASA going to do, come and get them?

Living for months in a tin can far above Earth is stressful. Scientists know that restricted environments weaken our attention, focus, and critical thinking. Yet, to this day the main focus of the space industry is technology, not people. It sort of works for now. So far the only people selected to be astronauts have been exceptionally skilled pilots, scientists, and engineers. But the future of humanity is Mars Colonisation. We are going to Mars. There is nothing bolder, more intriguing, or exciting than interplanetary travel. This will be the biggest adventure of our lifetime. And when we do colonise Mars, 1000s of people, just like you, will blast into space. If you can’t cope with living conditions, it won’t matter how many particles a Mars Rover can analyse.

So how can we design for these first explorers? We need diversity – we will bring together experts and novices from a variety of fields. The more diverse experiences go in - the more unexpected solutions come out. Too often we surround ourselves with those who think and act just like us. That’s cave people mentality. It comes from the desire to be part of a tribe.

What happens if we resist the cave person within us? How will ideas evolve if we look for variety, not sameness? Going to Mars will be the most exciting adventure of our lifetime. But how can we imagine ourselves as people in a world which doesn’t exist yet?

Humans get used to everyday things really fast. You lock your front door on autopilot. That’s habituation. But this habit stops us from noticing the problems around us.

The more diverse experiences go in - the more unexpected solutions come out. Too often we surround ourselves with those who think and act just like us. That’s cave people mentality. It comes from the desire to be part of a tribe.

So how do you break this habit?

You invite a beginner. Scientists have proven over and over again that having novices in the room leads to better ideas. They ask unexpected questions and notice problems that others don’t see. That’s beginners mind.

If you’ve seen Hidden Figures, a film about NASA’s black mathematician, Katherine Johnson, you’d know that she played an enormous role in doing the math to put a man on the moon. Katherine was a school teacher until she applied to be a ‘computer’, a human who performed basic calculations – the very bottom of NASA’s career ladder.

What would space travel look like if NASA acted like most of us and gave the job to someone with the same education and experience as everybody else? The same will happen on Mars– it’s beginners who will help us make extraordinary discoveries. Getting to the red planet is half of the problem, but how can we help the first explorers feel at ease when they build their lives in a hostile environment?

Sure, you’ve seen the Martian. You know what the bases would look like...But who actually wants to live in a white box which looks like a hospital room? Engineers and architects will use constraints of limited weight and design an inflatable base which expands into a living space, a kitchen, a medical centre, and a communications hub. Small stuff will make a huge difference - paintings of rivers and green landscapes will remind astronauts of home, windows with no technical function will give them a sense of wonder, and make the experience more human. You don’t need to create a whole new world. You need to bring diversity, beginners mind, and empathy to have the same experiences as everybody else, but notice what others can’t see.

If you think big and want to take human-centred design beyond Earth, join Mars Nation at marsnation.space, a series of immersive events where novices and experts solve grand human challenges for space exploration.

 
 
 
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Dr. Olesya Myakonkaya

Service Design and Innovation Strategist whose expertise lies in the cross-section of user-centred design, scientific research, and communication. Mars Nation is a series of immersive events where enthusiasts and novices solve grand human challenges of space exploration.