Perspectives January 13, 2021

We Designed a Translational Research Environment for Space Flight, AKA a Rocket Ship

By Julio Brenes, Technical Coordinator; Julia Cheung, Designer; Kalpana Kuttaiah, Research Knowledge Manager, Associate Principal; and Lauren Neefe, Writer

Did you happen to catch the story this fall about NASA’s Project Olympus initiative? NASA is teaming up with several startups and design companies to research how to shelter humans on the moon by 2024. The lunar-focused project is a leap forward in NASA’s plan to put humans on Mars in the 2030s.

Cool. But here’s what we’ve been thinking…

NASA is projecting that the space flight to Mars will take three years. Three years: That’s about 2.5 times as long as the longest stint any single person has done in space to date. Humans are going to have to really live up there … in there … out there. As planet Earth becomes less and less hospitable for humans, we need to start to design ways to live in the hostile environment of outer space terrain as well as the hostile environment of the vessels that take us there.

This need for sustainability and well-being in space flight is one of the design drivers in Vooster Lab, our team’s entry in this year’s Breaking Through competition, run biannually by Healthcare Design Magazine. The competition invites conceptual innovation and imagination in addressing contemporary healthcare delivery: What can you come up with if you take out all the constraints of time, budget, schedule, codes … even, let’s say, gravity.

There are three phases in the competition. We wanted to make sure we made it to Phase 2, so we submitted two entries for Phase 1: Meta-Cella was Julia’s brainchild, a modular intelligent care system that fuses bioink technology, intelligence engineering, and international cooperation to deliver targeted healthcare anywhere in the world. Innovative, imaginative, and ambitious, if we do say so ourselves.

You haven’t seen the last of Meta-Cella, but the idea that made it through to the Phase 2 semifinal round was Environeers, a living laboratory and environment where a group of astronauts, scientists, doctors, and educators form an investigative community to study viral and human behavior under stress. We imagined Environeers as a company, not unlike SEArch+, and our competition entry, Vooster Lab, would be the first vessel in the fleet.

Maybe you are asking, “Why viruses and humans?” It’s not just because viruses are top of mind right now. Scientists have been studying viral behavior in space for some time. It turns out that one thing viruses and humans have in common, besides the fact that one depends on the other for its existence, is that their behavior becomes unpredictable under prolonged exposure to stress.

Dormant viruses can reawaken; humans can start to act dangerously. We used NASA’s rubric for the “5 Hazards of Space Flight” to chart the physical and mental-health risks the Environeers would face during three years in space.



So one piece of the innovation is the generative alignment of medical-science and behavioral-health investigation. That pairing led us to translational, or “bench-to-bedside,” medicine as the delivery method we wanted to “break through.” We would be advancing the “bench-to-spaceflight” program NASA already has underway to support the Journey to Mars. Called the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, the entity coordinates with NASA’s Human Research Program as well as Baylor, Cal Tech, and MIT in an effort to “translate” biomedical research and technology into appreciable outcomes for humans traveling in space.

In this respect, Vooster Lab’s innovation is to tweak the very concept of translation in “translational research.” Just as space flight suspends the activity of living between two destinations, Vooster Lab suspends the act of translation between research and outcome. That is, translational research on Vooster Lab is not unidirectional: bench to spaceflight. It’s bench to spaceflight and back again and again and again. Vooster Lab takes the reality that astronauts are always both investigators and the subjects of investigation and uses it to explore the possibilities of collaborative research, interstellar investigation and education, and in situ application of findings.

Working from the behavioral-health premise that the sense of belonging to a community is a basic building block of well-being, we determined that Vooster Lab would need to host a community. (To get a sense of how inhumane the current design of spaceships is, take a peek at “An Astronaut’s Guide to Happiness,” the video Rob Deering produced for the Innovation Incubator about mental health and space flight.) The vessel itself would need to be much larger than even the International Space Station to grow the crew from a precious handful, typically three or four, to some 20‑24 Environeers­­—enough to integrate a community but not so many that the sense of purpose would disintegrate.

With the size and composition of our community set, we envisioned a coordinated trio of environments, distributed among several rings and organized around an axial circulation spine.

The Sensory Environment

Concentric Wellness, Privacy, and Biophilia rings host a self-sustaining community of high-functioning, highly trained people under extreme conditions.

The Testing Environment

A single ring of research, collaboration, and communication modules hosts on-site and interplanetary collection, investigation, and education.

Disturbance Environments

Strategically located recovery zones host the observation and resolution of outbreaks of disease, psychological symptoms, or social conflict.

For the skeptics out there, utilitas was not a constraint we bracketed. Vooster Lab is to be transported part by part to the International Space Station, assembled there and launched on its flight to Mars. The spinning rings generate a spectrum of artificial gravity to promote the human body’s tolerance for extraterrestrial gravitation. The vessel’s design envisions the most advanced technology to power and sustain its systems and functions. Among these features are circadian glass to regulate temporal rhythms; reactors that convert and repurpose carbon dioxide and organic waste; repair bots; and a deployable sail that harvests heavy ions for cancer treatment on Earth.

Humans are going to be living in outer space, be it in 3-D printed structures or rocket ships, but we are still going to be inhabiting Earth. We not only need to translate what we have learned on Earth to the hostile environments of space, but we also need to translate what we learn from the hostile environments of space travel to the threats we continue to face here on Earth.

We imagined Vooster Lab as breaking through the innovation short-circuit that launches every interplanetary insight back out into space.

Tour the competition brief and Vooster Lab design concept here.

Read about all of the semifinalists in the November issue of Healthcare Design Magazine.