The astronauts say wrap-around windows and smart design should be key features of the next generation of space stations.
The SpaceX Crew-4 group of four astronauts, who returned to Earth on October 14, have several years of spaceflight experience among them working on the International Space Station (ISS) two decades ago. They told reporters at a press conference Thursday (October 20) that their tropical habitat was a great place to be, but that the next generation of stations could take the technology even further.
“We’re trying to take these next leaps in deep space exploration,” said Crew-4 pilot and NASA astronaut Bob Farmer. “I think we need to really start thinking outside the box about a lot of these things. But first of all, if we’re going to do human exploration, you have to put ‘human’ into the equation.”
While the International Space Station is currently in good health, NASA plans to transition to commercial space stations as soon as 2030 — and has contributed to early-stage funding to support the effort. The agency selected Axiom Space in January 2020 to build a commercial unit that would be the start of a fully autonomous private station, and expanded its list of commercial Low Earth Orbit (LEO) destinations in December 2021 to include concepts designed by Nanorax, Northrop Grumman. and Blue Origin, which has partnered with Sierra Space on its project.
Related: NASA looks to private outposts to build on ISS legacy
These companies should start thinking about new technologies that could come to commercial space stations, Farmer said. The International Space Station, he said, has been a pioneer in its fair share; While he did not go into details, a notable example is the recycling of water from urine to reduce the need for charges from the Earth.
Farmer urged that, whatever technology companies tackle, they must keep efficiency and sustainability in mind. Then there is the science to consider; Crew-4 mission specialist Jessica Watkins, a Mars geologist who published a science paper while in space, has urged the next generation design to include a 360-degree dome window similar to the one received by the International Space Station in 2010 (or for that matter), that in which the Inspiration 4 mission flew on a modified SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule in 2021.)
Related: SpaceX shows Inspiration4’s stunning ground-view and new dome window
The dome of the International Space Station allows astronauts to “look out the window and see the Earth below us and make scientific observations,” Watkins said, adding that the window also provides “more opportunities for crew members to interact with the environment they’re in, whether it’s a view of Earth, the moon, or Beyond that – on Mars.”
Samantha Cristoforetti, commander of ISS 68, which has two long missions under its belt, urged flexibility in the design as much as possible, especially in light of other potential users such as space tourists coming on board.
“We’re going to go to commercial space stations and have space publications that might not fly into space as a professional, but perhaps fly into space for the fun of it,” she said. She urged engineers to think of designs “built with humans in mind” rather than asking humans to adapt to the environment.
Cristoforetti said designers should be brought on board to assess “the ease of use and pleasure of using such an object or feature,” but added that this is already common in spaceflight. “So I’m sure this will happen naturally.”
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