Gravity Check

by Mary Martialay on July 15, 2010

On the side of a medical examining table designed by Architecture Professor Ted Krueger’s vertical studio design class, students installed a small brushed aluminum knob with four gravity settings: Flip the switch, change gravity.

The gravity switch is a tongue-in-cheek answer to one of the challenges facing the students as they designed a medical workstation for a prototype NASA lunar module. The conundrum: the module is meant for the moon, but will be tested on Earth. In Arizona, actually.

The medical workstation is currently at Houston’s Johnson Space Center where it is due to be installed with three other stations – geology, general maintenance, and extra-vehicular activity maintenance – in the cylindrical lunar module, according to Robert Howard, manager of NASA’s habitability design center.

Architecture students review the prototype lunar module at Johnson Space Center
Architecture students review the prototype lunar module at Johnson Space Center

Once the four workstations are installed, the real fun begins. The module will be put through a “shakedown cruise” in the last week of July and the second week of August. Then it will be taken to Black Point Lava Flow, a spot about 40 miles north of Flagstaff, Arizona where NASA has tested lunar devices since the Apollo missions.

At Black Point Lava Flow, NASA will perform a series of maneuvers in the module, testing each aspect of its design and equipment in turn both individually and in concert. Because the four stations share a space about the diameter of an above-ground swimming pool, the potential for discord is great.

A specific component – for example the medical examining table -  might be tested first to see if it can hold the weight of an astronaut, and then again to see if it interferes with other activities like an extra-vehicular mission. According to Howard:

We’ll be looking to see if things move properly, that they don’t conflict, that they hold enough storage, that the lighting is sufficient … There are so many pieces that have to come together, and there’s no way to conceive how it will come together.

Howard said he appreciated the thought students had dedicated to their task. In particular, the team incorporated an element of style in their design of the examining table, which has a futuristic molded fiberglass base in glossy red paint:

Often, engineers don’t consider aesthetics. They just make it light enough to fly, but you don’t want to work in an ugly house. It’s hard quantifying that in numbers, so a lot of times we make that argument and engineers don’t see the value. When you’ve been on the moon for four months, you’ll see the value.

Any opinion on the gravity switch?

No. Just a chuckle.