A Designer’s Experience with Unmanned Spaceflight

Sam Zaref
16 min readMay 2, 2019

I’m an industrial designer. In most cases, this means designing products and services centered around human interaction. Uncrewed spaceflight is just that, not crewed. Humans do not physically interact with the spacecraft during the mission. There is no need to make the craft ergonomic or look pleasing to the eye; it just needs to be able to complete mission objectives.

So what business does an industrial designer have in an uncrewed mission?

To answer this, let me take you through my experience helping to design an unmanned mission to Saturn’s moon Enceladus, as part of the 2019 Caltech Space Challenge.

“The Caltech Space Challenge brings 32 talented and highly-motivated students to the Caltech campus to participate in a week-long space mission design competition. The participants are split into two teams and both teams work under the mentorship of experts from industry, NASA and academia to design their mission concept from scratch to final proposal. The Challenge is a unique opportunity for young and enthusiastic students to build technical and teamwork skills, interact with world-renowned experts in space exploration and connect to like-minded peers from all around the world.”

This year’s challenge was to design a mission to explore the icy moon Enceladus and find out more about habitability conditions and possibility of life.

Enceladus is a tiny moon in the Saturnian System on the outskirts of the E-Ring spewing plumes of ice from its south-polar region and feeding the ring. These plumes emanate from “tiger stripes”, which are cracks in the surface ice that behave similarly to cracks formed in the tectonic plates here on earth. The Cassini mission discovered these plumes consist of water emitted from a vast subsurface ocean, thought to be heated by thermal vents on the ocean floor. What is fascinating is that these conditions may be a habitable environment for life.

Enceladus’ South-Polar Region Cross Section

The Cassini Probe flew by Enceladus in 2015. However, even though the spacecraft came very close to Enceladus, this was just a…