A Designer’s Experience with Unmanned Spaceflight

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.

Enceladus’ South-Polar Region Cross Section

Day 1

Small Fish in a Big Pond

Starting out in this challenge, I felt like the odd one out. Brilliant minds with rigorous science and engineering degrees and diverse backgrounds seemed to tower over me. The question surrounding what my role in this mission design challenge would be continued to swirl around in my head.

Day 2

The “A Team”

Early in the morning, both teams (Explorer and Voyager) set off for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to take part in an “A Team” style brainstorming session, in addition to a comprehensive tour of the campus.

Credit: JPL Innovation Foundry
JPL “A Team” Workshop

Day 3

Beginning of the “Nitty Gritty”

Now that the teams were all set and we had a direction, our team started to dive deeper into our mission. While the engineering, science, and instrumentation teams started to work out the specifics of the mission, I started to brainstorm how we would sell whatever mission design we would create.

Day 4

“Project Etna”

So many elements of the mission were coming together, yet we still had a long way to go in a short amount of time. We had all of our science goals figured out and had a good idea of what instrumentation would be needed, granted we would need to narrow down the science goals a bit.

Day 5

The Home Stretch

As the end of the week approached, the mission began to take shape. Final instruments were set and it was time to start visualizing how they would come together within the proposed spacecraft, lander, and probes.

Day 6

“Gamechangers”

This was it, this was the end of the journey. Having worked through the night, we finally had a presentation complete with a full mission report and a mission rundown.

Our Mission

Launch

Our launch date was set as March 2, 2028 at 11:13 UT. This needed to be precise as the Earth, Saturn, Enceladus, and various other planets in our solar system needed to be in the right place at the right time. As our mission brief stated, we would be using the SLS as our launch vehicle.

Etna Spacecraft + SLS Explorer Upper Stage

Saturn Orbit

The journey to Saturn would take roughly 11 years and our spacecraft would arrive on June 23, 2037. This seems like a very long time to wait for such a mission, however when the distances are taken into consideration, this amount of time seems relatively quick. However, getting to Saturn is only part of the problem, the other part is getting into orbit.

Enceladus Orbit

Saturn is not the main focus of the mission. The spacecraft would need to perform maneuvers to get into an orbit around Enceladus rather than Saturn. Once a stable orbit around Enceladus is achieved, the science would begin.

Science and Landing

This is where the mission really starts to pick up. Now in a stable orbit around Enceladus, the spacecraft will fly through the plumes and collect valuable scientific data that focuses on different points than Cassini did during its flyby. After a few orbits collecting plume data, images, as well as radar scans of both the surface ice and subsurface oceans, the orbiter would send a lander down to the surface.

Seismic Probes

End of Mission

After both the lander and the orbiter have completed their objectives, the question of what comes next arises. Planetary protection becomes the driving force behind the next steps. In order to ensure that neither Enceladus, nor the other moons of Saturn, becomes infected with earthborn microorganisms, the lander itself has been sterilized and would therefore be able to remain on the surface of Enceladus indefinitely. However the orbiter would prove to be far too expensive to completely sterilize. Rather than risk contamination by crashing into another moon, the orbiter would be disposed of by burning up within Saturn’s atmosphere.

Perceptions

Our mission looked towards the future and, because of this, made some assumptions about future technologies and systems. The mission accounted for everything that could go wrong and had systems in place to mitigate the risk of mission failure. In the end, our mission proved to be a sound concept that generated incredible interest and introduced the possibility of discovering life, and was even described as “game changing”. However, our mission proposal’s successes would prove to be complications as well.

And that is what business an industrial designer has in an uncrewed mission.

All the sleepless nights and long workdays were worth it in the end as we had a mission design we were all proud of. Over the course of the week, I gained many friendships and had the pleasure of meeting some of the most extraordinary people.

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