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.
The Cassini Probe flew by Enceladus in 2015. However, even though the spacecraft came very close to Enceladus, this was just a flyby and not an actual landing. In this flyby, Cassini gathered valuable data about the composition of the plumes and determined that besides water, there were other ingredients for life such as nitrogen and carbon.
Our mission would need to perform science to learn more about Enceladus and the possibility of life beneath the thick icy crust. We would need to work within a budget of $1 Billion for the mission, use the SLS (Space Launch System) as our launch vehicle, and would need to factor in various operational and mission critical aspects such as power systems, fuel, and scientific instrumentation. In addition, our mission must land on the surface in some way.
The proposal would be presented at the end of the week and evaluated based on cost, scientific benefit, public intrigue, and the overall concept. Armed with this brief, Team Explorer set out to embark on a rigorous journey to design a full mission to this small, icy moon.
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.
One thing I should clarify is that design is a semi-ambiguous term. Design means different things across many fields. It may involve creating a product yet it could also surround creating an experiment to test a theory, or even plan an orbital trajectory. I came to realize that even though design may mean different things to people, design thinking seems like a universal trait. I would learn that the design process within mission architecture is extremely similar to the design process that I am familiar with.
After receiving the mission brief, the team gathered in the think-tank of the Keck Institute for Space Studies at Caltech to work on the team structure for the week. We decided to split up our group of 16 into smaller sub-teams, tackling various aspects of the mission such as engineering, science, and instrumentation. Doing this allows for smaller interactions that are more efficient than larger groups of people tackling problems. We then elected sub-team leads that would communicate between teams and would meet to make sure each sub-team stayed on track.
You may be wondering where I fit in among these teams. In the beginning, I wondered this as well.
I started out on the engineering team as my speciality within industrial design lies in physical products. For the first day, this worked out great as I was able to brainstorm about what the functions of the spacecraft would be and what the hardware might look like. Thanks to my years of passion and independent “for fun” research on various spacecraft and missions, I was able to keep up with the technical aspects of this more conceptual phase of the mission planning process. However, this would not necessarily be the case for the rest of the week as the very next day, the first major shift in the team dynamics and our way of approaching this challenge occured.
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.
JPL Innovation Foundry’s A Team handles the phase in the mission design process that takes place before the design moves to Team X.
“Team X uses concurrent engineering for rapid design and analysis of space mission concepts. These advanced design teams are composed of a diverse group of specialists working in real time, in the same place, with shared data, to yield an integrated point design. Depending on the maturity of the customer’s concept, Team X offers different capabilities and products including instrument design, technology assessments, institutional cost estimates, Red Team reviews, and much more.”
The A Team exists at the very beginning of the mission design journey, focusing on a very basic concept maturity level (CML). The JPL Innovation Foundry breaks the CML scale into 8 main levels, ranging from a “cocktail napkin sketch” to a final mission design complete with hardware testing and demonstration.
Our team met with members of the A Team and took part in a brainstorming session designed to help us further understand team roles as well as how we would be selling our idea in the end. This was a pivotal point for me. I realized that I had one advantage as a designer within this process: I am a storyteller. Telling the story of why certain decisions are made in the design process and how the final outcome is informed by these decisions, in the end, helps to sell the final outcome.
Guided by members of the A Team, we did a great deal of idea generation and storytelling exercises. All ideas were good ideas, and even the most insane of mission concepts were considered. We learned that in order to sell a mission design, people need to care about why this mission needs to be undertaken and why it matters to individuals as well as humanity as a whole.
As part of the challenge, we would need to take our mission concept to a “Point Design” or “Baseline” concept maturity level (CML 4 or 5). After seeing examples of the CML we would need to achieve it became easier to define our deliverables at the end of the week as we had a baseline of what worked in the past as a comparison.
With this experience, our team had a better idea of how we would go about the design of the mission and what story we wanted to tell. I realized that the three main team categories we envisioned were not enough to pitch a mission, there was a missing element: storytelling.
We created a design team that I would lead and coordinate with other teams to make sure that all aspects fit into the story we wanted to tell. In addition to the story itself, I would be in charge of visually communicating our mission design.
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.
As the other teams worked, I made rounds and chatted with team leads in order to understand how the mission would come together. Throughout the day I worked with various team members to create a pseudo-storyboard of both the mission as well as how the mission would be presented. This story board was a living-breathing entity that would change almost every hour based on new information coming in from each team.
Throughout the day, issues started to arise and decisions that would affect the rest of mission design needed to be made in order to move forward. The main issue we faced early on was the “christmas tree” spacecraft issue.
What does this mean?
A “christmas tree” spacecraft is one that carries every instrument imaginable and can collect every piece of scientific data that scientist could want. This type of spacecraft is a scientist’s dream and an engineer’s nightmare. A “christmas tree” spacecraft is simply not feasible for the vast majority of mission designs as there is an astronomical cost associated with loading the spacecraft with every scientific instrument imaginable. We found that we needed to make decisions about what science we wanted to do both in orbit around Enceladus and on the surface in order to determine which instruments would be needed. By the end of the day we had a narrowed list of instruments that we all agreed would be necessary for the mission, however further cuts would need to be made in order to meet cost specifications.
In order to do this, we set science goals we wanted to achieve and determined which ones would be most important and would be most worth while. I played a large role as part of the storytelling team in determining which goals would be best to meet. After much deliberation, we came to the conclusion that since the Cassini Probe found the ingredients necessary for a habitable environment, our mission would go one step beyond that rather than reconfirming what we already know. We ended up focusing on how the habitable conditions on Enceladus came to be and whether or not there is biotic or prebiotic life within the subsurface ocean.
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.
As teams started to make more decisions, I checked in and continued to figure out how the whole mission story would come together. This is where my design research experience would come into play. The research I conducted differed from the research I normally do when working on a design solution, yet it was very familiar. The main goal of the research was to determine how to tell a mission story that both NASA and the public will be interested in and support.
One thing that helped was determining what had worked in the past. As this mission would be one that had never been undertaken before, it proved to be difficult to find mission proposals that fit our specific architecture. I took a step back and looked at very successful unmanned mission concepts that generally fit what this mission would be. While scouring NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) documents, I came across the Europa Clipper mission proposal. Europa, like Enceladus, is an icy moon with a probable subsurface ocean and the proposed mission to this world hit many of the same points we wanted to cover in our mission. Using aspects from the Europa Clipper proposal, I worked with team leads to finalize the story and the order in which the information would be presented.
In addition to the proposal structure, I wanted to find a way to generate more intrigue that would help sell the mission. I started to think back to aspects of product design that would help and came across branding.
In the context of a scientific mission, branding may seem out of place; however it is right at home in this environment. When you think back to historic missions what do you think of first? The name. Mercury, Apollo, Voyager, Curiosity…these names have become iconic and are symbols of human discovery and achievement. In most cases, each name comes with a story that symbolizes aspects of the mission.
I led a brainstorming session with the whole team to find a name for the mission. This proved to be beneficial not just because we would end up with a name, but because it served as a nice break for the teams who had been working long hours on their pieces of the mission. I structured this brainstorming session in a way to ensure there was meaning behind each suggested name. Everyone pitched a name and the meaning or story behind it and how it connects to our mission. After a while, we decided on the name Etna, as the ancient myth surrounding Mount Etna in Italy tied in very well with our mission. From this name and story, I created a mission patch as part of the branding for the mission.
We now had a name, a story behind the name, a storytelling structure, some story elements, and not a lot of time left.
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.
I jumped into computer-aided design (CAD) software and started to create the basic framework for all three components of the mission architecture. Drawing from past missions as well as size restrictions the engineering team had given me, I made decisions about shape, form, and equipment placement. Throughout the day, I made sure to check in with engineering and instrumentation to make sure that all of the instruments were integrated and that I was modeling the specific components they envisioned.
Translating a vision into a visualization is what designers thrive on. Usually, it is translating a thought from your own head into a form that can be seen and understood by others. In this case, I was tasked with taking thoughts and ideas from other people’s minds and translating them into a visualization. Quick sketching was extremely useful and I was able to create simplistic versions of these sketches in CAD to verify the design. For some of the instruments and hardware, there were numerous online references to work from, however for others there was absolutely nothing.
By the end of the day, I had whipped up an orbiter, a lander, and three probes. Each component fit together well and the models were detailed enough to get the story across, while not making any specific assertions that could not be backed up in this conceptual phase of mission design.
Now that most of the individual visual and story components had been created, it was time to integrate the final elements into the presentation.
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.
During the final few hours before our presentation, last minute changes were made to all our deliverables. This would prove to be the busiest period of time of the whole week, especially for myself and the rest of the storytelling team. Working at a breakneck pace, we continued to integrate elements as people brought them to us. While all of this was going on, the presenters were kept up to date on new elements and continued to rehearse their portions of the presentation.
With the last few tables inserted into the presentation I could breathe a sigh of relief. It was time to present.
One thing to note about designing such a mission is that space agencies would rather take a more conservative route, especially when $1 billion is on the line. Estimates based on current technology and systems will likely prove to be the safer bet. However, this is not necessarily the most exciting path to pursue. A different approach may garner more attention and may lead to more public support. Our mission was just that, a different approach.
To summarize, our mission would consist of two main spacecraft and three small probes launched via the Space Launch System (SLS). Our mission would focus on trying to find the fingerprints for life and possibly even life itself by collecting scientific data from various environments on and around Enceladus.
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.
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.
Using a series of maneuvers and flybys designed to slow down the spacecraft, a stable orbit around Saturn would be achieved.
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.
Detaching from the orbiter, the lander would make its way down to the surface. Along the way, it would drop three small “impactor” probes that consist mainly of seismic instruments to collect data on the ice crust and its movement. These probes would be spread far enough apart to optimize data collected. In addition, a small mass would be deployed from the orbiter to impact the surface and generate waves for the probes to detect.
Now onto the landing. Like many other missions of the sort, the landing is often the most difficult part. Everything needs to go exactly right for the landing to be a success. Using its engines to slow down, the lander will use various instruments to collect data on the way down as well as determine a suitable landing site.
Once the lander touches down, it will begin to perform science and collect data. This phase of the mission is planned to last 42 days, however in many cases, missions can last longer than their expected lifetime depending on various conditions.
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.
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.
A $1billion mission is by no means a cheap endeavor, even for an organization like NASA. They want to be sure that everything about the mission will both work technically and within the estimated cost with plenty of room to spare. Taking chances right now on future technologies is not something NASA is too keen on and the judges kept within this mindset. In the end, the judges chose a more conservative mission path with technologies that are more current. Despite not having “won”, I believe our mission was a huge success and I learned a great deal from the experience. In the end, both teams won as both created outstanding mission concepts that had their own strengths and weaknesses. To design such a mission in a little less than a week is by far no easy task, yet through hard work and lots of coffee we were able to accomplish this feat.
Stepping out of my comfort zone opened many doors and ways of thinking. Initially thinking I would not be able to lend anything to the team, I learned that I was able to provide design thinking and communication skills to the table and become an integral part of the team.
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.
To wrap up, I would like to thank my amazing team as well as the organizers of the challenge. I would also like to thank the sponsors for making this years challenge possible.