Space pianos and upside-down shoes: innovations for life in space

Sands Fish, a researcher and scientist at MIT Media Lab's Space Exploration Initiative, talks designing for the everyday details of life in zero gravity.

Hairstyles, musical instruments and gardening all change in zero gravity, scientist Sands Fish says

Sands Fish, right, and a colleague test a prototype space piano he helped invent in a zero gravity simulator. (Supplied by Sands Fish.)

Space, an imminent frontier? Sands Fish, a scientist and researcher, thinks so.

And so do many others who work with him at the MIT Media Lab's Space Exploration Initiative in Boston.

In the lab, Fish and a team of artists, scientists, engineers and designers work on innovative design projects with the goal of translating life on Earth to life in space.

These projects must take into account factors like zero gravity and the quirks of human interaction, among other things.

It's not all complicated technology, either. Things we take for granted in our everyday lives like furniture, shoes and even our hairstyles would have to be altered in order to live comfortably in the great beyond.

On Monday, Fish spoke with Doug Dirks on The Homestretch.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Fish recently designed a pair of shoes with the soles on top, to solve a common astronaut problem of soreness on the top of their feet. (Ellis Choe/CBC)

Q: What's the MIT Media space lab all about and what do you do there?

A: The space exploration initiative at the Media Lab is basically a lab where we think about things that are not typically explored in space.

So you can imagine it takes a lot of safety concern, engineering and science to make what happens in space happen. But we're more concerned with all of the things that aren't typically researched in space. Things like art, design and culture.

Q: You did two test flights in zero gravity. What did you test on those particular flights?

A: [For the] first one, we built a musical instrument that's supposed to be performed in zero gravity, as opposed to on the ground.

If you think about a piano, it wouldn't work in zero gravity because it has counterweights that bring the keys back up once you press them.

We created a musical instrument that tries to capture that poetic motion that you see when things float around in zero gravity.

As the instrument floats around in microgravity, you get some notes that maybe are really low and quiet when it's moving slowly. But if you spin it around, it will spin in front of you without you holding on to it, then you'll get a crescendo and you'll get louder notes and then higher notes.

Q: What about the impact of gravity on things like roots and plants and how they grow?

A: Well, on a planetary surface, it depends on how strong the gravity is. In orbit and in microgravity, it's a little bit more complicated.

A lot of people have seen how water behaves [in space] and basically forms these spheres.

You can't really pour water in microgravity into dirt and expect it to saturate the soil, and so you get things like root rot.

Q: Your research involved interviewing a number of astronauts and one of them talked about hair being an issue. What's that about?

A: I was talking to Cady Coleman, who is an astronaut who was up at the International Space Station, and I was asking her how she thought culture was going to evolve once we're living in space in a more long-term basis.

She immediately said that she thought hairstyles were going to change.

When she went up there, she wanted to grow her hair out really long so that it was absolutely clear in photographs that a woman was in space.

But when she braided her hair to keep it kind of out of her own face and others', she realized the texture of the braid was the same texture as the Velcro that they used to keep everything down up there.

You can imagine what happened.… She would get caught on something in the wall.

The simple solution I guess would be for everybody to shave their head, right? But I'm pretty sure that that's not the future of hairstyles.

Q: What about shoes? Will we even need shoes [in space]?

A: [Astronauts] usually wear socks, but they tend to complain about pain on the tops of their feet instead of the bottom.

[It] makes sense intuitively. We're not being pressed down against the floor, so we don't really need that.

If you want to stay in one place in zero gravity, you've got to hook your feet under metal bars or straps.

I designed some sneakers that actually inverted that design and basically put the sole on the top of the sneaker instead of the bottom.

That's something we're prototyping now and we tested out on the last zero gravity flight that we went on.

Q: What about the impact on furniture design?

A: There's no up and down in space. So in space architecture, the walls can be the ceilings, the floors can be the walls.

That fundamentally changes the assumptions that you use when you're designing for something like furniture.

Q: How important do you think all this is, addressing mental wellness in space?

A: It's so important to study design and culture and art and how that evolves in space because none of us really want to just work all day and then go to sleep and then get up and work again.

What are the mundane everyday details that we'll have as comforts in space? I think that we haven't studied that quite as much as we could have because we're more focused on scientific and engineering missions. But that's going to become more and more important as we spend more time in space.

Q: Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos would have us believe that we're all going to be going into space here in the next five to 10 years. What do you think?

A: That sounds a bit aggressive.

I'm suspicious of any one person that thinks they know exactly how the future of space is going to go.

I think I'm more interested in trying to build platforms and kind of democratize access to space so that more people can contribute to that vision.

Fish is in Calgary to share some of these ideas at the sixth annual Camp Festival at MRU, running Oct. 7-8.

The festival brings together renowned designers, artists, inventors and professionals to share ideas with a focus this year on the mental wellness of the creative mind.

With files from The Homestretch