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They Did What?: 

Students present concept furniture for space travelers

The space chair, being introduced by a Rice University student (Image: YouTube, Rice University)

The space chair, being introduced by a Rice University student (Image: YouTube, Rice University)

When we humans have made a mess of Earth and need to move on, we’ll be looking at other planets. Trouble is, these planets won’t (yet) have their own branches of IKEA to visit, so we’ll need to bring our own furniture. Furniture is big and bulky – even flatpack stuff, which is why students at Rice University have been busy designing furniture intended to be shunted in a space-van and flown across space.

The Mechanical Engineering seniors have been tasked with the project by NASA, with the brief of giving the items maximum flexibility. It’s basic stuff: tables and chairs. You may think your mahogany globe-shaped drinks cabinet is something you couldn’t live without, but if you want to colonize Mars, you might just have to imagine that kind of barren existence.

“When we thought about what astronauts do every day and what kind of furniture they need, we narrowed down the scope of the project to chairs for sitting and tables for working, relaxing or for mealtimes,” Rey Amendola, Rice University student, explained to Phys.org. “You’re going to have very limited space, so you can’t just send any furniture up. And then you’ve got the partial gravity,” added Laura Blumenschein.

The partial gravity is definitely a concern: the moon has a sixth of Earth’s gravity, while Mars has a third. Nobody is quite sure of what effect this will have on humans long term, but at least our furniture can be designed with this kind of environment in mind.

The different physics on other planets offers one particularly surprising shortcut to be taken in the design process: all the furniture is lighter and markedly less strong than items you’d feel comfortable using every day in your home. “That sounds like a bad thing, but if you’re trying to reduce weight, that’s a good thing when you’re sending things to space,” explains Blumenschein.

It’s an interesting project, not least because everyday items like tables and chairs have been in use for thousands of years, and the design hasn’t changed dramatically in the last few hundred. The team had to challenge their own expectations of what everyday furniture should do, and to that end they kept a furniture journal where they logged their use of everything in their lives for a week. “It was really interesting because we started thinking about furniture in an entirely different manner,” commented Archit Chaba, another member of the design team.

Help was provided by NASA representatives including astronaut Nancy Currie and Christie Sauers, an engineering colleague. Although the results are early prototypes, the hope is that they will provide the basis for future space furniture.

You can see the students from Rice University introducing the space furniture in the video below.

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