(Capstone at Carnegie Mellon University)
8 months (2020)
Katie McTigue, JT Aceron
Megan Parisi, Nathan Barnhart
A mission to Mars means communication delays, so astronauts will have to work autonomously while diagnosing problems.
We went to the Johnson Space Center in Houston and talked to astronauts to understand the problem space better.
We built empathy with astronauts by playing an empathy building game and conducting a quarantine diary study.
We tested emerging needs by presenting storyboards to astronauts and thought leaders from Mission Control.
Current system relies heavily on ground and following procedures, which limits crew’s opportunity to think critically.
Situating diagnostic tools in a workflow to support crew members to think critically, document and follow best practices.
Astronauts rely heavily on Mission Control (a 40+ personnel ground team) on earth to solve anomalies.
However, a mission to Mars means long communication delays (almost 44 mins) and blackouts, which means astronauts will have to work more autonomously from Mission Control while diagnosing and troubleshooting problems.
To understand how astronauts diagnose problems and the future of troubleshooting we looked at 4 different things:
(4 research professors, 20 research papers, 3 commercial space employees)
Our research helped us identify some of the key stakeholders. Mission Control or MCC consists of Flight Controllers who are subject matter experts on particular submodules of the International Space Station (ISS). Today ISS is almost entirely controlled by MCC.
(9 interviews with Flight controllers, Astronaut Trainers and other experts)
We were incredibly lucky to go to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, the home of Mission Control! We sat in on a flight controller training session for some contextual inquiry, saw Mission Control, went inside a full scale Mockup of the International Space Station (ISS) and talked to subject matter experts.
Here’s what we learned:
1. Flight controllers “special skill” is real-time quick decision making.
2. Situational awareness is fluid- The crew with their physical presence or MCC with massive amounts of data can have more situational awareness depending on the situation.
(2 astronauts, 2 astronaut books and 1 Extra Vehicular Activity)
Getting in touch with astronauts is as hard as it sounds, but I was determined to talk to our primary user. After sending out multiple cold LinkedIn messages, two astronauts agreed to talk to us.
Here’s what we learned:
1. Slow is fast- Taking time diagnosing anomalies reduces mistakes.
2. Procedures are strongly ingrained and crew follows them most of the time.
3. Psychological strain greatly impacts crew.
The process we used to arrive at findings presented above- Creating an affinity map.
(5 interviews + online surveys)
We wanted to see how experts diagnose anomalies in other problem spaces, so we turned to Analogous domains. We interviewed HVAC technicians, miners, electrical and computer engineers and sent out online surveys to auto mechanics and pilots. We realized two things:
There is temptation to cut corners during the diagnostic process.
It is important to track and document the diagnostic process.
We built empathy with astronauts understanding how communication delay and psychological effects impact their diagnostic process. We did this with an empathy building game and diary study.
We played a cooperative puzzle game called Keep talking and nobody explodes where players have to diffuse a bomb. We added a 10 second time delay to the game to simulate the delay astronauts might experience. Mistakes had more weight as delays increased and people naturally tended to front-load information to combat delays.
Covid-19 crisis changed our world, but it presented an opportunity for research. We conducted a quarantine diary study to understand the effects of isolation on people, as a way to understand the psychological effects astronauts face in space. We surveyed 48 participants over a 10 day period. We learnt that food is often the high or low point of a persons day. Days start blending together and it becomes hard to distinguish special days.
Through our research, a lot of astronaut needs started to emerge. We tested these needs by creating storyboards and presenting them to astronauts! Here are some examples of our storyboards:
How might we keep the crew going when things get tough? Need Validated
How might we condense information into a single screen? Need Validated
How might we make safety and engineering data more available for just-in-time training? Need Validated
How might we optimize diagnostic schematics? Need Validated
How might we make it easier for astronauts to follow multiple procedures? Need Validated
How might we manage conversations with long delays? Need not validated
How might we help people practice troubleshooting best practices even when they get frustrated and suffer from the “space stupids?” Need Validated
How might we help astronauts remember complex systems training? Need Validated
How might we update the concept of procedures for unanticipated anomalies? Need Validated
How might we make authority clear? Need not validated
How might we help astronauts characterize risk? Need not validated
This process worked really well, because astronauts were very honest. They told us when a need was valid, and when something wasn’t our strongest idea.
From all our research here are our key insights:
1. Previous experience, stress and physical effects can cause crew to stray from best practices.
2. Current system relies heavily on ground and following procedures, which limits crew’s opportunity to think critically.
3. The crew and the ground have different mental models.
4. Reference materials during diagnosis are just as important as pre-flight training
Based on our insights and a reframing exercise, we crafted a narrowed problem statement:
How might we situate diagnostic tools in a workflow to support crew members in thinking clearly, rationally, and critically?
We see three core concepts in this statement- Documentation, Best Practices and Critical Thinking.
So far we have explored a vast number of research avenues before synthesizing our findings into a final problem to solve- supplementing a diagnostic workflow. In the summer we will make this solution space a reality through ideation, user testing and final product development. So stay tuned!
Being resourceful (interviews with astronauts): Initially we were told by the client and faculty that no team had managed to talk to an astronaut. However, I was very determined to talk to my end-user, so I reached out to multiple astronauts on LinkedIn and email. Persistence and luck led to me to find 2 astronauts and positive feedback from them during our presentation helped us build trust with our clients. They then connected us to 3 more astronauts!
Dealing with differing opinions (astronauts vs MCC): Astronauts and MCC often had differing opinions- Level of autonomy, Features required, etc. Since our end user is the astronaut, I placed more weight on their opinion while keeping SMEs views from MCC in mind.
Research in unanticipated circumstances (Covid-19): Covid-19 completely changed the way our team worked- everything had to be moved online, so we used tools like Miro. The way we researched had to change as well, but we used the online platform and social isolation to our advantage- To build empathy with end users by conducting a study on isolation.