By all accounts sleeping in space is a dream. After a long day of running experiments and rigorous exercise, astronauts on the International Space Station retire to their padded sleep pods, which have just enough room to fit the astronaut, a laptop mounted to a wall, and a few practical items. To prevent themselves from drifting through the station while catching some zero-g z’s, astronauts snuggle into a sleeping bag mounted to the wall of their sleep pod. As they start to slumber, their bodies relax and their arms drift out in front of them, making them look like floating zombies.
Absent from astronauts’ bedrooms, though, are pillows. In microgravity you don’t need one—you don’t even need to hold your head. Instead, it just naturally tips forward.
But just because pillows aren’t needed in space doesn’t mean that astronauts shouldn’t have them. A pillow is the ultimate token of comfort and home, a place to rest one’s head, be vulnerable, find peace. People bring their own pillows to hospitals as a way to import coziness to the coldness of a clinic. So why not bring one to the deep freeze of space? Future astronauts on long duration missions to Mars, which NASA estimates will take at least 1,000 days, might very much want such an evocative reminder of life on their home planet.
It’s considerations like these that keep Tibor Balint up at night, so to speak. As a principal human-centered designer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Balint spends his time looking for ways to incorporate art and design principles into human space endeavors. Now that we’re on the cusp, in space mission timescales, of sending a human to Mars, Balint believes that mission architects need to start catering to astronauts’ higher psychological needs. Enter the space pillow, or as Balint calls it, the space pillow system.
As detailed in a paper recently published in Acta Astronautica, Balint and his colleague Chang Hee Lee, an assistant professor at the Royal College of Art, sought to create an object that would provide comfort, reduce stress, and enhance the privacy of astronauts on a multiyear mission to the Red Planet. The pair ultimately landed on the pillow as their ideal “boundary object,” an item that sits at the crossroads of various disciplines and could spark conversations applicable to other facets of space life. So while astronauts might not physically need a pillow to sleep in space, Baliant says the act of designing a headrest allowed them to consider what space travelers might need beyond the basics of life support.
For the entire history of space exploration, astronauts have never been more than a three-day journey from Earth. Whether on the ISS or the surface of the moon, they could maintain constant radio contact and, perhaps more important from a psychological standpoint, see their home planet. For the astronauts on the first mission to Mars, the situation will be remarkably different. Radio communication will be delayed by up to 20 minutes each way. When astronauts look out the windows of their spacecraft, they won’t see a sunrise over a blue marble, but the blackness of deep space. And rather than having a daily schedule planned to the minute, they will have quite a bit of downtime on their journey—time that could wreak psychological havoc on the unprepared. “In a way, you’re in solitary confinement for three years,” Balint says. “That’s why we need to start looking into these higher-level needs, because without them people will go crazy.”
Balint’s referring to what’s known as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a famous if controversial framework for understanding human motivation. According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, once a person’s basic needs—food, shelter, safety—are met, the individual becomes motivated to pursue higher-level needs, namely friendship, intimacy, and creative outlets. Satisfying these higher needs, in Maslow’s theory, is key to psychological well being.
Maslow wasn’t the first to try to make sense of basic needs; the act itself is something of a human pastime that dates back centuries. More than 2,000 years ago the master Roman architect Vitruvius applied this kind of thinking to architecture, listing “commodity, firmness, and delight” as the three essential qualities of buildings for human habitation. The last 50 years of human-rated spacecraft have excelled in the first two qualities, being both structurally sound and making efficient use of space. What has been missing, in Balint’s opinion, is Vitruvian delight.
That’s where the space pillow comes in. To overcome isolation and monotony, astronauts will need a variety of stimulating ways to interact with their environment. As Balint and Lee quickly discovered, the options for “human-material interaction” in pillow design are vast. They could focus on physiological considerations and design the pillow like a neck brace. Or they could cater to astronauts’ senses by imbuing the pillow with relaxing smells. Perhaps they could install sensors and speakers in the pillow that would detect when an astronaut was falling asleep and play relaxing music. Alternatively they could make the pillow interactive, like an Amazon Echo, transforming the cushion into a sort of astro-Wilson for future Martian castaways.
Balint and Lee designed a suite of space pillows, each intended to meet some or all of the higher-level needs they had identified for astronauts. These designs included full-face hoods with light-changing visors, headphones, or neck support; an inflatable “space angel” pillow worn like a halo that releases relaxing aromas; and a semirigid helmet that would be physically attached to the wall of an astronaut’s sleep pod. Ultimately, Balint and Lee decided that pillow helmets seemed rather uncomfortable and might raise safety questions from NASA.
The pillow design they chose looks a lot like a conventional pillow. In the mock-up published in their paper, a shallow foam pad attaches to the wall in an astronaut’s sleep station. While Balint acknowledged this design’s similarity to what already exists on the ISS, he stressed the pillow’s “seamless” relationship to other objects in the astronaut’s quarters. These might include aromatic devices, speakers, or relaxing light displays, all of which could be linked with the pillow through small sensors. Rather than integrating speakers and displays in the cushion itself, the object is more of a “decoupled space pillow system” that’s integrated with a network of external objects. Sensors in the pillow could detect when an astronaut was falling asleep, say, and lights in the sleep pod would adjust themselves accordingly. Think of this space pillow as a node in a smart home that can turn on lights, adjust temperatures, and so on based on a person’s movements.
For now, Balint and Lee’s pillow remains purely conceptual, and that’s just the way they want it. Discussions about the texture, color, or softness of the pillow are secondary considerations, Balint says. The important thing about the space pillow is that it can serve as an anchor for discussions about astronauts’ psychological well-being. As space habitat design gains momentum, Balint hopes his space pillow will remind the engineers that artists and designers need to be part of the conversation, too.