Matthew Garvin

UX Research, Design, Strategy

Ethnographic Encounters of the HCI kind in Bioastronautics

Research Plan


Problem Statement

Bioastronautics is a branch of aerospace engineering that specializes in the study and support of life in space. Bioastronautics researchers are interested in the biological, behavioral, medical, and material domains of organisms in spaceflight. Technological advances have increasingly led to a deepened interest and urgency in the domain of space habitat. The goal of NASA’s Artemis Program is to establish a sustainable lunar colony in order to learn how to establish a sustainable colony on Mars. One of the primary objectives in the design and development of new technology to support life in space is the need to develop software that can support astronaut autonomy. This means that for the first time, astronauts themselves have to be able to use these tools to effectively carry out missions safely, without assistance from Ground Control. 

As humans seek to expand out into the solar system, the tools, technologies, and habitats needed to support life in space have to incorporate good HCI principles. How do bioastronautics researchers conceive of user needs, preferences, comforts when designing interfaces and habitats for future spaceflight and habitation? Most bioastronautics researchers will never experience the environment they are designing for, and according to the 2013 evidence report titled, “Risk of Inadequate HCI” issued by NASA, “HCI has rarely been studied in operational spaceflight, and detailed performance data that would support evaluation of HCI have not been collected.” (Holden, Ph.D., Ezer, Ph.D., & Vos, Ph.D., 2013). The report goes on to note the additional concern that potential or real issues related to HCI in past missions have been covered up by virtue of constant contact with Ground Control (Holden, et al., 2013).

Literature Review


Because of the inability for life as we know it to exist on its own in space, everything used to put humans in spaceflight and habitation is a concern of bioastronautics. Due to the relatively short distance and duration of missions to date, researchers and engineers in bioastronautics have primarily been concerned with human factors associated with hardware and industrial design to ensure these designs were considerate of human physiological capabilities.  As technology advances and we push the boundaries of what is possible, a shift in focus to issues related to human-computer interaction is an increasing necessity. While previous space shuttles were typified by hard switches and buttons, astronauts using exploration vehicles will be primarily interacting with glass-based interfaces, software displays and controls (Ezer, 2011).

According to Holden et al., (2013), inadequate HCI presents a risk that could lead to a wide range of consequences. While there’s an increase in the amount of information necessary to display, the real estate in which to display such information remains limited. Furthermore, as mission distance and duration increase, immediate access to ground support will continue to decrease. Meaning that there won’t be a team of experts on the ground prepared to answer questions, solve challenges, and provide workarounds on the fly. As a result, the design of computing and information systems need to take this into account, providing support and just-in-time training when a mission isn’t going according to plan for the autonomous astronaut. In terms of HCI, this means that interfaces must consider environmental and contextual challenges to ensure that interfaces present low cognitive loading and are usable with pressurized gloves, in microgravity, with persistent vibrations (Holden et al., 2013).


The term bioastronautics first appears in the literature as a 1962 survey published by Cornell Aeronautical Laboratories, which defines the term as the study of life in space, with the author noting that the discipline is so new that there was hardly time to come up with a name (White, 1962). For context, bioastronautics was born during both the Cold War (1947-1991) as well as the Space Race (1955-1975) between the United States and the Soviet Union. The primary intent behind the discipline is today as it was then, to produce systems and technology capable of supporting and sustaining life in microgravity, and to understand the effects of microgravity on the human body. In this regard, much of the research has centered around medical concerns.


“Bioastronautics encompasses biological, behavioral and medical aspects governing humans and other living organisms in a space flight environment; and includes design of payloads, spacecraft habitats, and life support systems. In short, this focus area spans the study and support of life in space” (UC Boulder Aerospace Engineering Sciences, 2020).

Main Body

When space human factors researchers consider mission design and work practices, they are especially considerate of the roles of the various crew members, their physical and mental capabilities and the requirements for life support/space/training (Woolford & Bond, 1999). For twelve days in 2002, computer/cognitive scientist William Clancey led an ethnographic research study as a closed simulation in the Mars Desert Research Station for NASA-Ames Research Center and the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. The study was a methodological experiment in participant observation and work practice analysis. It gathered qualitative data measuring productivity, a comparison of habitat design, schedules, roles etc, and sought to learn whether or not ethnography could be applied to a closed simulation. Serving as the crew commander, could one also conduct ethnography through participant observation? According to Clancey, one can (Clancey, 2004). In addition to Clancey’s study, there are a number of other simulations for space habitat research such as Stuster’s Bold Endeavors (1996) in a polar environment, The Lunar-Mars Life Support Test Project in a closed chamber, NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations Project (NEEMO) in an underwater habitat (2004), and BASALT (Biologic Analog Science Associated with Lava Terrains). Analog projects like these are designed to simulate on Earth certain environmental variables to test concepts of operations in regard to hardware, software, and data systems, as well as communication protocols. For these projects, the primary focus is centered around the EVA or extravehicular activity (Beaton, et al., 2019). An EVA astronaut is the one who dons the spacesuit and exits the living quarters to explore, conduct research, or engage in repair tasks. When an astronaut exits the International Space Station to change a battery or make some other upgrade or repair, that’s an EVA.

With Olson (2010), we get a glimpse into the ecologies and human cosmologies of American astronautics. Through her ethnographic fieldwork conducted primarily at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and submitted for her Ph.D. in Medical Anthropology, Olson argues that ecology and cosmology are co-constituting.  Combining participant observation with archival data, Olson is able to evaluate how astronautics practitioners come to know and work with the “human environment”. This work served to highlight how astronautics was connected to a broader array of environmental science and technology (Olson, 2010). What does it mean to be sociopolitical, technoscientific, symbolic and transcendental? With this, Olson is asking what role astronautics has in making ecological knowledge, and how it can inform and make concepts like adaptation and evolution scalable.

In an article published the same year, Olson (2010) argues that in extreme environments such as outer space, “the concept of environment cannot be bracketed out from life processes; as a result, investments of power and knowledge shift from life itself to the sites of interface among living things, technologies, and environments” (Olson, 2010).


While there have been a few attempts to conduct ethnography in mission and environmental simulation, none of these attempts had a focus on human-computer interaction. Similarly, while Olson’s ethnography focused on NASA researchers, the purpose of this work was to inform medical anthropology. Like Olson, I contend that with advancing technology, it becomes more clear how life, technology, and the environment are interrelated. As a result, human-computer interaction is a central facet of successful mission planning and execution for the autonomous astronaut. It is therefore crucial to understand how researchers interested in the bioastronautics of spaceflight and habitation conceive of human-computer interaction, and user needs/preferences/comforts.

Research Design

Embedded in the student research group BLiSS (Bioastronautics and Life Support Systems) and CLAWS (Collaborative Lab for Advancing Work in Space) as a UI/UX specialist and human-in-the-loop testing coordinator, I will conduct participant observation with my teammates and our faculty sponsors. I will conduct ethnographic interviews with consenting interlocutors. I will combine this ethnographic research with a review of related work, and analysis of archival data from NASA as well as past CLAWS projects.

For the past two years, CLAWS has competed in the NASA SUITS Challenge which has granted the CLAWS team personal access to a NASA mentor, monthly recorded virtual sessions with NASA astronauts as well as scientists and engineers who met with us to provide useful information for our research. CLAWS works alongside several other student research teams as subgroups of SEDS@UM (Students for the Exploration and Development of Space), which is the University of Michigan chapter of a larger international SEDS organization. This group is primarily composed of Computer Science, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering undergrad and graduate students who participate in a variety of technical projects and community outreach events. In an effort to bolster the UX in regard to the technical projects, there has been a push to attract more students from the School of Information with a background in UX design and Human-Computer Interaction. I’ve taken advantage of this opportunity and have worked my way up to a leader in the team since joining in early December of 2019.

The purpose of my research is to understand how researchers in this field think about human-computer interaction, user needs/comforts/preferences. How do bioastronautics researchers conceive of designing for humans and testing through simulated environments? I am currently involved in four projects with members from CLAWS. Two of these projects are related to the augmented reality system we invented, ATLAS (Augmented Tools for Lunar Astronauts and Scientists) for NASA SUITS and X-Hab. Two additional challenges involve designing the first 1 million population Mars city-state, and optimizing food production for a nine person crew on Mars, both for SpaceX. Working with my team on these projects and continuing to work with them on similar projects throughout my research, I will gather qualitative data to better understand how to implement human-centered design strategies and evaluative processes into the field of bioastronautics.


Beaton, K., Chappell, S., Abercromby, A., Miller, M., Nawotniak, S. K., Brady, A., . . . Lim, D. (2019). Assessing the Acceptability of Science Operations Concepts and the Level of Mission Enhancement of Capabilities for Human Mars Exploration Extravehicular Activity. Astrobiology, 19(3), 321-346.

Clancey, W. J. (2004). Participant Observation of a Mars Surface Habitat Mission. Moffett Field, CA: NASA-Ames Research Center.

Ezer, N. (2011). Human interaction within the “Glass cockpit”: Human Engineering of Orion display formats. Proceedings from the 18th IAA Human in Space Symposium (#2324). Houston, TX.: International Academy of Astronautics.

Holden, Ph.D., K., Ezer, Ph.D., N., & Vos, Ph.D., G. (2013). Evidence Report: Risk of Inadequate Human-Computer Interaction. Human Research Program: Space Human Factors and Habitability, 1-46.

Olson, V. A. (2010). American Extreme: An Ethnography of Astronautical Visions and Ecologies. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Dissertation Publishing.

Olson, V. A. (2010). The Ecobiopolitics of Space Biomedicine. Medical Anthropology, 170-193.

UC Boulder Aerospace Engineering Sciences. (2020, 04 13). Bioastronautics. Retrieved from University of Colorado Boulder:

White, W. J. (1961-62). A Survey of Bioastronautics. Buffalo, NY: Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory.

Woolford, B., & Bond, R. (1999). Human factors of crewed spaceflight. In W. Larson, & L. Pranke, Human Spaceflight: Mission Analysis and Design (pp. 133-153). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Mtthwgrvn Avatar

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: