Space Men

A document commissioned by NASA in the 1960s imagines the future of spaceflight: mid-century modern and male

In the late 1960s, NASA commissioned a report called “Habitability Guidelines and Criteria.” The agency was planning for its new mission after the end of the Apollo program, and planners imagined space stations, maybe even outposts on the moon, that would require long-term habitation by human crews. The longest Apollo mission was only about two weeks, and much more research was required to design and build spacecraft that could sustain human life for months, even years. The Habitability Guidelines and Criteria represent a negotiation between an imaginary future, the hard-edged limits of technology, and the messy needs and wants of human bodies.

The report was prepared by a division of the Garrett Corporation, an aerospace company and NASA contractor. It used anthropometric data and crew questionnaires collected from long-term isolated habitats, like Antarctic stations or nuclear submarines, as well as original research conducted on a number of simulated spacecraft environments imagined by Garrett.

NASA’s Habitability Guidelines helped set out rituals for making new technology, cloaking its irrationality in the Organization Man’s native tongue

Human spaceflight was only two decades old at the time, and though the authors cite an extensive literature on perception and environment, they admit that “the concept of habitability is a vague one.” Spun together with strands of environmental psychology, aesthetic ideas of perceptual richness, and the sometimes-inviolable requirements of fragile, wet human bodies, the report creates a set of design parameters for the future of human spaceflight.

To become real, a certain vision of the future has to be translated from the conceptual to the quantitative, fed through the narrow channels of machine tolerances and minimums, indexed against the hastily standardized limits of human physicality and psychology, and passed through aesthetic and affective filters that can only pretend to timelessness. These processes of abstraction and quantification shape the feel and function of an environment, but they also betray the unconscious biases and cultural ideas of designers and engineers.

The goal of “Habitability Guidelines and Criteria” is to distill a set of assumptions about what counts as a habitable environment into a set of standards that can be used to design future habitats for long-term spaceflight. But the exercise of building criteria for habitability reveals the instability of the concept of habitability itself. Every decision an author might make about interior volumes, waste disposal, variable colored lighting, the number of clean undergarments provided, chips away at the vastness of human life ways until they can be made to fit inside a spacecraft. The derivations of various scales, guides, and standards are extracted in part from a “common-sense” which is highly particular. In the process of generating seemingly objective documents like the Habitability Guidelines, these accidents of history and bias were formalized into official criteria for the inhabitants of the future.

Despite the universal rhetoric of American space programs in the 20th century, the future these programs were supposed to bring about was designed for only a select few. This hidden logic of habitability, which is already vulnerable to unconscious biases, is also applied to human fitness — what counts as a suitable crew member is enumerated in the negative spaces around the report’s recommendations. “Habitability Guidelines and Criteria” was published nearly a decade before the first women and people of color were finally integrated into the astronaut corps. Until then, astronauts were all white men, usually in their mid to late 30s, preferably married, usually with military training, certainly heterosexual and culturally mainstream — and for the earliest missions, all within a few inches of each other in height in order to fit comfortably inside a small single person spacecraft. The Garrett report’s authors acknowledge that because of the limited data available on women, their study only makes superficial recommendations for their habitability; and that cultural differences, while they would be a factor in future missions, were not considered. The authors designed a set of “Habitability Assessment Rating Scales” that “list, one by one, all items common to the habitats of western man,” divided into main areas like “body function and biological support,” and “recreational and leisure time support.” Guidelines for an ideal human habitat in space were based on assumptions about the ways less than half of the world’s population live their lives, accommodating only for male bodies.

The authors of the report would have also presumed that only scientists, pilots, and other specialists would be selected for future missions. In addition to the physical constraints of spacecraft, which limit the kinds of bodies they accommodate, the operation of spacecraft is still considered a highly specialized profession requiring extensive flight training, mission simulation, and scientific training in astronomy and geology. The authors of the Garrett report recommend an added dimension to this rigorous program: “biofeedback training,” which they argue can help space travelers control fluctuations in their autonomic response to stressful situations. If astronauts were trained to “discriminate variations in their EEG alpha rhythm, heart rate, muscle tension, physiological sleep stages, and numerous other internal events,” they would be in a position both to collect data about these fluctuations for further study, and potentially arrest any undesirable autonomic response. Astronauts would be expected to take up the slack for any flaws in the habitability design of their spacecraft, and control their individual adaptation to the environment.

Abstraction and quantification shape the feel and function of an environment, but they also betray the unconscious biases and cultural ideas of designers and engineers

These highly-trained astronauts would be what NASA called the “biotechnology” of the space mission architecture, maintaining the functions of their spacecraft and their own bodies in equal measure. As essential components in the man-machine system of spaceflight, the interface between astronaut bodies and spaceflight technology had to be carefully designed and managed. The interface relies on the self-regulating abilities of the system’s human component, which was coded into a cultivated sense of duty and professional responsibility that the first American astronauts were expected to maintain. This type of trained self-control has a moral connotation in the West — biofeedback training would extend the American credo of individuality and personal responsibility as far as the maintenance of one’s own heart rate and sleep rhythms. Biofeedback training for individual self-regulation was a mechanism for astronauts to convert culturally specific values of work ethic and restraint into an effective, flexible interface with machines. The Habitability report presumes the necessity of such an interface, but its abstracted, quantitative language obscures its origins.

The unspoken moral dimensions of biofeedback training become more obvious when the authors suggest it might be used for “optimizing leisure time,” which should be carefully managed to ensure maximum efficiency, and to avoid laziness and wastefulness. Leisure and recreation are of central concern to the authors, in part because their inherent subjectivity represents a potential loss of control in the carefully designed man-machine system. Reflecting on research from Antarctic stations and nuclear submarines, the study’s authors report that crew members from Antarctic stations spent much more time reminiscing and “telling tall tales” than engaging in the self-betterment activities of reading and study that crews on nuclear submarines tended to prefer. The report describes the failure of Antarctic station crews to engage in constructive leisure as “disintegration.”

Despite its intentions to standardize a timeless vision of the future, the report’s suggestions about maintaining visual interest and aesthetic pleasure place it firmly within the familiar conventions of Cold War design. The mock-up spacecraft designed for the report features wedge-shaped radial chambers arranged around a central cylindrical corridor. The sleeping quarters are divided by segmented, waferlike panels, some painted orange, some goldenrod, or covered with mural images, and each furnished with a complement of rounded, modernist furnishings. One level down, the common wardroom is outfitted with carefully positioned round tables and multi-colored chairs mounted to the floor on posts. The little lazy-susan spaceship, with its missing roof and transparent walls, provides a view of human spaceflight as it was imagined at the end of the 1960s.

In order to fulfill the report’s guideline that “monotony should be avoided under all circumstances” — habituation and boredom are antithetical to habitability and dangerous to mission success — the habitat should be equipped with movable paneling in a variety of colors and textures, variable colored lighting, and a variety of visual stimuli. Two significant mid-century artists, Robert Irwin and Billy Al Bengston, both part of a Los Angeles school of sculptors who pioneered the use of new materials and finishes in their work, contributed appliance designs for possible space habitats, finished in the earthy tones that would come to define interior design in the 1970s. The authors suggest that Calder-like mobiles could be constructed from shaped foam with various finishes; these sculptural objects would be released into the habitat to float freely and disrupt the crew’s vision with presumably pleasurable bursts of visual variety.

Extracting a set of abstract, universal guidelines from the polyphony of human ways of life is the high-tech sigil magic of engineering

The authors note that during the Tektite undersea habitability experiments, an underwater laboratory that collected habitability data from its rotating crews of aquanauts, participants reportedly took great pleasure in watching closed-loop television feeds of life on the surface world. Some participants found the sight of people outside the habitat going about their lives so comforting, and so soothing to the resentment they had built up about their isolation, that many spent their entire leisure periods watching such feeds. The Habitability Guidelines take these observations quite seriously, and recommend that adequate “audiovisual viewers” be provided for crew members to facilitate this viewing of bodies outside the habitat.

The strange tenderness of this image of looking and longing from a distance contrasts with the measures that must be taken to control the interactions of bodies in close proximity. The authors note that noise and odor suppression is most crucial when it prevents crew members from being aware of the activities of their fellows. Still, the crew of this conceptual habitat is viewable from every conceivable angle and in every situation in the report — in their sleeping restraints, entering the wardroom for a meal, hunched over the toilets, showering. Maintaining sensory order on board the spacecraft is essential for crew comfort and wellbeing — the sensation of other bodies must be controllable by individual crew members at all times. Such control, in such a crowded environment, mandates panoptic vision on the part of mission planners, and rigorous self-regulation on the part of the crew. 

Guidelines and design criteria are the intermediate stage between the conceptualization of a technological future and its material realization. Reports like the Habitability Guidelines reveal the contingent nature of our ideas about human life and the future. Both are tinged with the specificity of history, marked by the political and social ideas of their time, dated by their aesthetic sensibilities. Extracting a set of abstract, objective, universal guidelines from the polyphony of human ways of life is the high-tech sigil magic of engineering.

We have become relatively comfortable interrogating the germinal visions of our various futures. Critical science fiction studies and the careful analysis of futurist visionaries and their work has helped us to identify assumptions about who qualifies for the future, and who can be molded into its shape. We are becoming more sophisticated in our critique of fully realized technology and systems, so that we can point out their inadequacies, their built-in biases, and their inherent dangers with facility.

But between these two phases in the technological life cycle is a larval process of quantification undertaken in documents like the Habitability Guidelines. Hidden in these intermediary steps is the codification of the techno-magic, the incantation books that both set out the rituals for making new technology and cloak its subjectivity and irrationality in the Organization Man’s native tongue. No vision for a technological future can be realized without undergoing this process of abstraction and quantitative sculpting, and it is human biases and blind spots that trace out the shape of its carving edges.

Anna Reser is a historian of technology and the editor of Lady Science.