Do cosmonauts need a pillow?

Original author: Daniel Oberhaus
  • Transfer

By all accounts, a good dream in space is a completely normal occurrence. After conducting scientific experiments and rigorous physical exercises, astronauts and astronauts on the International Space Station float away into their soft sleeping boxes, in which there is enough space for their placement, as well as several personal items, including a laptop attached to the wall, brightening their personal area. In order not to float through the station in zero gravity in a sleeping state, astronauts climb into a sleeping bag, tightly attached to the wall. But as it turned out, in the bedrooms of the astronauts there are no pillows. Scientists motivate this by the fact that in microgravity conditions it is not needed, because head during sleep naturally leans forward.

But just because pillows are not needed in space does not mean that astronauts should not have them. A pillow is the main attribute of comfort, relaxation and peace. After all, people bring their own pillows to the wards of hospitals for a more comfortable pastime. So why not use it in space? Future astronauts who are preparing to make long flights to Mars, according to NASA, will be in flight for at least 1000 days . They may very much want a pillow to feel comfortable and more often remember their home on Earth.

It is precisely these considerations that Tibor Balint, chief designer of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, adheres to. Balint spends his time looking for ways to incorporate the principles of art and design into human space endeavors. Now that humanity is on the verge of a manned flight to Mars, Balint believes that mission architects should begin to satisfy the higher psychological needs of astronauts.

As detailed in the articleRecently published in Acta Astronautica, Balint and his colleague Chan Hee Lee, an assistant professor at the Royal College of Art, are striving to create objects that provide comfort, reduce stress and enhance the individual characteristics of astronauts on a multi-year mission to the red planet. The authors tandem eventually settled on the pillow as an ideal item. Astronauts may not physically need a pillow for sleeping in space, but Baliant believes that the process of creating a headrest will allow them to think that space travelers may need it in addition to the basics of life support.

Throughout the history of space exploration, astronauts have always been in visual contact with the Earth and in direct telecommunications with the MCC. Whether on the ISS or on the lunar surface, they could maintain constant radio communications, see their home planet.

For astronauts who completed their first mission to Mars, the situation will be noticeably different. Radio communication will go with a delay of 20 minutes for both receiving and sending messages. When astronauts look into the windows of their interplanetary spacecraft, they will see not the sunrise over the blue planet, but the blackness of deep space. They will have many downtime along the way, and time can cause a psychological blow to untrained astronauts.

“In a way, you'll be in solitary swimming for three years,” says Balint. “That's why we need to start exploring the needs of a higher level, because without them people will go crazy.”

“Product, Persistence and Delight”

According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, as soon as a person’s basic needs are met - food, housing, security - a person becomes motivated to meet the needs of a higher level, namely friendship, closeness and creative abilities. Meeting these higher needs, according to Maslow's theory, is the key to psychological well-being.

Maslow was not the first to understand basic needs. More than 2,000 years ago, the chief Roman architect Vitruvius applied this type of thinking to architecture, calling “goods, resilience and delight” the three most important qualities for human housing. In the first 50 years of the space age, the first two qualities prevailed. What was missing, according to Balint, is Vitruvian delight.

This is where the space pillow appears. To overcome isolation and uniformity, astronauts will need various stimulating ways to interact with the environment. As Balint and Lee quickly discovered, the possibilities of “human-material interaction” in pillow design are enormous. They can focus on physiological considerations and design a pillow like a neck brace. Or they could satisfy the senses of the astronauts by filling the pillow with a relaxing smell. Perhaps they could install sensors and speakers in the pillow that would detect when the astronaut fell asleep and play relaxing music. Alternatively, they could make the pillow interactive.

Balint and Lee developed a set of space pillows, each of which was designed to meet some or all of the higher-level needs that they identified for astronauts. These designs included full-face hoods with color-changing visors, headphones and neck support; the Cosmic Angel inflatable pillow, worn like a halo that releases relaxing aromas; and a semi-rigid helmet that can be physically attached to the wall of the astronaut’s bedroom. Ultimately, Balint and Lee decided that the pillowcases seemed rather uncomfortable and could raise security concerns from NASA.


The pillow design they have chosen is very similar to a regular pillow. In the layout published in their newspaper, a shallow foam pad is attached to the wall of the astronaut’s bedroom. Although Balint recognized the similarity of this project to what already exists on the ISS, he emphasized the “seamless” connection of the pillow with other objects in the astronaut’s premises. These may include aroma devices, speakers or displays with relaxing lighting, which can be connected to the pillow using small sensors. Instead of integrating speakers and displays into the pillow itself, this object is more like a “disconnected pillow of outer space”, integrated with a network of external objects. Sensors in the pillow can detect when, say, an astronaut fell asleep, and the light in the sleep unit died.

At the moment, the pillow of Balint and Lee remains purely conceptual. Balint says that discussing the texture, color, or softness of a pillow is secondary. An important feature of the space pillow is that it can serve as an anchor for discussions about the psychological well-being of astronauts. As space habitat design grows, Balint hopes his space pillow will remind engineers that artists and designers should also be involved in the conversation.

Also popular now: