Sweden's style savor goes galactic
STOCKHOLM (AFP) Feb 26, 2004
Sweden has given Ikea to Earth, and now it's trying to pass on its good taste -- and maybe even its meatballs -- to Mars.

As the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) prepare to send a manned mission to the red planet, the crew of the future will most likely be equipped with Swedish innovations like virtual decorations, flexible furniture, gourmet space food, modular clothing and even a space orchestra.

Since 1998, a team of students and professors at Lund University's Department of Architecture and Development Studies have been cooperating closely with NASA to develop futuristic planetary habitats.

The aim is to pay more attention to the human factor of space exploration. Better designed products and environments aboard a space ship or space station could help astronauts stay more comfortable, as well as healthier, happier and more alert.

Especially on a Mars journey, which would last for years.

"It's not enough to just survive physically and technically. Even the mental part is important, and that is often neglected," said Maria Nystroem, professor at the school and initiator of the project.

So what is needed for a happy life on a space ship?

The main challenge, according to Nystroem and architect Marcus von Euler, is balancing out antithetic needs and wants. For instance, humans need to interact with other people to be happy, but at the same time, they won't stay happy for long if they don't have any privacy. Harmonizing these two needs can be very difficult on a small space craft.

The lack of private space can lead to conflicts and disagreements which could even jeopardize the entire mission, while not enough socializing could negatively affect crew performance and cohesion.

In order to prevent such problems, von Euler and his students have created special cabins that make the most -- and the least -- of the space available.

"We need to compensate for the lack of certain surfaces that we have access to on Earth by building flexible decorations. This can mean personal cabins, which can be made larger in the evening when one needs personal space, and minimal during the day," von Euler explained.

The Lund University students and their professors have also come up with ways of improving the quality of the crew's lives through entertainment, culture, and good food.

To satisfy the astronauts culture cravings, a live band could be sent up to the space station to entertain visiting crew. Better facilities for watching movies or playing games could also help astronauts enjoy their free time.

Students have also developed a piece of furniture that resembles a large upside-down umbrella, where the astronauts can sit together in a circle to relax, discuss or eat together.

Nystroem has previously studied environments in developing countries with only scarce access to natural resources. Since the 1980s, she has traveled in Asia and Africa, developing energy-saving kitchens for poor communities -- a venture not entirely different from building galleys and mapping out needs on space ships where resources are also limited, she pointed out.

"By looking at extreme environments, one learns what is needed for survival," she said.

"It doesn't just have to do with economy. People can be socially very happy and live in economic misery at the same time. In slums, for instance, there are lots of qualities that you don't see at first, such as social networks," she added.

According to NASA reports, food has a significant effect on the psychological well-being and morale of the crew. That's why the students, with the help of Swedish chef Rikard Nilsson, are working on new dishes that can be prepared in a space kitchen.

"The food up there is not very good. Basically, the crew eats freeze-dried food to which they add water. There is no refrigerator, freezer or microwave oven," Nilsson explained.

On future space trips, astronauts may be able to bring a fish tank with them for fresh fish gourmet dinners. Fresh meat is so far an impossibility, but even that is a problem Nilsson and Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang are working to solve.

Who knows? Maybe one day we'll see Swedish meatballs in space.