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Schuh studying habitability of the international space station

Apr 4, 2013
by Brian Thompson, '95

Most wouldn’t think that psychology and space travel go together. But for 1999 graduate Susan Schuh, her psychology degree led to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where she studies what life is like aboard the International Space Station.

Schuh leads an Operational Habitability Team that collects, identifies and analyzes data from returning astronauts about life on the space station. The information they collect, report on and apply covers everything from the high-tech workings of a billion-dollar space laboratory to the more mundane, like how well lavatories work.

The information — over 50,000 comments from more than 30 space station missions that are stored in a NASA database — is then used for improvements on current design and future development of things such as procedures, training, equipment, and even future spacecraft that will one day take astronauts back to the moon or even Mars.

“You name it, we hear it,” she said about the debriefings her team supports and conducts. “While the specific details are confidential, some general examples include details on what foods the crew prefer, how the crew interacts with each other (there are six crewmembers living onboard at one time) … The list goes on and on.”

Schuh said engineers have numerous factors they must take into account when developing and designing equipment for space — weight, efficiency, cost, and of course, usability and comfort in a compact, weightless environment. Better understanding how astronauts work and live in that environment is critical for improving future designs.

Following each crew’s return from the space station, Schuh and her team supports and conducts “debriefs” where the crew is interviewed about their living experience on orbit.

“It’s always interesting to hear about things like food,” she said. “A crewmember may love a certain space food that they sample on the ground, but when they get on orbit, their tastes totally change and they don’t want to eat that food at all.”

It was retired Flagler psychology professor Gerald Gamache who helped steer the psychology major toward her career in human factors.

“My original plan was to become a high school guidance counselor,” she said.

But Gamache encouraged her to enter the Human Factors and Systems Masters program at Embry-Riddle University, which combines psychology with elements of human factors, aviation, computer science and systems engineering. It helped her land an internship at NASA in 2000 doing the kind of work she still does today.

Schuh has also worked with the U.S. Navy designing displays for damage control systems on destroyers, and the U.S. Air Force on unmanned air vehicles and air refueling tankers.

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