Photograph by Charles Wehring/Synthesis International
One of Adams's first projects with NASA was TransHab, designed to be a transit habitat for the first human mission to Mars. The requirements seemed mutually exclusive. To be launched, the habitat could be only 14 feet in diameter. But once in space, it needed to be three times that big to house a six-person crew.
"We proposed something completely new," she says. "We joined the hard core—needed to withstand phenomenal strain, radiation, up to 500 degrees of temperature fluctuation, and orbital debris moving faster than a high-speed bullet—with an inflatable shell."
The breakthrough design folds up for launch. It inflates and unfolds once in space, becoming a three-level habitat for the crew, complete with removable pieces for use as furniture and walls.
Habitats on Mars pose other design challenges for Adams. "How will we maintain vehicles that are constantly bombarded by incredibly fine dust? How will we protect crews and habitats from radiation? How will people perform tasks requiring great dexterity while wearing bulky EVA [extravehicular activity] suits?"
Despite the overwhelming obstacles, Adams is convinced that "sooner or later we're going to do it, and that's incredibly thrilling!"
Tying together innovations from diverse disciplines such as architecture, engineering, industrial design, and sociology can help solve complex design issues, Adams says.
"When you have a brand-new problem, you need as many tools as you can get. Who knows—an approach from a very different field might give you the insight you need. For example, I'm working to forge communication between advanced engineering and consumer-product design to bring more user-centered designs to aerospace."
That cross-discipline appreciation may stem in part from her liberal arts training at Harvard-Radcliffe College in Massachusetts, where she received a B.A. in social studies. After receiving a master's degree in architecture at Connecticut's Yale School of Architecture, she apprenticed in Tokyo and worked in Berlin.
"I'm a big believer in international relations," she says. "Working with the International Space Station program is extraordinary. There's almost no other place you can see this kind of international collaboration. We are making the biggest, most expensive, most elaborate, technically challenging scientific platform in human history—and it's up there right now!
"Some day I'd like to apply these principles to terrestrial projects," she says. "We need to understand how our planet and all the little systems inside of it can coexist without causing too much strain. I'd like to find a way to bring it all back home again."
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In Their Words
We need to understand how our planet and all the little systems inside of it can coexist without causing too much strain. I'd like to find a way to bring it all back home again.
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