Like many born in the technological age, Dr. Jason Kring was fascinated by space travel and dreamed of becoming an astronaut — or better yet, a Starfleet Cadet. But the flight requirement wasn’t for him, so he shifted his focus to another field he was passionate about: psychology.
That’s where his schooling drew him away from the clinical psychology path to research, and he found a new love.
When it was time to look at graduate schools, Dr. Kring sought advice from NASA. He wrote to a space agency psychologist who recommended Kring look into the field of Human Factors, which blends engineering and psychology to improve designs and human performance.
“Human Factors Psychology was the perfect marriage of my infatuation with space and my love of psychology and research,” Dr. Kring said.
Now, more than 20 years later, his areas of focus — human behaviors in extreme environments, gender composition and team performance, cultural challenges in space flight, and habitability — have coalesced into his newest project, Embry-Riddle’s Mobile Extreme Environment Research (MEERS) Lab.
Amazing things are happening in the 1976 Airstream Travel Trailer, which sits in Embry-Riddle’s Research Park adjacent to the Daytona Beach Campus. The MEERS Lab serves as a hands-on classroom and test bed, where students develop and enhance the lab with new technologies.
This controlled environment will be used to simulate the types of challenges humans will face during extended space travel, like a mission to Mars. The lab will be used to study human interactions and the technology that will support such a mission.
“One concern about the Mission to Mars is the communication time delay,” Kring said.
Simulating that delay and how it affects the people on the mission will help us to prepare for the real thing, he said.
The current team, led by human factors graduate student Michael Fehlinger, is made up of human factors majors as well as students from aviation maintenance science, electrical engineering, and commercial space operations. Working in classes and on the vehicle itself, this team combines their various areas of expertise to create some of the basic necessities of what is becoming a simulated extreme environment habitat that will one day be fully self-sustainable and will accommodate four residents for up to three weeks.
First up — after spending hours removing oxidation and restoring the aluminum shell to its original shine (aluminum is an ideal structure because it will not rust), solar panels that will power the lab are affixed to the vehicle. After the trailer is gutted, the sleeping quarters prototype will be installed.
According to Dr. Kring, “Prototypes are critical as we assess habitability, or how humans will actually use the resources. While computer models serve an important purpose in design, human testing in prototypes can uncover critical oversights in functionality.”
He cited the design of the International Space Station as an example. The ISS was designed without the input of human factors considerations, causing biological functions as basic as hygiene to be an ongoing challenge.
Green technologies and self-sustainable products are also incorporated into the lab design, and materials such as bamboo flooring, water purification, and waste disposal systems will be projects for future student teams in the Crew Station Design class taught by Professor Kring.
“There’s a very limited number of schools out there doing this kind of thing,” he said. “That’s why I’m so fortunate to be here at Embry-Riddle, where the commitment to research and the study of human/system interaction is growing.”
While the MEERS Lab continues to take shape with the support of sponsors and other Research Park occupants, you can follow their progress on Facebook. Professor Kring will continue to lead this project and participate in others, like the Game Education and Research Studies (GEARS) Lab.
Professor Kring is widely published and is the faculty advisor for the Human Performance in Extreme Environments (HPEE) student group on campus. He serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Human Performance in Extreme Environments and is a reviewer for "Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society" and the "Psi Chi Journal of Undergraduate Research."
For more on Dr. Kring, see his TEDx talks on the topics of building a home for space … on Earth and searching for the ideal crew for manned mission to Mars.
For more on the psychological challenges of spaceflight, read this National Geographic article featuring Professor Kring’s views on crew behaviors. His Rate my Professor ranking is pretty stellar, too.
There’s a very limited number of schools out there doing this kind of thing. That’s why I’m so fortunate to be here at Embry-Riddle, where the commitment to research and the study of human/system interaction is growing.