I was listening to the Big Picture Science podcast on my way to work this morning when I heard a great example of how to test equipment prior to a mission. Hosts are Molly Bentley and Seth Shostak.
The interview was with Dr. Jennifer Heldmann, an astrobiologist who studies “Mars analogues” on earth – the Atacama Desert in South America and the very cold, very dry “dry valleys” in Antarctica. Her main purpose is to investigate whether (and what kinds of) microbial life can survive in these conditions, but she also tests the methods we might use to collect samples from other planets. Here is a transcript describing a usability test in “A Martian Curiosity”:
Bentley: Well Jennifer, I was looking at a picture of you in a spacesuit. And you were standing in an alien land, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Mars, and it wasn’t even the moon. Where were you?
Heldmann: That could have been a number of places, I’ve worn spacesuits in a variety of places. All on Earth, I might add. Because we do a lot of work here on Earth to study and learn how to go and operate on other planets. So, for example, I would love love love to send people to Mars, so we can explore that planet, it’s really hard to do that, though. And we have to learn “how do you live on Mars?” “How do you work on Mars?” “How do you talk to people back on Earth from Mars?” And so, to answer those really important questions, we go out and we test it. We go to places on Earth that are like Mars. Mars is really really cold and Mars is really really dry, and so we go to cold and dry places.
Bentley: Can you share with us a story about what it’s like to walk around in some of these environments with a spacesuit on? Anything that surprised you?
Heldmann: Yes, there was one time out in Utah, we were at the Mars Desert Research Station, wearing a spacesuit, and we had a camera crew with us, because there was a group doing a documentary about Mars analogues and working out in Mars. So we said “sure, come with us, we’re going to do an EVA, an Extra Vehicular Activity, which means we’re going to wear our spacesuits and walk around, and get some rocks, and get some samples, great, come out with us. So we had little sample bags, and we had them in our backpacks, and we had our spacesuits on, and we get to the rock outcrop, and we pick up the rocks. And these are great, these are just what we were looking for, we’re all excited, and then we go to put the samples in the bag and we couldn’t get the bags open. Because we’re wearing these big, thick gloves.. you don’t think about this ahead of time! You just think “oh I’ll open the bag, and I’ll put the rock in. How hard is that?” It’s really hard when you have a spacesuit on.”
Bentley: What were they, like a ziplock bag or nylon mesh? Velcro? What was it?
Heldmann: Yes, it was a ziplock type of thing. You just had to pull it apart. Really simple, we do it every day in the kitchen, right? But with those big, thick gloves on we could not get our sample bags open. It was very embarrassing to have a film crew watching you for hours try to open a ziplock bag. It would have been really simple to just take the glove off and open the bag, but on Mars you can’t do that.
Bentley: And it would have been a bummer to go to Mars and find great rocks and then not put them into a bag and bring them back.
Then, to my delight, later in the podcast the hosts took it upon themselves to make an analogue of the equipment used in the Mars mission analogue and do a think-aloud. (18:01)
Bentley: Seth, could you put on those oven mitts that I set down in front of you, please?
Shostak: Why, are we getting some pizza out of the oven? What’s the deal?
Bentley: Ok. So you see what else I put down there, in front of you?
Shostak: Yeah, this giant ziplock bag.
Bentley: Yes, this may be the largest ziplock back I’ve ever seen. It’s almost a body bag size.
Shostak: I was almost going to say “Did you order this from ‘Mafia supply company'”? What do you want me to do with this bag?
Bentley: It’s closed, right now. Jennifer was trying to open a ziplock bag, she said, while she was in the desert, and she wasn’t able to do it for the cameras. What I want you to do is open it and describe what you’re doing. Now, you have oven mitts on .
Shostak: Well, actually it isn’t too hard to open this, if you want to know the truth, because it’s so big that even with oven mitts.. watch. (crinkle sounds) Maybe it’s not so easy. Pull it!
Bentley: C’mon, Seth! The Martian rocks are waiting for you. (struggling sounds)
Shostak: Well, those Martian rocks are safe from me because I cannot get this bag open!
Bentley: Ok, Jennifer is vindicated.
Oven mittens or something similarly cheap could be a nice lab-based pre-test for any manual equipment, before it even gets to the spacesuit test.
So. In closing… Human Factors isn’t rocket science.
Or is it!?!?
Photo credit veggietothemax @ Flickr