Spaceship designer and entrepreneur Susmita Mohanty on the future of space design and the challenges that lie ahead

One afternoon in the summer of 1996, Susmita Mohanty’s midday nap was interrupted by a phone call from Arthur C. Clarke. The science fiction writer and futurist had called in response to a funding request by Mohanty, then 24, which she had sent to various organizations and individuals, including Carl Sagan and Bill Gates. With the help of a sizeable contribution from her future mentor, Mohanty enrolled into the master’s programme at the International Space University (ISU) in France, and later completed her PhD in aerospace architecture from the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. 

Since then, Mohanty has worked with Nasa on Shuttle-Mir missions, with Boeing on the International Space Station (ISS) programme, collaborated with government and non-governmental space entities in Europe, the US and Japan, helped pioneer a new genre of space architecture called Trans-Gravity and launched three companies—MoonFront (2001), an aerospace consulting firm in San Francisco, Liquifer Systems Group (2003), an aerospace architecture and design firm in Vienna, and Earth2Orbit (2008), India’s first private space start-up in Bengaluru. Earth2Orbit focused on facilitating American and Japanese launches on the PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) rocket from 2008-2016, and since 2017, has been supporting global climate action by using earth observation data analytics to make cities and agriculture climate-smart.

In an email interview, Mohanty spoke to Lounge about innovations in spacesuit design, the future of space tourism and India’s first manned space mission. Edited excerpts: 

When we imagine the future of space tourism, what are the greatest challenges we face in terms of design?

In 2004, Richard Branson launched Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Company and commissioned (aerospace engineer) Burt Rutan to build SpaceShipTwo that could carry a small tourist crew to the edge of space and back (sub-orbital flight) for $200,000 (around ₹1.4 crore). It is already 2018 (14 years since) and Virgin Galactic (VG) is yet to fly its first tourist. So, clearly things are not as easy as one would like them to be. 

Flight hardware takes time, usually years, even decades. When you have to fly humans, you have to make sure the hardware meets safety and survivability standards—and in the case of space tourism, life-support systems and interior design standards have to meet the baseline that passengers have come to expect in commercial jet liners.

Government space programmes use an “engineering-centric” approach for designing human habitats and ferries. Flight opportunities for astronauts are limited and they are civil servants, so there isn’t much room for complaining about the habitability index of their spaceships.

Unlike government space programmes, space tourism companies will have to take a “user-centric” design approach which will be multidisciplinary because paying tourists will not only expect high standards in habitability and inflight service, but also expect some degree of style. What happened to commercial aviation in the last century will happen to private space flight in this century.