Project profile: Virtual life on the International Space Station

by Michael Carbajal

When most people think of NASA, they envision the thrill of a shuttle launch at Kennedy Space Center in Florida or watchful eyes focused on dozens of monitors at the Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas. But it is NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, where some of the most creative aspects of interactive media are being explored. Earlier this year, the multimedia team was asked to create an interactive reference guide to one of the most exciting endeavors that NASA is involved in today: the International Space Station (ISS).

In August 2006, NASA released the Reference Guide to the International Space Station in print form. The guide was well received but brought with it several challenges, including production and distribution limitations and the inability to stay current as the space station evolves. The reference guide concept, however, lent itself well to adaptation as an online multimedia experience. The ISS Interactive Reference Guide builds on content developed for the book, but extends its reach and capabilities by mixing animation and imagery created with Adobe Flash software, real videos and still imagery, and audio and text features.

The ISS Interactive Reference Guide serves as a vital communications tool for individuals involved directly in the space station program, policy makers, the media, and the general public. It is structured in three layers: a high-level introduction, an intermediate Flash and video-intensive layer, and a library of PDF fact sheets that provide more details and frequent updates. The layered structure enables users to find information quickly and delve as deep as they wish.

This was no small task. The ISS is the most complex space engineering project in human history, so developing a Flash-based piece to convey its purpose, importance, and structure was daunting. In the quest for mankind's goal to reach farther into space to build bases on the moon, Mars, and beyond, it is essential to understand the long-term effects that come with life 240 miles above Earth. The ISS is the culmination of more than three decades in pursuit of building a space station to see these effects first-hand and to conduct scientific research that is simply not possible to achieve on our own planet.

The dream of living in space

Shortly after the final Apollo mission to the moon, NASA launched Skylab, America's first space station. Interestingly enough, part of Skylab was made from the third stage of a Saturn V rocket, the same model that was used to send America to the moon first in the space race. After many years of space station models from both the United States and the former Soviet Union, NASA began its ISS program in 1998 based on a merger of the previous Space Station Freedom, Russia's Mir 2, and other elements from 16 nations.

Mir 2's Zarya module was the first element to go up, and when it docked with the Unity module, the ISS was born. It has been inhabited since November 2000 and will continue to be built piece by piece, mostly by shuttle missions, until its completion in 2010.

Houston, we have a solution

We decided that a narrator would be the best way to tie all the information together and give users someone to focus on as their guide through this complex orbiting laboratory. Having a narrator walk viewers through a multimedia feature can also make the content much more engaging and personable than simply showing an array of eye-candy animations. How about an astronaut narrator? Upbeat, witty, and highly enthusiastic about living on the ISS in 2004, Commander Mike Fincke was the perfect choice (see Figure 1). We traveled to the Johnson Space Center in Houston and met up with the video production team. Fincke was filmed in front of a greenscreen so that we could later replace the background with an animated space scene.

ISS Interactive Reference Guide screenshot

Figure 1. Commander Mike Fincke narrating the ISS Interactive Reference Guide

Then it was off to Building 9, which houses the remarkable Space Vehicle Mockup Facility. This enormous area contains full-size mock-ups of all major components of the ISS. We took photos of each component and digitally stitched them together to give users a 360-degree view of the ISS interior. Putting it all together in Flash gave us the ability to add ActionScript-driven hot spots where users can navigate through the rotating views and travel anywhere they please. The result is a more immersive and engaging way to present each module in which the wonder of space exploration unfolds.

Secrets of the interactive guide

As the ISS Interactive Reference Guide launches, one of the first things you'll notice is an animation of the space shuttle docking with one of the station nodes. To make the file size as small as possible, we redrew much of this in vector format with the Flash Bézier Pen tool. The three main menu items — How the Crew Lives, How It Works, and ISS 360 Tour — all have a simulated gravity effect on the rollover. We used the shadow filter that was first introduced in Flash 8 to give us this effect, which is much easier than the old-fashioned way of creating a whole new copy of the image and changing the brightness to zero to make it appear as a shadow that follows the original as it moves. The Blur filter is another favorite. We took the NASA logo (also known as The Meatball) and divided up every part in Adobe Illustrator. We put the parts onto separate layers in Flash and tweened them along with a little bit of that cool blur effect.

Earth is actually being motion-tweened to grow slowly larger — giving the illusion of rotation. We put quite a few videos into the presentation, and these were exported to FLV format to stream and minimize any download time.

Being compliant

All government agencies require Rehabilitation Act Section 508 compliancy. This means that the entire website — including the Flash portion — must contain tags for screen readers to recognize the content. Flash now includes accessibility tags, without which a feature like this simply wouldn't have been possible for this interactive guide. All videos must provide closed captioning (CC), and Flash provides a wide variety of skins to choose from that include a CC button. Adobe Acrobat also includes 508 compliancy features, and the ISS Interactive Reference Guide has plenty of PDF files: 47 to date. These PDF fact sheets have extensive information on the ISS, ranging from its electrical power system to the astronauts' spacesuits (see Figure 2).

ISS Interactive Reference Guide screenshot

Figure 2. PDF files in the ISS Interactive Reference Guide.

A site built for the future

The ISS is a work in progress, and as elements are added, the ISS Interactive Reference Guide is updated to reflect these changes. As of December 20, 2007, there had been 304,900 page views of the ISS in its virtual form. Stay tuned to for more exciting interactive pieces as well as the upcoming new feature for our 50th anniversary in 2008. You won't want to miss it.

Michael Carbajal is an interactive multimedia developer at NASA Headquarters.