“If NASA wants to put five people in a closed box for six months and ship them to another planet, it has to be someone’s job to design the inside of that box.”
Senior Charles Brailovsky is currently on leave, postponing his psychology degree in favor of a coveted internship at NASA in Huntsville, Alabama. While the Marshall Space Flight Center, where he reports for work, is a short step from the site of NASA’s well-known space camp, Brailovsky has taken a giant leap from the six-day space training program as he gains experience in what he describes his dream job with a human factors engineering team whose mission is to design spacecraft interiors for maximum ergonomics and intuitive operation.
Brailovsky, also known as engineering psychology, describes human factors engineering as a field concerned with “designing things around human needs” and asks the question, “How can you make a system work in a way that probabilities… limited by errors? To emphasize the critical nature of the discipline, he recounts one of NASA’s most devastating spaceflight accidents — the Apollo 1 cabin fire in 1967.
In preparation for the US’s first manned mission to the moon, three astronauts boarded Apollo 1 to simulate the launch scheduled a month later. After the crew was sealed inside and the cabin was pressurized, an electrical fire broke out and quickly spread through the ship’s pure oxygen atmosphere. Both the astronauts and ground crew struggled to open a series of three hatches in sweltering heat and with smoke obscuring their views.
Brailovsky wears the Microsoft HoloLens 2, which is part of his current project. Photo provided by Brailovsky.
Due to the high air pressure inside, the crew never managed to open the inner hatch, which opens inwards. By the time the ground crew churned up the outer and inner hatches, all three astronauts had died from the fumes, and the mission ended in tragedy before it even began.
After the disaster, NASA’s investigations revealed several factors that led to the fire and failed evacuation. One of the design revisions for subsequent Apollo missions was a revised hatch that could be opened from either side in three seconds, as opposed to the 90 seconds it would have taken the Apollo 1 crew to do so. Design decisions such as hatch mechanics are the priority of Brailovsky’s team over fifty years later.
Brailovsky discusses a project before joining the team and describes how his colleagues ran experiments combining superficial physical models with detailed virtual reality displays. Subjects in VR headsets and motion capture suits interacted with potential hatch designs so the team could later perform human factors analysis to determine how the hatch could be redesigned for more efficient use, considering aspects such as shape, size and corners of the opening were taken into account.
Brailovsky admits he spent most of his first week of work helping his new team move between buildings or doing administrative and onboarding activities, but still, just being there at the facility still fills him with amazement. “It was just incredible to be here with all this space stuff,” he says. “I mean, I drive past a Saturn V rocket every morning to get to work!” Even inside the building, his desk is under a hanging 4-story prototype for long-term space living space.
Of course, he has plans to make himself useful outside of office moves, having just submitted his long-term project proposal for holographic desktop interfaces on spacecraft. Brailovsky plans to develop a proof-of-concept prototype for stationary hologram monitors that astronauts can see through virtual reality headsets like the Microsoft HoloLens, but won’t take up any actual space, in hopes of reducing the weight of future spacecraft .
Brailovsky shares that his time at NASA hasn’t been entirely idyllic so far; He has ADHD and has to manage the onset of brain fog by mid-afternoon each day, but the general awe he described earlier offsets many of the other challenges. “Where I work, Redstone Arsenal, NASA started,” he explains. “This is where they launched the first satellite. This is where they designed, tested and built the first Saturn V.” This, combined with being able to dive into learning at the edge of his ability and the edge of his interest, has given him “a chance to weaponize hyper fixation.”
However, things haven’t always been smooth sailing when it comes to his ADHD – Brailovsky considers himself lucky to have even gotten through college given his grades before starting treatment. “My goal since I was 15 was to work in human factors at NASA,” he says, but after failing some courses during COVID and having to drop out of his second major in computer science, “it seemed like the NASA just isn’t going to be an option anymore.”
Charles Brailovsky stands in front of a poster of the Virtual Environments Lab. Photo provided by Brailovsky.
Just as he was about to dive into neuropsychology and ADHD research for his capstone and give up space exploration for the time being, Brailovsky attempted to apply for a final internship at NASA’s Johnson Center. The position combined his interests in space, engineering and cognitive psychology with his previous passion and experience in computer science. The Johnson Center team was looking for applicants who could program in C# and work in the Unity game engine for augmented reality, and Brailovsky had just completed an internship at Iowa State University, where he is focusing on virtual reality programming had.
It fitted perfectly with Brailovsky’s aspirations, but he didn’t jump in – and that didn’t surprise him at a time when he felt he was going nowhere. At the same time, his current mentor at Marshall Space Flight Center was looking for someone with the same combination of experiences and approached him to apply to her Virtual Environments Lab instead, where he is now the only intern. While he admits he deserves some credit for the work he’s done, Brailovsky concludes that “there are no two choices – I’m very lucky.”
Looking back, Brailovsky has been on his current path since childhood — obsessed at an early age with PBS space documentaries narrated by Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan, and was “playing around” with code by the time he was 10 and later teaching himself the basics of Python at. Even when his dream job seemed a long way off, Brailovsky still had a plan in mind – “but it was a long-term plan,” he qualifies. “I was building the skills and I figured I had to build them for at least another four or five years.”
He again credits pure luck for his early chance at his ideal internship, but has one piece of advice when it counts: “Find out what kind of industry you want to work in and talk to people who are already in those fields.” work.” He recommends simply reaching out to professionals and academics online—many are happy to chat. “You don’t even have to know what kind of job you want, just a vague idea,” he assures. “Find out what skills will be used in these areas as early as possible and take every opportunity to put them on your resume.”
As the only candidate in his pool with the exact combination of skills required, this strategy definitely worked for him. Now, Brailovsky has months of “some of the coolest stuff” ahead of him [he] could possibly do,” not to mention much more confident in his own abilities.