Designed to look and feel like the first space capsules of the 1960s, the box—which featured interior lighting, a ventilation system, and a small window—was just part of an extra credit project organized by History of Science assistant professor Matthew H. Hersch for his class, “Humans in Space: Past, Present, Future.”
Students watched eagerly as classmate Dina M. Sinno ’16 stepped into the makeshift “space capsule” as part of the “Project Crimson” mission, where she sat for the entirety of Hersch’s lecture, which he delivered in a NASA space outfit.
“It’s not enough merely to give people books to read or have them listen to lectures,” Hersch said. “I’m very interested in … the visceral sensations associated with using all the machines human beings have been able to invent.”
Hersch used the space capsule, which he made out of materials from hardware stores and Amazon, to demonstrate what he calls the “profoundly uncomfortable” experience of spaceflight. He added that he designed the capsule to “give people the claustrophobic experience of space travel, in the classroom.”
While Sinno listened to Hersch teach about the psychology of space travel, participating in the discussion only through a walkie-talkie, other students played the roles of the simulated mission’s support crew, including a flight surgeon, radio communicator, and rescue team.
“We’re really proud for the program and for the country,” said Daniel G. Moody ’16, who served as the imaginary mission’s press officer. “We’re happy to have Dina home safely.”
Sinno found the experience uncomfortable but rewarding because the simulated mission supplemented the class’s curriculum, which began with ancient Greek astronomy and has progressed up to the ’60s space race.
“It’s a big mental challenge that a lot of people don’t understand, and that I didn’t understand before,” Sinno said. “Knowing how it affects the mind and the body would make me a little more hesitant to sign my name up.”
Crew members in Project Crimson received extra credit for Hersch’s class, plus a package of space ice cream. One-third of the class of about 30 undergraduates applied to take part in the project.
This is Hersch’s first year teaching at Harvard, but he hopes the course will be offered regularly in the future.
“I’m hoping that people recognize that the process of technological choice is often very complex,” Hersch said. “Perhaps we wouldn’t all want to be astronauts, even if we could.”
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