Screen Innovations (SI) has been invited by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to create the first projection screen for use in outer space, aboard the International Space Station (ISS). 

On April 14, 2015, the rocket SpaceX 6 took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying the screen to its permanent home among the stars.

For this one-of-a-kind application, Screen Innovations developed the ISS ViewScreen, a portable, 65-inch, ambient light-rejecting, zero gravity screen that will replace the 13-inch, tablet-sized displays that crewmembers have been using to communicate with Mission Control.

Crewmembers will now enjoy a much larger, enhanced viewing experience allowing them to video chat with their families and conduct training and simulated operations that previously had been possible only with laptop computers.

“Working with NASA is a dream come true!” enthuses Ryan Gustafson, chief designer, president, and CEO of Screen Innovations.

“As a company, SI is a fun-loving group of innovative, dedicated professionals who continue to push the envelope every day,” says Ryan.

“Since founding in 1958, NASA has been devoted to innovation and to pioneering the age of space travel and exploration. It’s safe to say that SI has once again gone where no other screen company has gone before.”

Challenges

After meeting with NASA, SI knew it had to construct a screen that was not only portable, but could be setup quickly and easily in any module on the ISS.

“As SI deployed the screen and attached its four corners to the ISS module to display a 65-inch image floating in mid-air, the excitement among those present was palpable”

It took nearly eight months for the SI engineering team to overcome the challenges of the interior of the ISS, which include limited space and an interior that is brightly lit at all times.

Because a permanent installation was not an option, SI had to develop a screen that could be easily stored when not in use – a difficult predicament in zero gravity.

“Fixed is easy, but a portable setup brings all sorts of challenges to the table,” nods Tom Nugent, technology specialist at SI.

The dimensions of the packaged screen when collapsed for storage, could be no larger than those of a standard mailing tube: roughly 3 feet long and 2½ inches in diameter.

To preserve the projector’s contrast ratios, the design team chose SI’s ambient-light-rejecting Slate screen material.

These challenges tested the SI team’s ability to deliver on a long-time company motto: to provide “two-piece projection in any environment.” 

NASA’s Plans

On March 27, 2015, one astronaut and one cosmonaut travelled to the International Space Station, where they will remain for a year while a team back on Earth monitors them to study the effects of long-term spaceflight.

Because the astronaut is one of a pair of identical twins, this study will offer scientists a unique opportunity to establish a control, to achieve a far more accurate study of the effects of zero gravity on the human body.

Before installation of SI’s screen, the only form of communication available to astronauts on the ISS was via tablet-sized, 13-inch displays.

Along with video chatting, the crew also had used small laptop computers for training and simulated operation of the ISS’s robotic arm.

The Mount

It was a glimpse of what would become the first man-cave in space – a remarkable achievement”

“The idea of using a motorised screen configuration for deployment was immediately tossed out because, well, it’s space – there would be no gravity available to pull the weight bar down when the screen was opened,” says Ryan.

“An SI engineer with a degree in aerospace engineering – co-workers call him the SI Rocket Scientist – was familiar with a type of bungee cord developed specifically for and used by NASA.”

Using these bungees as the design’s centre point, the team quickly came up with a screen that could be rolled out by hand and attached essentially anywhere and in any cabin of the ISS modules, at each of the screen’s four corners.

Fully deployed, stainless steal ‘leashes’ would extend out of the aluminium tubes on each end of the screen and attach to bungees which could then be secured to various locations inside the modules; for storage, they would neatly retract back into the tubes, leaving no excess cabling visible.

The entire assemblage could then be stored in a larger tube with a corkscrew-style cap and shoulder strap, for easy transport in zero-g.

“It functions somewhat similar to the way a motorised screen rolls out, but that’s where the similarities end,” comments Robin Kampf, quality control manager at SI. “It is unlike any screen we have ever manufactured and unlike any screen that any company has ever manufactured.”

After the first prototype screen had been built, SI travelled to NASA’s mock-up facilities in Houston, Texas.

A projector manufacturer provided a new, 1080p laser projector for the project that uses a new laser light-source technology.

Before the introduction of this new laser technology, the maximum lifetime of a projector’s bulb averaged about 3,000 hours.

With a laser projector, a single bulb can produce zero image degradation for up to 30,000 hours, or about 3.4 years of constant use.

“As SI deployed the screen and attached its four corners to the ISS module to display a 65-inch image floating in mid-air, the excitement among those present was palpable,” Ryan reflects.

“Space—it’s the ultimate environment. If we can put a screen there, we can put a screen anywhere on Earth”

“It was a glimpse of what would become the first man-cave in space – a remarkable achievement. The NASA team finally decided that using one of the mounting arms already in place for crewmembers’ laptops would work perfectly for placing the projector. This gave the screen plenty of throw distance, and securing the projector to the mount with one of NASA’s Velcro strips would be a piece of cake.

“Seeing the screen ‘floating’ in the ISS module, NASA’s main concern was now the particles of various materials – foods, liquids, and other things – that would undoubtedly come into contact with the deployed screen. They wanted to ensure that the screen would be easy to clean and resist stains.

“Slate passed these tests, too, with flying colours – cleaning the screen is as simple as wiping down its surface with a microfiber cloth,” he continues. “If the removal of larger particles is required, purified water – plentiful aboard the ISS – could even be used.

“Working with NASA has been a dream come true,” Ryan enthuses. “But even though they are such a high-profile client, they received the same passion and innovation that we put into every product we make.”

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ISS Viewscreen – The First Projection Screen in Space from Screen Innovations on Vimeo.

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