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Tracking Traffic at the International Space Station

ISS,Utility,Human Spaceflight
The Supercluster Team
March 11, 202111:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)

The International Space Station can be difficult to wrap your mind around.

It’s somewhere up there, that’s for sure. It’s “larger than a football field.” It speeds through low Earth orbit at nearly 5 miles a second. It circles the entire planet every 90 minutes. But all these statistics and metaphors can actually make it harder, not easier, to understand The International Space Station. When we rely on the charts and figures, we risk losing touch with the reality of life aboard the ISS. Rather than ground our understanding, The Station can easily seem more distant and abstract.

Supercluster built the ISS Traffic utility to bring the ISS back down to Earth. “ISS Traffic is a natural step forward in our quest to make Supercluster a home base for all things space,” says Supercluster’s Jamie Carreiro, who also lead the team that developed the Astronaut Database. “If you want to know what's going on up in Earth orbit, the ISS is a major part of that story."

“It's where the vast majority of humans travel to when they travel to space,” says Jamie. In addition to the ISS, China plans to begin building a space station later this year, and Axiom plans to build the first private station later this decade. But right now, and for the foreseeable future, The International Space Station is the only game in town.  “We want it to be really easy to check what spaceships are docked to the Station, who is currently living there, and when the next spaceships will arrive or depart.”


Developing the ISS Traffic utility.

As with all Supercluster utilities, design and useability drove the development process. “We want checking in on the space station to be intuitive and fun,” says Tristan Dubin, who designed the Traffic interface. “I wanted it to feel like an interactive mini-map in a video game. This idea ended up informing many design decisions, including illustrating all of the craft that might dock with the ISS. We developed a visual style that’s playful and harkens back to the aesthetic of early video game interfaces, something that is iconic enough for users to quickly recognize each craft.”

"The opportunity to draw spaceships is a dream for any creative," says Matt Morgantini, a designer at Supercluster who worked on the ISS illustrations. "Our craft maintain a level of accuracy while also being interpretive renderings of the structure of each ship. These semi-literal line drawings were duplicated and bitmapped, then layered back on top of themselves to create a unique graphic style that can be expanded as new vehicles enter the database."

Illustrating spacecraft.

The idea for the ISS Traffic utility came easy, but actually developing it proved tricky. And with the Supercluster team going remote, everyone had to find new ways to work. “It can be difficult to design utilities like this with everyone working from home,” says Tristan. “We used to throw sketches up on the wall, but we’ve figured out a good system in the meantime with video calls and shared Dropbox Paper docs, so we can all critique design decisions like we were together in the studio.”

Early ISS Traffic wireframes.

"After design and development, testing is the critical final step," says Tristan. "We go through rounds of feedback as a team and then send everything out to the wider Supercluster friends and family network for beta testing. The Astronaut Database and Launch Tracker were refined this way, and some of our best ideas came from outside the core team. The Space community continues to be a big part of refining all the Supercluster apps."


Docked spacecraft highlights.

ISS Traffic is meant to be an at-a-glance style tool, something that feels like a status dashboard, displaying most information in a highly visual way with minimal hidden layers. “You can see overall status without any interaction,” says Jamie. “And mouseovers (or a single click) gets you to the second layer of information for more detail. But like a physical dashboard or HUD, it's a consistent single screen layout throughout the experience. I think it's fun to receive information this way, a bit like what it might look like inside a spaceship on your viewscreen.”

Arrival, departure, and time in space.

In developing the interface design, Tristan extended the videogame metaphor. “Maps are either literal or representational — here we struck a balance between the two. The ISS is a 3D object, but 3D maps can be difficult to navigate quickly, and can feel more overwhelming than informative. In order to solve the challenge of communicating the dimensional nature of the ISS we incorporated a view switch that shows users the angles that contain the most pertinent information.”

Scale was another challenge. The International Space Station is huge, and its total scope dwarfs that of each docked spacecraft. In the end the team decided to cheat the scale in favor of emphasizing content, and the orientation of each craft. “The true scale of the craft in relation to the ISS is much different from what our ISS tool shows, but that’s on purpose,” says Tristan. “We want users to immediately get a sense for what’s at The Station and where.”

“It's way more fun to see little illustrations of spacecraft vs. just a list of what's flying,” adds Jamie. “It's also great for seeing change. It's obvious when a spaceship comes or goes because it's no longer there — as that nice big graphic on your dashboard.”

ISS Science Experiments.


The ISS Traffic Utility is part of Supercluster’s ongoing effort to mark 20 years of continuous human habitation about the International Space Station. If you’d like to learn more about the ISS check out our article on the science-fiction early concepts that didn’t become reality, or read about how Cold War politics shapes the station to this day. 

And if you haven’t already seen it, our documentary THE STATION breaks down the full developmental history of the ISS.

Whether we work from home or from orbit, a healthy work life balance is critical to perform at our best. It’s why Dropbox is designing more enlightened tools for astronauts and Earthlings to collaborate and be inspired, wherever their work takes them.
The Supercluster Team
March 11, 202111:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)