MIT Space Exploration Initiative event shows that collective imagination is essential to space exploration and innovation
by Simone Williams
by Simone Williams
Greetings Earthlings! Thursday April 15th saw the 5th-annual installation of the MIT Space Exploration Initiative’s Virtual Beyond the Cradle: Envisioning a New Space Age. Beyond the Cradle is the Initiative’s flagship event that brings together scientists, engineers, artists, designers, and leaders of the space industry to envision and contribute to futures in space. In a normal year, the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) would invite speakers and audience members from around the country and across the globe to the MIT Media Lab. This year, the event was converted to a virtual format to continue the collective imagination and innovation that normally happens in person.
As the speakers of Virtual Beyond the Cradle demonstrated, this past year—as difficult as it has been—has not stemmed the innovative design and creation processes that are familiar to the Media Lab. Following over a year of widespread disruption to everyday life, this event proved that science and the pursuit of exploration have indeed continued to prosper.
This year marks the Space Exploration Initiative’s 5th anniversary. To kick off the event, SEI founder and director Ariel Ekblaw described the Initiative’s founding mission to “democratize, realize, and revolutionize access to space” by building out the technologies of our sci-fi space future. Inspired by the concept of Star Trek’s Starfleet academy, Ariel posed a question to event attendees and speakers, “How can we build an environment...where young minds go to prepare to explore the cosmos?”
Dr. Moogega Cooper, the Planetary Protection Lead for the Mars 2020 mission, delivered the keynote address on the importance of planetary protection considerations in the design of future space technology. By calling attention to the impact of microbial life on Earth and potentially on other planets, Dr. Cooper explained the necessity for meticulous efforts to limit bio-contamination during space exploration when the possibility for detection-of-life is a consideration. On the theme of collective imagination, Dr. Cooper underscored the value of international collaboration, referencing NASA’s collaboration with the European Space Agency on the Mars Rover mission: “It takes a village for this to succeed,” adding that many of the instruments on the Mars rover were international payloads. Notably, Dr. Cooper left listeners with an impression of the importance of planetary protection as a tool for sustainable development in space exploration: “As you explore...my charge to you is to keep planetary protections in mind, to be good custodians of the universe.”
Dr. Cooper’s keynote address led into a series of lightning talks by an inspiring group of researchers, artists, and designers, who demonstrated how people are collaborating to revolutionize the space industry, even in the face of the unique challenges presented by the global pandemic. This session, new to the Beyond the Cradle event, highlighted the research endeavors of the broader Media Lab and MIT community in Space Architecture and Environments, Space Art and Design, Space Suits, Space Health, Space Governance, and Space Education. From compression space suits, to cyborg bio-tech and designing the future of education in space, the speakers presented impressive advancements in space technology, open access space art, and design for life in space.
Demonstrating the Initiative’s practice of turning science fiction into reality, Don Derek Haddad, a graduate student of the Media Lab Responsive Environments group, explained how today’s computer graphics are approaching the perceptual limits of reality. As these technologies become more accessible to everyday users, “the line between what is real and what is not, narrows.” Haddad ended his talk with a quote from Professor Edith Ackerman that seemed to appropriately describe much of the content of the day’s lightning talks: “Our purpose is to imagine and design learning environments in which the children and also humans at large can imagine and design.”
Throughout the lightning talks, it became clear that within the Space Exploration Initiative and Media Lab, the science fiction of books, movies, and television was no longer a distant dream, but rather a standard practice. As new technologies allow for space exploration to become more accessible, the issue of governance and policy in space becomes a more present challenge. David Colby Reed of the Space Enabled group shed light on the issues surrounding space governance and the importance of intentionality in designing space habitats and communities. Reed warned that these frontier communities may evolve into the conditions for what author Elizabeth Anderson describes as “Private Government,” or “Government that has arbitrary, unaccountable power over those it governs.” Reed posed the question: “How might we design space habitation technologies and management systems that enable democratic equality among future spacefarers?” Reed contributes to the Space Exploration Initiative’s “Space Gov Collective,” a cross-MIT convening group that explores collaborative governance structures for the space commons and life in space.
The Space Exploration Initiative’s mission to democratize access to space was clear throughout the event, but particularly evident during the sponsored Moon Dialogs Salon that opened with a discussion on lunar accessibility. The Moon Dialogs program is a multi-stakeholder partnership focused on governance and policy coordination for the moon. During this dialog hosted by SEI’s Mehak Sarang and For All Moonkind’s Michelle Hanlon, Dr. Minoo Rathnasabapathy of the Space Enabled group advised attendees to consider the language used to talk about lunar exploration: “The history of lunar exploration is seeded in conquest and competitions.” Dr. Rathnasabapathy explained how terms like “wild west” or “gold rush” have “deep-seeded social, economic, cultural, and environmental history.” She reminded event participants that it is important to acknowledge lessons from the past and that these lessons should help guide future designs of accessibility.
Event attendees then had the opportunity to explore a custom Digital Spaceship in an immersive visual environment. The Space Exploration Initiative’s Arts Curator, Xin Liu, curated a collection of projects displayed on the ship that featured Initiative-supported research. Visitors of the spaceship were able to communicate with other passengers and explore a portfolio of imaginative projects, all while navigating a 3D web environment.
One of the highlights of the day was the Life in Space Panel moderated by Dr. Sunanda Sharma of the Space Exploration Initiative, with panelists Dr. Jill Tarter, Emeritus Chair for SETI Research at the SETI Institute; Professor Max Tegmark, Professor of Physics atMassachusetts Institute of Technology; Dr. Nathalie A. Cabrol, Director of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe at SETI; and Dr. Rohit Bhartia, Deputy PI on NASA's JPL SHERLOC payload (Perseverance Rover) and Principal Scientist at Photon Systems Inc. Dr. Jill Tarter opened the session with an address on the importance of having a cosmic perspective. Dr. Tarter called on listeners to consider that we on Earth are first and foremost Earthlings. The panel featured engaging discussions on the elusive definitions of life and intelligence for which Dr. Tarter responded: “We’re looking for technology” and “We’re using technology as a proxy for intelligence.” All panelists affirmed the value of Dr. Tarter’s “cosmic perspective,” with Professor Tegmark further criticizing the distraction of international conflicts: “Let’s listen to this panel and set more inspiring goals for our Earthling futures.”
The event closed with a fireside chat between CEO of Axiom Space, Mike Suffredini, and Ariel Ekblaw discussing the future of life in low Earth orbit. Suffredini described the future of Axiom Space in designing and building commercial space habitats. On the importance of international collaboration in exploring beyond Earth orbit, he added: “As we take our first steps off the planet as a species, we should do it together as a species.”
It was clear from this year’s event that the Space Exploration Initiative and the broader space community have continued to work toward the mission of democratizing access to space even in the midst of unprecedented challenges. As was stated repeatedly in Thursday’s event, and in line with the ethos of the Media Lab, it is important to unite the scientist with the artist to bring science fiction to life. It is also essential to collaborate with Earthlings across the globe to design and create the next generation of space technology to empower people on Earth and beyond.