The Space Exploration Initiative’s 2019 research flight explores work and play in zero gravity
How will dancers perform in space? How will scientists do lab experiments without work tables? How will artists pursue crafting in zero gravity? How can exercise, gastronomy, research, and other uniquely human endeavors be reimagined for the unique environment of space? These are the questions driving the fourteen projects aboard the Space Exploration Initiative’s second parabolic research flight.
Just past the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, humanity’s life in space isn’t so very far away. Virgin Galactic just opened its spaceport with the goal of launching space tourists into orbit within months, not years; Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket is gearing up to carry its first human cargo to the edge of space, with New Glenn and a moon mission not far behind. We are nearing a future where trained, professional astronauts aren’t the only people who will regularly leave Earth. The new Space Age will reach beyond the technical and scientific achievements of getting people into space and keeping them alive there; the next frontier is bringing our creativity, our values, our personal pursuits and hobbies with us, and letting them evolve into a new culture unique to off-planet life.
But unlike the world of Star Trek, there’s no artificial gravity capability in sight. Any time spent in space will, for the foreseeable future, mean life without weight, and without the rules of gravity that govern every aspect of life on the ground. Through its annual parabolic flight charter with the ZERO-G Research Program, the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) is actively anticipating and solving for the challenges of zero gravity.
Space for everyone
SEI’s first zero g flight, in 2017, set a high bar for the caliber of the projects, but it was also a learning experience in doing research in 20-second bursts of microgravity. In preparation for an annual research flight, SEI founder and lead Ariel Ekblaw organized MIT's first graduate course for parabolic flights (Prototyping our Sci-Fi Space Future: Designing and deploying projects for zero gravity flights) with the goal of preparing researchers for the realities of parabolic flights, from the rigors of the preflight TRR inspections to project hardware considerations and mid-flight adjustments.
The class also served to take some of the intimidation factor out of the prospect of space research, and focused on democratizing access to microgravity testbed environments.
“The addition of the course helped us build bridges across other departments at MIT and take the time to document and open-source our mentorship process for robust, creative, and rigorous experiments,” says Ekblaw.
SEI’s mission of democratizing access to space is broad: it extends to actively recruiting researchers, artists, and designers, whose work isn’t usually associated with space, as well as ensuring that the traditional engineering and hard sciences of space research are open to people of all genders, nationalities, and identities. This proactive openness was manifest in every aspect of this year’s zero g flight.
While incubated in the Media Lab, the Space Exploration Initiative now supports research across MIT. Paula do Vale Pereira, a grad student in MIT AeroAstro, was onboard to test out automated actuators for CubeSats. Tim McGrath and Jeremy Stroming, also from AeroAstro, built an erg machine specially designed for exercise in zero gravity. Chris Carr and Maria Zuber, of MIT EAPS, flew to test out the latest iteration of their ELI (Electronic Life-detection Instrument) research.
Research specialist Maggie Coblentz is pursuing her fascination with food in space—including the world’s first molecular gastronomy experiment in microgravity. She also custom-made an astronaut’s helmet specially designed to accommodate a multi-course tasting menu, allowing her to experiment with different textures and techniques to make both food and eating more enjoyable on long space flights.