Earthrise, 50 years later


Thoughts from the Media Lab's Space Enabled group and Space Exploration Initiative

“The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth."
— Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell 

December 24, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Earthrise photo, the first full-color picture of our planet, taken by Major Bill Anders aboard the Apollo 8 mission to circumnavigate the Moon. The photo became iconic around the world almost instantly.

This view of Earth—vibrant, full of color and life—seen from the desolate surface of the Moon, 238,900 miles away, filled people with a potent mixture of loneliness and unity, peace and turmoil. It showed us, quite literally, our place in the universe: that there is only one Earth, one humanity, finite and fragile and inextricably connected. The effect was tremendous: President Nixon referenced the Apollo 8 mission and the Earthrise photo in his inaugural address less than a month after the image was released, and in 1970 Congress consolidated existing government conservation organizations into new agencies with a strong mandate for understanding and preserving the environment; thus the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were born.

Earthrise galvanized the burgeoning environmentalist movement; in 2003, nature photographer Galen Rowell declared it "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken." It was the cover of the first-ever Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand’s counterculture classic that brought environmentalists and technologists together around the idea of “sustainability.” (Curiously, though not coincidentally, Brand would go on to write Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT in 1987.)

The photo spurred the next major era of the US space program: in 1972, while announcing the launch of the Space Shuttle program, Nixon said, “Views of the Earth from space have shown us how small and fragile our home planet truly is. We are learning the imperatives of universal brotherhood and global ecology, learning to think and act as guardians of one tiny blue and green island in the trackless oceans of the Universe.”

But what does Earthrise mean for us now, today? How have the last fifty years changed—or reinforced—our view of ourselves, our planet, and our future in space?

At the MIT Media Lab, there are two innovators whose work is particularly driven by the themes underpinning Earthrise: Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences Danielle Wood directs the Space Enabled research group, and PhD student Ariel Ekblaw leads the Space Exploration Initiative.

The Media Lab exercises a dual structure to foster both long-term, academic research as well as nimble innovation and deployment that responds to fast-moving trends in technology and society. Faculty-led research groups such as Space Enabled admit students to the Media Arts and Sciences graduate program, and pursue a long-term portfolio of research projects that have both academic contributions and impact in society. Initiatives such as the Space Exploration Initiative, meanwhile, bring together flexible combinations of students and staff from research groups for projects, and help ensure that the Media Lab is able to evolve as fields change. This dual structure is very important in today’s space ecosystem, where novel business models are being proposed, technology barriers are being challenged, and global interest is peaking.

Beyond their organizational structure, the Space Enabled research group and the Space Exploration Initiative share core common values. Both Danielle and Ariel believe, just as the authors of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty believed, that space is the “province of all [hu]mankind” and that it is everyone’s right to participate in shaping the relationship of people to space. Both teams strive to design technical and social approaches to make it easier for people to participate in space. Both teams imagine how people can extend our presence beyond Earth in a way that celebrates the best aspects of our nature—generosity, wonder, and curiosity— while minimizing the worst aspects of humanity—such as tyranny, greed, and short-sighted consumerism. Space Enabled and the Space Exploration Initiative unite in inviting people all over the world to help envision a future in space that empowers us to explore while inspiring us to create a healthier, safer, and more sustainable human community on Earth.

On the anniversary of the Earthrise photo, Ariel and Danielle reflect on their respective missions at the Media Lab, take a moment to acknowledge all the effort and progress that’s happened since 1968, and call attention to all that’s yet to be achieved.

What is the mission of the Space Enabled research group?

Danielle Wood: The mission of the Space Enabled research group is to advance justice in Earth’s complex systems using designs enabled by space; these include satellite Earth observation, satellite positioning, satellite communication, microgravity research, technology transfer from space to other fields, and fundamental space research. What do we mean by advancing justice?

First, we work with others to enable a world in which any person can design or apply space technology in support of development in their community. Second, the space systems we design are informed by ideas rooted in social justice, such as antiracism and anticolonialism. Third, we work to increase the use of space technology to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, as curated by the United Nations.

What is the mission of the Space Exploration Initiative?

Ariel Ekblaw: With humanity once again at the cusp of interplanetary civilization, we are actively building technologies, tools, and human experiences to prototype our sci-fi space future. We are creating space technologies that envision a bold and culturally rich “new space age,” from astro-bacteria wearables, to dynamically rentable and shareable CubeSat constellations, to musical instruments for our space voyages, to self-assembling space habitats, and advanced zero gravity 3D printing. The philosophy of “democratizing access to space exploration”—bringing moonshots and starshots into the purview of hackers and makers—courses through our work.

What form do your research projects and other efforts take?

Ariel: Since 2016, the Space Exploration Initiative has served as a launchpad to support space-bound research across the Media Lab and for our MIT partners. We aim to empower researchers from a range of fields—from synthetic neurobiology to art, from AI and data science to robotics—to deploy their research in a space environment. To do this, we coordinate parabolic flights, sub-orbital and orbital launches, offer open-source courses on microgravity research development, support mission progress mentorship and technical critiques (PDR-Preliminary Design Review and CDR-Critical Design Review approach), and more. Building on the spirit of the Media Lab, our team unites artists, scientists, engineers, and designers; the Initiative supports 25+ research projects and a team of over 50 students, staff, and faculty.

In addition to our in-house research, we support STEAM outreach (our Climate CubeSat Co-building program), calls for artists and designers to collaborate with us via open-source projects, and a publicly livestreamed flagship event, Beyond the Cradle, that brings together more than 60 leading space visionaries across various domains for a creative spin on the future of space exploration. Our North Star goal: to build a real-life “Starfleet Academy” (modeled after the iconic institution from the Star Trek franchise) grounded in the academic excellence of MIT, with an open-access space hacking spirit, and embracing the provocative, creative, and futuristic technology expertise at the Media Lab.

Danielle: The Space Enabled group brings together a team of research staff, graduate students, and undergraduates from six fields to design space systems that support the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We draw from knowledge in design, art, social science, complex systems, satellite engineering, and data science. Our work is pursued via three paths. The first path is based on our internal research ideas; we develop projects with the potential to improve the application of space for development. We are currently exploring topics such as accessible materials for non-toxic space propellants, integrated modeling tools to support decision making for environmental management, future space policy scenarios that increase accessibility of microgravity research, analysis tools using machine learning and satellite earth observation data, and a science outreach project to explain the significance of Antarctica as a fragile and beautiful ecosystem.

In the second path, we respond to invitations from development leaders working on aspects of the Sustainable Development Goals and design space systems that support their needs. These leaders represent international development organizations, national governments, universities, and entrepreneurial firms, especially in Africa and South America. We have also signed an agreement with the United Nations Development Program to support their long-term effort to increase the use of space research and technologies in their development work.

Our third path is to engage with space leaders from around the world, such as teams from universities and governments who are establishing their country’s early space activities. We share lessons from my research with these leaders, recommending how to design a space ecosystem that fits the needs and context of their nation. We also look for ways to collaborate on space missions or research with new space actors.

What fascinates you about the relationship between developments in space research and humanity’s progress over the last 50 years?

Danielle: Space exploration was not born in a cradle of equality. In 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite, many countries in Africa and Southeast Asia were under colonial occupation, and racial segregation was legal in the United States. Between the year of the founding of NASA in 1958 and the landing of the Apollo 11 astronauts on the Moon in July 1969, 34 countries in Africa gained independence. It often seems that the early space efforts were done exclusively by white people with privileged access to these innovative jobs. This myth is debunked, however, as we learn from the historical research of scholars like Margot Lee Shetterly that black engineers and mathematicians contributed to making early space progress possible. The United States federal government even used its control over hiring in NASA facilities in southern states such as Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, and Florida to push for desegregation in the south. The early years of space exploration were enmeshed in the complexities of the struggle for an antiracist and anticolonial society. This struggle continues and space is still a mirror that helps humans evaluate our morals and ethics.

How do you envision the long-term future of that relationship?

Ariel: Through the act of exploring space, we expand our circles of awareness; as we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the iconic Earthrise photo, we are reminded of the power of perspective that space exploration gives us, reminding us to invest in the future health and well-being of our blue marble, our island-planet home. Space exploration is not about escaping Earth. It is about building a better vision for humanity wherever our “orbits” may be, on Earth, around Earth, or beyond. Society needs a “Starfleet Academy” for more than just the starship Enterprise. We need both Moonshots and Earthshots, the yin and yang of humanity’s future. Starfleet Academy can be a place to build the technologies of our sci-fi space future, while profoundly benefiting life on Earth (from space spinoffs with applicability to Earth needs to space-based solutions for mitigating climate change).



How do your two efforts overlap, and how do you work together?

Ariel: The Space Exploration Initiative supports projects out of faculty-led research groups throughout the Media Lab, and we have been thrilled to also support research in Space Enabled! Space Enabled recently participated in our MAS.S64 Zero Gravity Flight Course and will be flying with us on a parabolic flight in March 2019. Professor Wood, and her student and staff team, bring deep expertise and a wide range of experience across numerous space exploration fields—they regularly share creative ideas that enrich our monthly, community roundtable meetings and other collaborative efforts.

Danielle: Space Enabled appreciates the role that the Space Exploration Initiative plays to convene the Media Lab and the external space community to converse and create together. It is our pleasure to participate in events hosted by the Space Exploration Initiative that foster non-traditional dialog about space while highlighting the role that artists, designers, writers, entrepreneurs, activists, engineers, scientists, and policy-makers play to create the future of space.

What excites you most about your work?

Ariel: We are once again at a pivotal moment for space exploration. Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing, and a global zeitgeist of excitement for space has returned. The Media Lab champions the freedom and ingenuity to explore risky, creative, next-generation projects that might not be explored elsewhere, with the capacity to pull in key industry collaborators, philosophers, ethicists, and a global community with deep expertise. This opportunity to design our interplanetary lives beckons to us—our collective creativity strives to bring science fiction to life.

Danielle: The mission of the Space Enabled group is built on research that I have done over the past decade, learning from leaders in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia who established the early space activities in their countries. Government teams and private sector innovators on every continent are developing capability to build satellites for environmental monitoring, operating web-based applications to perform geospatial analysis using satellite data, training local engineers with skills in space design, participating in astrophysics research, studying the impact of the sun on Earth’s magnetic field, and starting space businesses. Space is already a global activity; more new countries and companies will participate in space in the future. I’m excited to see how the future global space community will better reflect the human race. 

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