The Space Exploration Initiative supports research across and beyond MIT in two microgravity flights this spring.
By Sarah Beckmann | MIT Media Lab
As a not-so-distant future that includes space tourism and people living off-planet approaches, the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative is designing and researching the activities humans will pursue in new, weightless environments.
Since 2017, the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) has orchestrated regular parabolic flights through the ZERO-G Research Program to test experiments that rely on microgravity. This May, the SEI supported researchers from the Media Lab; MIT's departments of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro), Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), and Mechanical Engineering; MIT Kavli Institute; the MIT Program in Art, Culture, and Technology; the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL); the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) at Harvard University; the Center for Collaborative Arts and Media at Yale University; the multi-affiliated Szostak Laboratory, and the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology to fly 22 different projects exploring research as diverse as fermentation, reconfigurable space structures, and the search for life in space.
Most of these projects resulted from the 2019 or 2020 iterations of MAS.838 / 16.88 (Prototyping Our Space Future) taught by Ariel Ekblaw, SEI founder and director, who began teaching the class in 2018. (Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 flight was postponed, leading to two cohorts being flown this year.)
“The course is intentionally titled ‘Prototyping our Sci-Fi Space Future,’” she says, “because this flight opportunity that SEI wrangles, for labs across MIT, is meant to incubate and curate the future artifacts for life in space and robotic exploration — bringing the Media Lab's uniqueness, magic, and creativity into the process.”
The class prepares researchers for the realities of parabolic flights, which involves conducting experiments in short, 20-second bursts of zero gravity. As the course continues to offer hands-on research and logistical preparation, and as more of these flights are executed, the projects themselves are demonstrating increasing ambition and maturity.
“Some students are repeat flyers who have matured their experiments, and [other experiments] come from researchers across the MIT campus from a record number of MIT departments, labs, and centers, and some included alumni and other external collaborators,” says Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research and SEI faculty advisor. “In short, there was stiff competition to be selected, and some of the experiments are sufficiently far along that they’ll soon be suitable for spaceflight.”
Dream big, design bold
Both the 2020 and 2021 flight cohorts included daring new experiments that speak to SEI’s unique focus on research across disciplines. Some look to capitalize on the advantages of microgravity, while others seek to help find ways of living and working without the force that governs every moment of life on Earth.