What the Space Exploration Initiative offers our community

NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)

Looking for an overview of our vision and mission? Check out our homepage.

The Space Exploration Initiative is intentionally structured as a cross-cutting “launchpad” in direct service of our MIT community. We make opportunities available for researchers across the Institute to deploy cutting- edge research in world class aerospace environments—from simulations of microgravity to prized access inside the International Space Station. Since Ariel Ekblaw founded the Space Exploration Initiative in 2016, the team has grown to support 50+ students, staff, and faculty. 

Flight Platforms & Missions

The Space Exploration Initiative takes an iterative approach to testing and deployments—from parabolic flights, to suborbital launches, to the International Space Station and soon, to the surface of the moon. We support a recurring cadence of these flight opportunities and welcome students, staff, and faculty from across MIT (and occasionally collaborators outside MIT) to apply and participate in the program. If your project is accepted for a flight opportunity, SEI covers flight-associated costs and will mentor you through the full process. To hear about all opportunities and open-calls, write in to and ask to be added to the mailing list. 

Parabolic Flight Campaign

SEI charters an annual ZERO-G parabolic flight for 14-15 projects and 25 researchers across MIT Media Lab, several departments at MIT, and outside collaborators. To help support this flight opportunity, SEI teaches a course each Fall term on project development, prototyping, and deployment readiness for parabolic flights. 

Check out past flights here:

How to apply? If you’re a student and first-time flyer, we ask you to apply for and take the Zero-Gravity Flight course (more information below); if you’re an MIT faculty member or post-doc, or an outside-MIT prospective collaborator, please reach out directly to and indicate interest in the Zero-G Program. 

Suborbital Flight Missions

SEI launched six payloads on Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket in May 2019 and an additional payload in August 2021. These payloads crossed the 100 km Kármán line and tested research during three minutes of sustained microgravity inside the experiment capsule. The 2019 mission marked MIT’s first research launch with Blue Origin, and the Media Lab’s first suborbital launch. The SEI continues to charter suborbital research flights for the MIT community, including additional “nanolabs”.

How to Apply: Future opportunities are solicited through open-calls, sent to our mailing list.

Check out our past flights here:

International Space Station Missions

In March 2020, SEI sent five payloads to the ISS on SpaceX CRS-20. The payloads were deployed over a 30 day internal mission, allowing the research teams to study the effects of microgravity, on-station radiation environment, and launch loads on their hardware. For this launch opportunity, the payloads were integrated into the Nanoracks BlackBox platform. SEI launched an additional three payloads to the ISS aboard a BlackBox in December 2022. SEI supports other formats for ISS deployments as well, including astronaut interaction payloads and other apparatus chambers. 

How to Apply: Future opportunities are solicited through open-calls, sent to our mailing list.

Check out our 2020  flight here:

2022 flight:

Sights set on the Moon!

The SEI is jointly coordinating lunar payload concepts and near-term lunar surface transport launch opportunities, as part of the MIT “To the Moon to Stay” mission. Projects are drawn from the SEI Operating in the Lunar Environment graduate course (more info below), and from other active research work across MIT’s campus. We are sending three payloads to the lunar south pole with Lunar Outpost's MAPP rover in 2024.

Check out the Lunar Mission website:

How to Apply: Email and ask to be added to the lunar payload working group. 


Zero Gravity Flight Course: Prototyping Our Sci-Fi Space Future 

Since 2018, the Space Exploration Initiative has offered a course on project development, prototyping, and deployment readiness for parabolic flights. Admitted student teams are offered project-deployment slots on SEI’s annually chartered parabolic research flight. This course covers three main topic areas: rapid prototyping and engineering skills to prepare projects for operation in microgravity; logistics, training, and safety pre-approval steps to meet flight readiness requirements and pass a Technical Readiness Review (TRR); and creative and technical lenses for the future of space exploration. SEI’s Mission Integrator, Sean Auffinger, is an added support for the students in this class, as they prepare experiments and documentation for the upcoming flight. 

Learn more about the course here:

Operating in The Lunar Environment 

New for Spring 2021, and with plans to teach again in the future, Operating in the Lunar Environment is a collaboration between MIT AeroAstro and SEI. This course is a detailed exploration of the design and engineering challenges posed by operating in the lunar environment. Students gain hands-on experience, working in teams, to design a payload to address strategic objectives associated with NASA’s Artemis program, aiming to enable near-term sustainable settlements on the lunar surface. Lectures and associated recitations explore varying mission goals and operating environments, from lunar-class launch, to orbiters, landers, rovers, and habitats. Guest lectures include prominent engineers, scientists, industry players and policymakers who have direct experience in lunar mission design and development. Students and project teams that successfully complete a CDR at the end of the class will be supported by SEI towards prospective lunar surface payload opportunities as part of MIT’s “To the Moon to Stay” Program.

Learn more about the course here:

Arts & Curation

The Space Exploration Initiative’s dedicated Arts Curator, Xin Liu, finds new creative avenues for SEI supported projects to share their work. Most notably, SEI has participated in Ars Electronica for the past three consecutive years. In addition, SEI supports Visiting Artists through MIT CAST to create artwork for microgravity, democratizes access to space through an International Artists Open Call, and curates a space-focused exhibit at Beyond the Cradle each year to inspire and enable art in space. SEI’s Arts Curator specializes in concept development, visual communication, and curation.

Learn more about Sojourner 2020 here: 

Visit our Virtual Spaceship for Ars Electronica 2020: 

General Mentorship and Space Project Support

The SEI includes a support staff team of 11 members—scientists, engineers, architects, designers, an arts curator, and a mission integrator. This team offers many resources to the MIT community, including but not limited to: mechanical and electrical contract engineering; astronaut ethnography and user research to inform human-factors prototyping; rapid prototyping and fabrication advising; visual communication and arts curation; and direct mission integration support for everything from microgravity research to lunar payloads. SEI also regularly welcomes undergraduate student researchers (UROPs), visiting students, Research Affiliates, and outside research collaborators to join us in our work. 

Community Networking Opportunities

Monthly Roundtables 

The Space Exploration Initiative facilitates monthly roundtable meetings to engage the MIT community in space based research. This is the best way to “meet” the group and keep up to speed with all opportunities through SEI. Meeting times and location are announced to the mailing list. 

Workshops & Media Lab “ML Talks” 

Since its founding in 2016, the Space Exploration Initiative has hosted a series of special talks and workshops on and off campus on topics including: life in space; design for microgravity; space health and well- being; the ethics of space exploration; space law; and democratizing access to space. A recent highlight from the Apollo 11 Landing 50th Anniversary year was an SEI sponsored ML Talks on moonshots past and future: To the Moon to Stay | From the Moon with Love. We were joined by Jessy Kate Schingler, Alex MacDonald, and Cady Coleman in conversation with Dava Newman. Outside of MIT, SEI has hosted talks and workshops at conferences including SXSW and IAC, and with other academic institutions such as Harvard, Yale, NYU, and RISD. 

Beyond the Cradle: Envisioning a New Space Age

Our annual flagship event, Beyond the Cradle, takes a creative spin on the future of space exploration. Now in its sixth year, Beyond the Cradle brings together over 60 speakers—leading space industry chief executives, space science researchers, sci-fi authors and designers, Hollywood visionaries, and NASA and international astronauts—to inspire the audience to envision, co-design, hack, and build our space future together. Past speakers have included Nobel Laureate, Rai Weiss; Former Deputy Administrator of NASA, Dava Newman; SpaceX Principal Mars Development Engineer, Paul Wooster; Artist Laurie Anderson; Director, J.J. Abrams; author Neal Stephenson; and Astronauts Cady Coleman, Nicole Stott, Leland Melvin, Jeff Hoffman, Paolo Nespoli and many others!

The Space Exploration Initiative’s founding mission is to rigorously, vigorously build out the technologies of our space future while keeping our innovations and team as open and accessible as possible. Beyond the Cradle’s art gallery and breakout workshop sessions democratize access by inviting and uniting new disciplines and voices in our event.

The event hosts over 350 in-person attendees (via private invitation only) and reaches six continents with several thousand members who tune in via our livestream, Twitter and YouTube channel. Beyond the Cradle is part of MIT Space Week, a broader celebration of space exploration technology and futurist vision at MIT and beyond.

Further details and archived video footage: 

MIT Space Week:


Grants, RA Funding, and Research Seed Funding

SEI provides seed funding to a few projects each year, typically after engaging with the Zero-Gravity Flight Course, if the project can demonstrate a strong need and rigorous research results towards further flight deployments. We also run grant programs that can fund graduate RAs, whether you’re a student in MAS (Media Lab) or another department. If you have already worked with SEI before and are interested in funding to continue or further expand your work, or are an already-admitted/current student looking for RA funding, please reach out directly to SEI Director, Ariel Ekblaw. The SEI can also assist and mentor projects with larger fundraising goals, on a case-by-case basis. 

As an example, learn more about our recurring space health program with TRISH:


The SEI facilitates many outreach programs, including our flagship Climate CubeSat Co-Building program, online learning content through MIT’s Full Steam Ahead, and international open-calls for youth and adults alike to participate in space technology and arts development. These efforts directly address the Initiative’s goals for the democratization of space, bringing “space hacking” into reach for the next generation and for a broader swath of humanity. 

Learn more about SEI’s outreach efforts here:

Learn about an SEI-sponsored global outreach effort in partnership with MIT AeroAstro:

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