Planetary Radio • Nov 24, 2021

Into the anthropocosmos with Ariel Ekblaw

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Ariel ekblaw

Ariel Ekblaw

Founder and Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Space Exploration Initiative

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Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society

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Mat Kaplan

Planetary Radio Host and Producer for The Planetary Society

Ariel Ekblaw and her Space Exploration Initiative colleagues believe we are at the cusp of interplanetary civilization. They are building the tools, environments and knowledge that will speed the transition and solve problems on Earth. Ariel has published “Into the Anthropocosmos,” a beautiful celebration of SEI’s fifth anniversary that presents many of its innovative projects. Someone will win a copy of the book in the new What’s Up space trivia contest.

Into the Anthropocosmos book cover
Into the Anthropocosmos book cover Book cover for Into the Anthropocosmos by Ariel Ekblaw.
Neri Oxman's Krebs Cycle of Creativity
Neri Oxman's Krebs Cycle of Creativity This diagram captures the spirit of the MIT Media Lab and the Space Exploration Initiative and how they bring interdisciplinary perspectives into shared projects.
TESSERAE
TESSERAE Artist's depiction of TESSERAE self-assembling structures in orbit around Mars.Image: TU Dortmund

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Trivia Contest

This Week’s Question:

Where in the solar system, excluding on Earth, is there a feature named after Dr. Seuss?

This Week’s Prize:

A hardcover copy of “Into the Anthropocosmos: A Whole Space Catalog from the MIT Space Exploration Initiative,” by Ariel Ekblaw, published by the MIT Press

To submit your answer:

Complete the contest entry form at https://www.planetary.org/radiocontest or write to us at [email protected] no later than Wednesday, December 1 at 8am Pacific Time. Be sure to include your name and mailing address.

Last week's question:

What telescope was used to discover Didymos, the companion to Dimorphos, the asteroid that DART will impact?

Winner:

The winner will be revealed next week.

Question from the Nov. 10, 2021 space trivia contest:

Who was the first Soviet cosmonaut to fly two orbital missions?

Answer:

Vladimir Komorov was the first Soviet cosmonaut to make two orbital flights. He was also the first person to die during a mission to space when his Soyuz capsule’s parachutes failed.

Transcript

Mat Kaplan: Into the Anthropocosmos with Ariel Ekblaw, this week on Planetary Radio. Welcome, I'm Matt Kaplan of The Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond. No, we haven't gone all new age on you, unless you agree that humankind transition to an interplanetary species is truly new age, Ariel Ekblaw and her many colleagues at the Space Exploration Initiative are expressing what she calls, principled optimism about our future. Through the creation of innovations, they leave will support life across the solar system, as they enhance life back here on earth. We'll enjoy a wide ranging conversation with her in moments and we'll sample the projects documented in her new book, Into the Anthropocosmos. Want to win a copy of it? You'll get your shot if you enter the new space trivia contest that Bruce Betts will tell us about. Bruce also has news of an upcoming total solar eclipse for some of you.

Mat Kaplan: I'm producing this week's show, hours before the scheduled launch of NASA's double asteroid redirection test, or DART. The mission we talked with Nancy Shabo about last week. We wish the DART team, the greatest of success. We have a terrific collection of mission resources at planetary.org. NASA has condemned Russia for conducting an anti-satellite test, that put other spacecraft, including the International Space Station in jeopardy. Other nations are adding to the criticism. It's one of the stories you'll find in the November 19 edition of the Down Lake, our free weekly newsletter. You'll also find a description of new evidence indicating that a certain near earth asteroid might be an old chunk of the moon. If you hurry, you can still vote in The Planetary Society's Best Of 2021 awards. You'll find your ballot at planetary.org/bestof2021. We've also just published our cool new gift guide for the space geek in your life, even if that geek is you.

Mat Kaplan: More about that next week. They just want to democratize space. In fact, that's the title of an essay by space exploration initiative, founder and director Ariel Ekblaw. It's also the key to understanding the mission of SEI, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The work may be best described and illustrated in her new book. It's full title is, Into The Anthropocosmos, A Whole Space Catalog from the Space Exploration Initiative. As soon as I saw it, I knew I'd want to talk with Ariel. That conversation happened a few days ago. Ariel, thanks very much for joining us on Planetary Radio and congratulations. I don't know exactly when the anniversary took place, but I think, isn't the space exploration initiative five years old about now?

Ariel Ekblaw: Hi Mat. Thank you so much for having me. It's absolutely a delight to be on the show with you and yes, you did hit it on the mark, we are five years old. We just passed the anniversary in May and then really celebrated this September at the return of the fall term for MIT.

Mat Kaplan: Then congratulations, indeed. The very first line in your introduction to the book that I've already mentioned, which we will spend most of our time talking about, is this, "We stand at the cusp of interplanetary civilization." Is that belief behind not just this book, but the entire institute?

Ariel Ekblaw: It really is Mat. I think it really is. And we have this immense set of opportunities, but also responsibilities, which is why we use the term Anthropocosmos, to hearken back to the anthropo scene and our understanding as humans, of the role that we've had in the earth system for good and for bad. Now as we understand it certainly in the context of cop 26 and climate change discussions going on this fall, but our use of the term Anthropocosmos is to communicate this mix of the grand opportunity, standing at the cusp of interplanetary civilization, what this will look like for the artifacts and the technologies that we build at MIT and want to bring along with us, but also the responsibilities as space citizens, as we venture out further beyond earth.

Mat Kaplan: Is part of this then to build... Not to quote other science fiction that is currently underway. A foundation for this new society that expands across the universe, across the cosmos?

Ariel Ekblaw: As a true foundation fan, I might have to wink it, you over audio and say, well, not just one foundation, but there are two.

Mat Kaplan: Oh, yes, of course.

Ariel Ekblaw: Now sadly we do not yet. We do not yet have a twin for the space exploration initiative, but we do have many wonderful sister organizations, actually around the US and around the world now. But yes, this is a moment of foundation building. There's so much precedent setting, that's about to be done in this decade, as we return to the surface of the moon, in a really big way, lots of stakeholders eyeing, activity on the moon. As we think about, urban planning at planetary scale. What does it mean as we are about to see a proliferation of commercial space habitats, in lower earth orbit, and then eventually, pushing out towards Mars and human settlement on the surface of Mars even as we, know that Elon Musk and others are already pushing us towards. So there's very much a sense of foundational precedent setting, in our work.

Mat Kaplan: And I suspect that if you did have a second foundation, and told me about it, you'd probably have to kill me, for you Isaac Asamo fans out there. Let's turn to, and this is going to be a recurring theme as well. Since I have discovered that we are both proud trekkies. You also mentioned here and there, up in the front of the book, Gene Roddenberry, and in this particular case, wanting to create his concept of, at least a piece of his concept of star fleet academy, is that also what you hope the SCI, might be, a first step toward?

Ariel Ekblaw: This is very much our north star long vision goal. And part of it is because, Star Fleet Academy was where the space cadets go to learn. And we are anchored at MIT building provocative, next generation space technology. This is where we are learning, but it was also where the technology of the enterprise was built. And so in addition to the classes and the academic approach to aerospace, which MIT has had an incredibly storied history of over the last several decades, we are also building the, artifacts of our sci-fi space future. We take an incredibly creative community. The space exploration initiative is unique, in that it unites scientists and engineers like our selves. I'm trained as a scientist, but also artists and designers and philosophers, into this community of designers and builders, that helps us realize, a really richly envisioned future, for life in space. And we are very much inspired by that Star Fleet Academy mentality of inclusivity, creativity, a certain bonding between the team and this special place of learning and real life, building for our sci-fi space future.

Mat Kaplan: I think that five minutes into this conversation, people can already hear the optimism in your voice. And that brings up yet another Gene Roddenberry concept of principled optimism, which you also address at the top of the book.

Ariel Ekblaw: We do. And we try to tackle this head on because we're coming out of the media lab, the media lab at MIT has this reputation for being very techno optimist, and that has its downsides. As we've seen in society over the last few decades, there are some technologies that can be used for ill. They're well-meaning technologies that get misused, and it is worthwhile being thoughtful, upfront about the different impacts that our technological devices, and contributions might have. And so we are profound optimist. I really do believe in a bright future for humanity, and in our own ability to solve and navigate this as we go. But we are trying to be thoughtful from the outset, and this sense of, Roddenberry's principled optimism really speaks to us, concepts like the prime directive, that there are certain, ethical responsibilities to being a space faring species.

Ariel Ekblaw: And that's something that we try to work into our day to day artifacts, in one particular way, by saying, "As grand as it is, to have this incredible privilege to be at MIT, working on, the artifacts of our sci-fi space future, we should also be making sure, that our work in the long tradition of NASA spinoffs, can be brought back down to concretely benefit life on earth." So, the work of space design for everyday life on earth. One of my projects that we might talk about a little bit later, my PhD research looked at modular architecture. Yes, my passion, is to use that for space habitats in microgravity, but we're also building the system out so that it could serve areas torn by natural disasters as quick, modular [inaudible 00:09:19] shelter. And so a lot of our projects have this duality in them around this notion of like you said, principled optimism.

Mat Kaplan: Someone who said this very well, is I think a mutual friend, someone who's been heard on Planetary Radio, many times. The astronaut and artist, Nicole Scott, who actually, her blurb for the book contains this, "This book reminds us that the best solutions for overcoming the challenges of settling space, far from our home planet, are the ones that ultimately improve life on it."

Ariel Ekblaw: Yes.

Mat Kaplan: That's nicely put.

Ariel Ekblaw: It is nicely put. And Nicole is an incredible a source of inspiration for us. She is known as the artist astronaut, proving to so many humans that you can embody both sides of this coin. She's incredibly technical skilled, respected as this, Vanguard of human talent as an astronaut, but also embodies the creative spirit and the ability to as art in space, she actually directly inspired a project that just flew on our last zero gravity flight. I charter as her a zero gravity flight every year for the media lab in may a watercolor kit, that will actually be able to produce that more people can experience, Nicole's amazing, habit of doing watercolor paintings in orbit.

Mat Kaplan: We're going to talk about more of the projects. Some that stood out for me, in this book, which covers so many of them, but I want to hear a little bit more about the initiative first. Is it most properly thought of as a subset of the fabled MIT media lab or? What is the structure?

Ariel Ekblaw: It's a great question. So that's certainly how it started. We were a band of space hackers, so graduate students, that all shared a real enthusiasm for space. It's really no surprise to most people probably, that there are a lot of space nerds at MIT. But over the years, as we grew in this group, really grassroots movement building within the media lab for appreciation of space. And now the space exploration initiative is really a launchpad, pun very much intended, across multiple departments at MIT. So we support parabolic flights every year, launch opportunities to the International Space Station, mentorship for projects, all kinds of different outreach. And we do this in supportive graduate students and undergrads, whether are in the Aero Astro Department or the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department, or now of course in our home base at the media lab.

Mat Kaplan: I am so envious of those, young and youngish people who get to work with you, whose work is documented in this book. How many people are actually involved in the initiative as you reach out across all these departments?

Ariel Ekblaw: I have amazing staff, team of about 10 people that work with me directly. And we support, now over 60 graduate students, staff and faculty. We're almost at our 100th payload mark. We'll probably hit that at the end of this year. So having supported over a hundred payloads to either fly in zero gravity on the vomit comet as it's affectionately known, or actually to space. And in addition to all of the graduate students that we support, we felt really early on that we, needed to be sharing these resources. It's really an amazing privilege to be at MIT. But in addition to offering these technology building and flight deployment opportunities within the Institute, we do international open calls.

Ariel Ekblaw: So one of our arts curator, one of our staff members in the last year hosted nine different artists, to place special talismans and objects to one of our payloads that went to space. Another two students, Maya Nasser, and Lydia Zang at MIT, have just developed their take on a part two golden record, that they would like to collect voices from all around the world. Messages of hope, responding to the pandemic and this, collective trauma that the world has gone through over the last two years, and send those voices to be played on this record on the International Space Station. So those are just a couple examples of international open calls, where we try to really share access to, these sets of opportunities.

Mat Kaplan: And since you have video, which our audience can't see, you can probably see the part one golden record, sitting behind me in front of that [crosstalk 00:13:37].

Ariel Ekblaw: I do. On your file tour. Yes, indeed.

Mat Kaplan: To get into the book a bit more, Into The Anthropocosmos, full name, A Whole Space Catalog from the Space Exploration Initiative. There's an obvious tip of the hat of the space helmet here, toward Brand, the great Stewart Brand and his whole earth catalog, which I'm sure was entirely intentional. In fact, I think he's mentioned in the book.

Ariel Ekblaw: It was indeed. And, we have many of these references as you've raised, we really are standing on the shoulders of giants, whether it's ideas from Roddenberry, prior art at NASA, or the Stewart Brands of the world, this is a hat tip to Stewart Brand. He of course, petitioned NASA to release the first whole image of the earth, which he later put on, two subsequent versions, the front covers of his whole earth catalog. And what we'd loved about that was this appreciation of the way that that image, sparked the environmental movement in the United States, in the sixties and seventies. Sparked so much of an appreciation for the fragility of our planet and the specialness of earth as a blue marble. And so we wanted to say, even with this book back to our discussion of principle optimism, we're building for the future. We're building for space, but we're anchored or grounded in an appreciation for earth and earth citizens, and very much a tip of the hat to Stewart and the whole earth catalog community through that.

Mat Kaplan: In your introduction to the book, it introduces a diagram, created by someone named Neri Oxman. Do I have that right? I hope.

Ariel Ekblaw: You do.

Mat Kaplan: I hope that we can get permission from you to reproduce that on the show page for this week's episode, planetary.org/radio. If not, people can just get the book. But you know the one I'm talking about, it has four quadrants, art, science, design, engineering, which have already been reflected in what you've told us, but are reflected in almost all of these projects in some ways, all four of those,

Ariel Ekblaw: This diagram that Neri develops. So first of all, Neri is in a huge source of inspiration. She was one of our, leading lights at the media lab, a tenured professor here. And she captures the magic of the media lab. We are a single institution, but instead of being a physics department where all of, the subgroups, the PIs are going to have their different expertises in fields of physics. We have artists sitting next to architects, sitting next to biologists. Their lab benches are right next to one another. And it's that Cinderella moment that Neri describes when these different four disciplines as she has put them into this quadrant can really come together, and begin to influence each other. And it's a profoundly realized version of what we mean when we say inter-disciplinarians. This is what the media lab really brings together. And it's what we hope to capture in the spirit of the creative design work that we do for the technology and the artifacts that we build at the initiative.

Mat Kaplan: Hadn't occurred to be before. But to bring a bit more pop culture into this, Walt Disney had his Imagineers, who I've known a couple of them, and they took kind of the same approach to develop, all that stuff you can ride on at Disney World.

Ariel Ekblaw: It's so true. And if Bob Iger is listening to this, I would love to work with Disney on, experiences for the moon. We actually have a long relationship with the Imagineers. We've had many of them come to the media lab. We set some students there. So there is very much a kindred spirit between the two institutions.

Mat Kaplan: Back to your introduction. It introduces four core approaches to what must be a central core or a theme all around this phrase, democratizing access to space exploration. Do you mean that to be applied as broadly as it sounds? Making space, a democratic resource?

Ariel Ekblaw: We really do. We really do. And the reason that I try to break it down, is it's such a big term. It can feel too vague to be useful, but when you actually think about the mechanisms that we have control over by which we can open access to space, you begin to realize the possibility to transform this from the realm of just a few people get to go, or just a few nations, get to decide what the future of spaces is, into a realm that really is in the spirit of the 1967 outer space treaty, the province of all, as I would say it now, humankind. The province of all humankind. And so, the ways in which we democratize access to space, one is by trying to bring new disciplines, to the field.

Ariel Ekblaw: So we've talked about how we really honor and incorporate art and design and philosophy into our work, in addition to science and engineering. The other is very concrete. It's about outreach and diversity. It's about honoring D, E and I, diversity equity and inclusion and building teams of people, that reflect the rich tapestry of people that we have on earth. And therefore having a more diverse and interesting set of opinions and design decisions, as we build out these human experiences and tools and products for life in space.

Mat Kaplan: Let's start talking about what makes up the bulk of the content of this book, these little descriptions in a couple of pages and some well chosen illustrations, of these various projects that have been undertaken by all these people you've supported within the initiative. I guess they come under this grand umbrella of yet another wonderful phrase from the beginning of the book, artifacts of the future.

Ariel Ekblaw: Indeed. So the book pulls together, an example of our repertoire. So, many different projects that we've supported over the first five years. This book really was a celebration of our fifth year anniversary. And each project highlights the creators. So we gave credit to as many collaborators as we possibly can because we really want, the spirit of the SEI as this band of... As Stewart would say, "Band of Neri Pranksters. Band of space hackers." To be honored all of the many undergraduates graduate students, faculty, staff, that contribute to each project. It really does take quite the team to get a project to space. And as you said, we also parrot, in this almost art gallery exhibition style way with a beautiful illustration, a really, high resolution photograph or drawing, because we want them to pop off the page. We want these artifacts of our future, to seem and show how real they are to an audience that's reading and enjoying the book.

Mat Kaplan: It is a beautifully produced book. We should add that as well. In addition to its fascinating content. There's just one more quote I want to bring up, before we dive into, some of the projects and we'll only get to a handful of them. And it's from Katie Coleman. Yet another astronaut who was a guest, not very many weeks ago on Planetary Radio. She closes her forward by saying, "She expects readers will find projects that immediately resonate with them and others that make them, hesitate." Katie then asks us to check our skepticism for a moment and just enjoy the ride. I don't really have to check my skepticism much. I'm a big fan of these kinds of bleeding edge efforts, including the NIAC work that is done by NASA. That I bet you're familiar with.

Ariel Ekblaw: Indeed.

Mat Kaplan: But, I can certainly see what she's getting at there. Some of these efforts that you document are... Shall we say fanciful?

Ariel Ekblaw: They're quirky and that's the idea, that's the magic of the media lab, is we used to say that we work on magic and mischief, and we get away with a lot of provocative projects that would be hard to get traditional NASA funding for, for example, or hard to get academic funding for. And that's why it can happen at the media lab. And I do think it's important that Katie had that sentiment in there because, within the space industry, there's a long tradition of freely needing to justify ourselves for the congressional budget, right? Everything at NASA's poured over, we really need to be honoring and respectful of the fact that it's taxpayer dollars. In this case, in a academic setting, privately funded, we have, various opportunities to explore the wild side of the future of space. And we are really excited to be able to support graduate students, to take their ideas in some wacky directions.

Mat Kaplan: Wacky. And there are too many that I would describe as wacky, but they sure are fun. Pretty much all of them. Let me start diving into those. And the first one that I want to bring up is the very first one that's listed in the book. It's another tip of the hat or tip of the space helmet to David Bowie because it's called ZG Stardust or Ziggy Stardust.

Ariel Ekblaw: Indeed. So this is a Neri Oxman original. Came out of Neri's group mediated matter. This is a great example of how the space initiative operates. We are supporting these individual lab groups out in the world with their concept, and this project brought, silkworms onto the parabolic flight to explore the novel fabrication of material in microgravity. So we studied, or the students studied, how the silkworms reacted to this novel and strange environment, how their spinning and weaving patterns differed. And of course, like so much of Neri beautiful work, this profound callback to Ziggy Stardust, and a cultural touchpoint, as we're thinking about the creation of new cultural artifacts for space.

Ariel Ekblaw: I think another project that highlights us so beautifully is Telemetron, which is a series of musical instruments that Sans Fish and Nicole Juer. And I'll just call out Sans here and say, thank you to him because he was also the book's designer and producer, did a fabulous job, but Sana and Nicole pulled in this notion of, instead of always taking artifacts from earth and carrying them up with us into space, we will begin to want to design cultural artifacts native to space.

Ariel Ekblaw: And so they designed musical instruments that could only be played in microgravity. They won't make the same sounds or the same noises in a terrestrial environment. And so like Ziggy Stardust and Telemetron are so interested in this forming of new cultural artifacts for space.

Mat Kaplan: That's wonderful. When I think about out silk worms, a parabolic flight, a zero G flight, you only get a few seconds of course, of micro gravity. And I know you've done many of these flights, as part of the initiative, but I know that you're also looking forward to getting substantially longer time in zero G or microgravity. Aren't you working with some of the companies that we all hear about?

Ariel Ekblaw: We do indeed. So we are really quite lucky to work with ABEVI of new space aid startup companies. Nanaracks is one of our close partners. They've integrated several payloads for us to the International Space Station. We fly on a SpaceX rocket. We've worked with Blue Origin for suborbital tests on their new shepherd platform. And these are increasing duration of time opportunity, to really go from the 15 or 20 seconds of this beautiful wait list, parabolic earth that you get on the parabolic flights to three minutes of sustained microgravity, during the coast period on a new shepherd suborbital rocket, to days or months, or even years at a time, depending on how you can book the payload space on the International Space Station. And we have had the immense privilege of working across all of those different platforms. And I will tell you, Mat, that we have our eyes set on the moon, within the next couple years as well.

Mat Kaplan: Wow. Something else to look forward to. Let's go on to another one of these and this and caught my eye, but it also caught the eye of my wife because it just seemed the applications potentially, for the less able on earth, really jumped out at her. You call it... the creators call it, space human. Tell us about it.

Ariel Ekblaw: So this is the brainchild of Valentina Samini, a former postdoc with the MIT media lab, and now currently a research affiliate. She is a space architect and amazing designer, and she worked with a visiting student, Manuel [Musito 00:25:59] from Rome, to design a prosthetic pneumatic actuated tail. So one of the interesting incites that Katie Coleman as our astronaut mentor taught us in the early days of the space initiative, was that astronauts legs, are really terribly overpowered, right? So you can just push off with the lightest feather touch in the International Space Station and you'll zoom across the chamber. And so instead of the strength of legs, what astronauts really wanted was a third hand. They wanted some way to stabilize themselves while still having both hands available. And so Valentina took interesting forms of inspiration from the sea, from sea horses, from other creatures that have interesting tales and ultimately designed this system, where the tail is able to articulate and reach around behind her and grapple onto something, in the current incarnation.

Ariel Ekblaw: Of course, we're still improving and iterating on the prototype. She's even worked with some of our staff engineers to add a camera on the tip of it so that it can do image detection and a little bit of computer vision processing, to better help it grapple. The idea being that this is a prosthetic for space. Now, when you mentioned the promise of less able bodied people, also being able to participate, we just had the immense pleasure of collaborating with the AstroAccess team for another zero gravity flight this fall. So this is a new non-profit. George Whitesides and Anne Kapusta are working on this amazing project and they've announced it, that we had their flight. We flew with them, for ambassadors who are blind, deaf, or have mobility challenges, to actively be able to participate in the future of space flight.

Ariel Ekblaw: And this tale is one of the projects that we might look at in the future as we continue to partner with the AstroAccess team, and think about how we can really turn what are sometimes thought of as disabilities, into hyper abilities or, diverse abilities as Dana Bowles would say, in the context of really widening access to space flight.

Mat Kaplan: I am so glad that you brought up AstroAccess, because I live not too far from UC San Diego, where the Arthur C. Clark center for the imagination is, and those folks have been on the show. And I saw that Eric Veary, was the regular sort of medical officer on those flights for AstroAccess, and must have been thrilling. Of course, he was also there when a certain well known, late physicist also got to experience zero G.

Ariel Ekblaw: I'm assuming you're saying Stephen Hawking, yes.

Mat Kaplan: I am indeed. Yes. And I had the perfect almost karmic introduction to bringing up space human yesterday, because I was at the San Diego zoo watching the monkeys with their long tales.

Ariel Ekblaw: There you go.

Mat Kaplan: Perfect though. Ariel Ekblaw will take us through more projects from her colleagues at the space exploration initiative in less than a minute. By the way, if you like what you're hearing, check out all the links on this week's episode page at planetary.org/radio

Sarah: From missions arriving at Mars to new frontiers and human flight. 2021 has been an exciting year for space science and exploration. Hi, I'm Sarah, Digital Community Manager for The Planetary Society. What were your favorite moments? You can cast your vote right now at planetary.org/best of 2021, and help choose the year's best space images, mission milestones, memes, and more. That's planetary.org/bestof2021. Thanks.

Mat Kaplan: How about tasting menu in zero G? There are a perhaps surprising number of these projects documented into the Anthropocosmos, which have to do with taste, with food.

Ariel Ekblaw: So this is our space gastronomy maestro, Maggie Copelands. She came to MIT with an expertise in food for extreme environments, and she has really single handedly built up this incredible program, around fermentation. So shelf stable, gut healthy, probiotic foods with much better umami, right? We'd all rather be eating kimchi and space meso, than freeze dried food for a deep duration space mission to Mars.

Mat Kaplan: Of course.

Ariel Ekblaw: And she has been exploring the, nutritional and health focused aspects of food, but also the cultural aspects of food, and the mental health and wellbeing that we can associate with this gustatory experiences that so many of us treasure on earth. And this tasting menu explored different sensory, opportunities for the palette. So pop rocks or champagne, it explored traditional cultural practices, like [inaudible 00:30:38], the sauteing of onions and that smell that we smell, and we begin to salivate as we anticipate a meal.

Mat Kaplan: You're making me hungry.

Ariel Ekblaw: Yes, indeed. Maggie would, if she was here too, she's just an incredible, an incredible ambassador for this work. She's actually in the Arctic, as we speak, in Svalbard doing an analog scouting mission for us, in another extreme environment. She's a incredible, incredible researcher. And this tasting menu, was something that she had explored as a way of, A, finding out how we can eat comfortably in a zero G environment without crumbs, going everywhere, a big concern for the international space station. And then also just explore the enjoyment and the pleasure of the different variety foods that she is developing for the future of deep space missions.

Mat Kaplan: Is it Maggie, that we see in the illustration that goes with this project Tasting Menu. That has her head inside what looks like a-

Ariel Ekblaw: Bubble.

Mat Kaplan: Plastic bubble, right? Exactly.

Ariel Ekblaw: Indeed. That was a compromise with the zero G corporation team, with the zero G company who flies the flights to say, they didn't want small particulates of food, becoming loose in the plane. And so Maggie designed herself a aesthetically delightful space helmet, and this almost like a little lazy Susan, that she could inside the space helmet, be able to access, to try out these different flavors. And for that flight, we actually had the great pleasure of flying with Nicola Twilley, a gastronomy expert, she ended up writing a article for us on the cover of Wired that year, about what will we eat, on the journey to Mars? And Maggie was featured in that story.

Mat Kaplan: All right, the next one also has a food angle, but it goes beyond that. Green Oasis, which I chose largely because I love the image, the created environment that is displayed in the book. It looks like, it would be a lovely Oasis from, your time on the red planet.

Ariel Ekblaw: There are several aspects that go into this project. So this was a team project at MIT. Valentina, who we talked about before Samini was part of this team and has contributed the project to the book. And it was their conception of a greenhouse for a space habitat, planetary surface, structure. It is really a stunning reminder of the biophilia and the power that being in a, a nature scene can have over the human psyche, and the importance of thinking about how do we prepare the technology platform. So the water filtration, the humidity, the nature of the environment, to support spaces like this, to support greenhouses, whether we're in orbit or are on the future of a planetary surface. Valentina also worked on some of this project with Trish, the NASA funded translational research Institute for space health.

Ariel Ekblaw: Another one of our great partners led by Derek [Denovio 00:33:31], and they have supported a series of projects within the space exploration initiative, looking at the future health and wellbeing of Astronauts. And yes, you hear that, and you think, okay, radiation, space suits, health tech wearables, but an environment like a greenhouse, the green oasis can have mental health benefits, in addition to the nutritional benefits that it would develop if we were actually able to grow space food in that greenhouse as well.

Mat Kaplan: Trish, do I have it right? Is that the program that's based at Baylor?

Ariel Ekblaw: They are indeed. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mat Kaplan: We have several more to go through here. And another one that I picked largely because of its beautiful illustration, but also, because it says something about learning from the past, including the past history of architecture and, and what has worked in terms of creating structures down here on the surface of earth, it's called Persian Domes.

Ariel Ekblaw: So this was actually an inspired project from an intern, that came and joined the SCI for a summer, advised by Valentina Sumini, who we mentioned a couple times now. But Masa the graduate student was a master student in a space architecture program based out of Houston at the time. She's now a space architect in her own right, and a collaborator and a colleague in the industry. She came to us, she is Iranian, with this passion, for learning and built and incorporating heritage, architectural built environment, heritage from her culture, into the future of space exploration. And I think this is why it's so important when we think about democratizing access to space, and the voices that we do welcome into the creative practice, because it's a stunning project. As you mentioned, looking at the renderings that they did, thinking about the structural considerations for a Persian bathhouse inspired dome on Mars.

Ariel Ekblaw: It really sparks the imagination for different ways that we can both protect humans in an extreme environment, but still delight them in the way that we do with architecture on earth. And I think that's a little bit of what we're missing right now with space architecture and that for good reason, we've been so focused on the survivalist mentality that we have stayed for a very long time with a very particular paradigm of what architecture looks like in space, the International Space Station, pressure cylinders, cylindrical objects. It is time for us to push the boundary a little bit and think about architecture that can delight humans for the future of our interplanetary civilization.

Mat Kaplan: And it is just such a romantic notion to think of a structure like this existing elsewhere in the solar system that has a heritage going back to ancient Persia.

Ariel Ekblaw: I think that would be a worthy foundation twin, right? To be thinking of in our own incarnation.

Mat Kaplan: Indeed. Here's one because we, of course love CubeSat at The Planetary Society, like our own light sale. It's called block sat. So that might have been enough to get it mentioned, but it's the thinking behind this little one unit CubeSat, 10 by 10 by 10, at least in the illustration centimeter, satellite. That it is shared use and rentable, what is meant by this?

Ariel Ekblaw: As we've been tracking the surge activity around CubeSats, and small satellites in space, we have realized that space operators for the most part are still very vertically integrated. You tend to build your own hardware. You have to have your own ground operations. You have to pay for your own launch. You have to be able to actually take care of the communication and the output from the satellite while you're in orbit. There are many institutions that would really benefit from access, to sensors or cameras or different data, taking opportunities in orbit, but necessarily have the wherewithal or the means to do that entire, vertically integrated stack. And so what we can do with block sat, and we're excited to continue working on this project over a few years now, is design a multipurpose CubeSat platform with as many different sensors and imaging devices and computational units, as we can possibly fit into this bus, and then make it dynamically rentable, shareable.

Ariel Ekblaw: Now there's interesting challenges here with how do you negotiate from conflicting time slots or different needs that might point the satellite in one direction, or the other. So a change in attitude control. And yet we realized there's a long tradition of expensive, shared use scientific instruments like at CERN, the particle Collider in Switzerland, or the big telescopes in the [inaudible 00:38:07], and the mechanism that we think might be an interesting tool for controlling smart contracts on this platform, would be something like a blockchain. It does not need to be the Bitcoin blockchain. It does not need to be a fad, technology and along those lines. But it certainly can be inspired by this impressive new suite of, blockchain technologies that have come out in recent years, distributed ledger technologies.

Mat Kaplan: What's the status of block sat. Have any of these made it up into space yet? Or is that in the offering?

Ariel Ekblaw: We are still expanding the platform. So you mentioned one U, I think that is the version that's in the book. We're actually now thinking about three U because the more capability that we want to be able to have it be as broad use as we possibly can. So it is of interest to the most users, once it's actually in orbit, means that we actually need to expand the size of the hardware. So we are back to the drawing board to try to reconfigure, how we will fit these different subsystems in.

Mat Kaplan: What strikes me about this. Any one of these that we've already talked about is that we could have spent an hour, talking just about each of these projects, perhaps bringing their creators on as well, which would've been fascinating, but, since our time is limited, I'll go on to another one that also caught my eye, partly because it stood out, as compared to many of the others, indigenous cosmologies, which I've always been fascinated by. The plethora of cosmologies developed by cultures, across time and across our planet, what makes them unique and also what they share. And I saw some of that in this.

Ariel Ekblaw: And I love that you picked this project to talk about because while so many of the others are embodied artifacts, technologies, or pieces of hardware or prototypes, this is a narrative based project. And that's something that we also explore within the space initiative is, art and, and culture making. Now the notion behind this project was a really deep and abiding respect for the fact that so many cultures have had their own cosmologies, their stories of the stars, their mythologies for the creation of life. Something that really caught our eye early on is that the Luritja people of central Australia believed that life was brought to the earth on asteroids. So asteroids have actually hit an impact. And of course, we had seen with NASA data in the past that there might be amino acids on fragments of space material. And so it's a really fascinating interplay between modern science and ancient cultural heritage and ancient knowledge.

Ariel Ekblaw: And we wanted to find some way to infuse the modern space industry, with some of the storied history and cultural knowledge of these different societies. And so very importantly, with their consent, because not every society is comfortable with their, mythology or cosmology being used in the future of the space industry, but with the consent of certain communities that are interested to engage in this project, we're hoping to draw out certain principles of life, certain principles from these different stories of the stars, and eventually incorporate, these stories into astronaut training, especially as the ranks of astronauts really grow, over the coming decade so that our representatives from earth, our ambassadors that are going out, being our space fairing species, have a deep understanding of a breadth of what space means for humanity, not just what it means to, developed world nations, first world nations that are, often at the forefront of space technology. We really want it to be an inclusive and kind of deeply meaningful project.

Mat Kaplan: And I think it would be sad. I think something so important would be lost if we didn't bring these ancient stories, ancient histories, ancient cosmologies, along with us as we actually head out.

Ariel Ekblaw: It's part of who we are, it makes us human. It really ties us back to a deep sense of what captures our soul and our imagination. When we look up at the sky and we think, now, maybe in our generation, we will get to go, but our ancestors have been looking up and wondering for thousands of years, it is I think a really lovely, a lovely project that ties ancient and modern together.

Mat Kaplan: I won't say that I saved the best for last, but it does happen to be one of your projects. One that you have been a big part of. Tell us about Tesaray.

Ariel Ekblaw: Ah, well thank you for asking. This is asking a parent to wax poetically about their child, it's easy to do. This was my PhD research at the media lab, co-advised by AeroAstro. And my idea was to take this notion of building grand space architecture. How do we enable the ring worlds of science fiction, the grand space stations that we see in 2001 space odysey, and allow ourselves to build them, in the very real setting of congressional budget whims and administrations that change space priorities and make it hard to ever, get the cost sync behemoth funding for a mega structure, at scale. And so what I developed was a modular habitat concept. I have dubbed it, Tesaray very much inspired ancient Roman mosaics, and the small glass tiles that comprise of mosaic that make up a hole that is bigger than the sum of its parts.

Ariel Ekblaw: So I create these tiles pentagons and hexagons, and you can pack them flat, for their right to orbit. So they pack very condensed within the rocket. Once they're released in an orbiting micro gravity environment, they have powerful magnets on their edges, that draw the tiles in towards one another, and click, click, click, click into place. I'm just stipulating with my hands here for folks that can't see me forming a, bucky ball. Very much inspired by Buckminster Fuller. Again, tying back to many different historical notions of spaceship earth and his sense of principled optimism. But these Bucky ball shapes are formed from tiles. And that fundamentally allows us to build space architecture, that is bigger than our biggest rocket payload faring.

Ariel Ekblaw: And not only can you build larger scale structures, unlike inflatable habitats, which also have that principle, you can reconfigure them. So if you had a coupler there yesterday and tomorrow, you're going to have a conference in space, then you need a docking port and, an airlock, you can depressurize the structure, pop off a tile and pop on a new tile. It's that combination of large scale growth and re-configurability that really captured my interest as a PhD student. And we have been working on, miniaturized and now ever larger incarnations of that hardware.

Mat Kaplan: I suspect Bucky would be very proud, tensegrity indeed. A big part of this. And it's really, I suppose, what is behind the book, which is a celebration as well, is sharing all of these concepts, all of these projects, you said it's central to what you do. The book certainly achieves that, but I wonder if also, this annual event that you do, also does this and brings in new ideas.

Ariel Ekblaw: This really is at the founding spirit, of the space initiative. We want to communicate as Katie Coleman. So beautifully said in the forward, that space is meant for everyone. Space is for all of us. And the event that we run every year in March, we live stream it to the public. So anyone who hears about it on this podcast can join in. It's called Beyond The Cradle. And this is a reference to Constantine [Takoski 00:45:37], who had this famous quote about the earth being the cradle of humanity and beyond the cradle, is our event approach to bringing together the creative minds that will, co-design the future of space exploration. So we bring together astronauts, CEOs of leading space companies, but we also bring in Neil Stevenson and sci-fi authors, and Hollywood producers like JJ Abrams, to knit together this interesting future, that we hope to really realize as soon as possible.

Ariel Ekblaw: We're impatient, we want this to be real and our lifetimes, and this is an event that we really try to make very much open and accessible. With COVID it's been hard as so many people have, experienced trying to gather in the real world, but we are going to host it again, this March. Small in person crowd, but very much open online.

Mat Kaplan: I sure look forward to joining you.

Ariel Ekblaw: You would love to have you out, Mat.

Mat Kaplan: Thank you. I want to go back to Tesaray for a moment. You said it was your PhD project. Did its development also play a role in leading you to create, the initiative, the space exploration initiative?

Ariel Ekblaw: It really did. So this is the founding story of the space initiative, which is I was a graduate student at the media lab. I had, through a trick of fate, found myself here instead of say the AeroAstro department, another amazing department at MIT. And I was learning on my own, how to gather resources, for an aerospace PhD, at a place that was very interdisciplinary, and had not really touched space at that time. So I came to the media lab in 2015. And as I began to learn how to meet astronauts, and how to engage with them and how does one, raise money to be able to have a payload that goes to orbit. I began to realize that I wasn't the only one, that might be interested in these resources and that we could really share a co-development of capacity here at the media lab for doing space exploration, with more students.

Ariel Ekblaw: And so, one afternoon in May of 2016, I walked every floor of the media lab, went around and met a bunch of my graduate student peers. And I basically asked them, "If you had an opportunity to do what you're doing now, your biology, your architecture project, your robotics project, but in space, would you like to do that?" And no surprise, a lot of people at MIT love space. And the answer was a resounding yes. And so we banded together and began building this organization is a really grassroots endeavor. And it has just absolutely taken off beyond our wildest dreams in the last five years.

Mat Kaplan: I'm just thinking of you circling that building and the phrase, the piper of principled optimism comes to mind. It is a marvelous achievement, the initiative, and the projects that are represented in this terrific book. I highly recommend it. And I'm very happy to say, Ariel, that we're going to give away a copy during the What's Up segment, that's going to be following in just a few moments, as part of our weekly space trivia contest. But, you may not win the contest. Only one person gets to do that, but as of October 12th, you'll be able to find into the Anthropocosmos, A Whole Space Catalog from the space exploration initiative, from MIT press, probably from all the usual places. We've been talking to the founder and director of the space exploration initiative at MIT, Ariel Ekblaw, thank you so much. I love your vision, I love your principled optimism. And I look forward to talking again.

Ariel Ekblaw: Mat, thank you so much. It's such an honor to engage with The Planetary Society. It's been a huge part of my childhood and now my adulthood. So thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Mat Kaplan: It is time again for What's Up on Planetary Radio. So here is Bruce Betts, the chief scientist of The Planetary Society. Welcome and happy Thanksgiving since you and I are about, 24 hours away from Turkey Day here in the US.

Bruce Betts: And happy Thanksgiving to you as well, Mat. I am thankful for you and all of our listeners. I can't say things, and that sounds sarcastic, I'm sorry. I really mean it.

Mat Kaplan: I know you were sincere with that. But now you can talk about the night sky and be as sarcastic as you like.

Bruce Betts: Oh, the night sky. The planet's just stink right now. There's nothing interesting. If you look over in the west after sunset, it is unlikely, you're going to see super bright Venus, and above it to its upper left, yellowish Saturn, and that pesky bright Jupiter all in a line, getting closer over the coming weeks. All right, I'm kidding. It's wonderful, it's spectacular. I go out every evening to check it out. In the pre dawn though, we can complain about Mars because Mars, I looked ahead. Mars is hanging out low on the horizon in the pre dawn east. Man, it just hangs out there for the next several months. So if you've got a clear view to the horizon, just eat up Mars. But if you don't, Mars will be back someday. And finally for our listeners in the Southern Atlantic ocean, and portions of Antarctica, there'll be a total solar eclipse on December 4th. So check it out. And they'll be partial in the Southern portions of continents down that direction.

Mat Kaplan: I missed the partial lunar eclipse. That was largely a complete. I mean at 97%, I heard, that max, if you were lucky. I just didn't get up. But then I heard the next day that there was a lot of cloud cover in our area anyway, and I probably wouldn't have been able to see it. Did you catch it?

Bruce Betts: I did. I was up working late. Got some nice pictures of it, with the plea at ease. It's still got that bright rim because it wasn't fully totaled. So you didn't miss anything, Mat. It stunk, it was terrible. Let's move on to this weekend's space history. Three years ago, 2018, the insight lander landed on Mars to start doing geophysics on Mars. And it's still grooving along. Onto, random space fact. I'm not excited about this, Mat. It's more sarcasm. You've been thinking lately about the center of the earth, 'cause maybe you should because the center of the earth is as hot or hotter, than the surface or really the photosphere of the sun. Center of the earth hotter, as hotter, hotter than the surface of the sun.

Mat Kaplan: That's not true. According to Oni [Saknesen 00:52:15] who said that against all theory, it actually gets cooler as you go down, which is why you can find entire oceans and dinosaurs and things like that. Did you ever read journey to the center of the earth? It's a great book.

Bruce Betts: I did it. It had some minor scientific flaws.

Mat Kaplan: But it was a great adventure.

Bruce Betts: It was a great adventure, and there's a lovely movie with Brendan Fraser and then some kind of thing with the rock.

Mat Kaplan: I only saw the old version, which was... They took it so properly too seriously. By the way, great random space fact.

Bruce Betts: Oh, thank you. Let's get onto some great trivia. Well, some kind of positive negative somber trivia in the end. I asked you who is the first Soviet cosmonaut, to fly two orbital space missions? How'd we do in that?

Mat Kaplan: We got a, a nice response to this. And of course everybody pointed out the good news, bad news, aspect of this question. Got this from Robert Mayor, in Idaho, he says, "This has to be one of the saddest trivia contest I've heard. To think he survived the flight, Voskot One with the space suit issues that he ran into, but died on his next flight, when the parachutes failed." And who are we talking about here Bruce?

Bruce Betts: Vladimir Komarov, a Soviet Cosmonaut. He commanded Voskhod One, which was the first spacecraft carrying more than one crew member, had its own issues as referred to there, and became the first Soviet cosmonaut to fly in space twice, and the first to orbit twice when he was the solo person flying on [inaudible 00:53:59] One in its first test flight in a parachute failure, caused a crash that caused him to be unfortunately the first human to die in related to space flight.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah. We heard from a whole bunch of people, including Luca [Resinyo 00:54:16] and, and Laura Dod, that he knew the ship was unsafe. I guess it was common knowledge. So I've read about this. There were a lot of complaints by the other Cosmonauts, but, the regime said, "Nope, got to move forward." And there were lots and lots of problems before the parachutes failed. But a lot of people said he knew the ship was unsafe, but flew anyway to protect his friend Yuri Gagarin. Because I guess Yuri, would've been the one who would've flown on that flight if Vladimir had not. So, particularly sad. Robert Mayer, it's good news for you, because it's your first time win. And that means we're going to be sending you one of those kick asteroid, rubber asteroids from The Planetary Society. So congratulations. Here's some other stuff. Ken Merley in Washington, said that Vladimir was called the professor by his buddies and also the [Deminitive 00:55:10] Volodya by friends, and used call signed Ruby.

Mat Kaplan: Among as many honors, he got a lunar Farside impact crater name for him, sadly, be fitting. "Thank you, Vladimir for your service." Adds, Kent. Darren Richie, before these question, I hadn't realized the Vostok Program was so short lived and that Soviets did not fly until 1967. Definitely puts the space race in better context, given the successes of Gemini. Thanks Bruce. That's Darren thanking you there.

Bruce Betts: You're welcome.

Mat Kaplan: Finally, this from Gene Lewin. Also in Washington. Gallet explorers upon their steeds, risk both life and limb, to push the boundaries and break earth's bonds. Not a simple act or whim. They know the risks and venture forth. Some in the challenge lost. One of these brave intrepid souls Vladimir Komarov.

Bruce Betts: Wow. That's nice.

Mat Kaplan: We're ready for another one of these.

Bruce Betts: You want something a little bit lighter this time, perhaps?, I feel like I brought everyone down while maybe learning some things.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah, please.

Bruce Betts: Okay, here you go. It is time, once again, Mat. Once again to play where in the solar system. So, here's your question. Where in the solar system, and this is always excluding anything that happens to be named this on earth. Where in the solar system, is there a feature named after Dr. Seus? Who by the way, probably was not a real doctor. But I just have to note that. Go to planetary.org/radiocontest.

Mat Kaplan: Look up the wonderful sculpture of Dr. Seus. Theodor Geisel, outside the Geisel library. That looks like a spaceship at UC San Diego, University of California, San Diego. Yeah, look it up. He's got somebody interesting looking over his shoulders. He sits at his, drafting table where he did his work. You have this time until the 1st of December, believe it or not. Wednesday, December 1st at 8:00 AM Pacific time. And you've already heard the prize. You heard me mention it to our wonderful guest today. Ariel Ekblaw, the director, the space exploration initiative at MIT. It's the book that I'm holding up for Bruce right now. And you will get a copy of it, if you are the winner this week. Into The Anthropocosmos, A Whole Space Catalog from the space exploration initiative. With a forward by astronaut Katie Coleman. It's published by MIT press. No surprise there. Good luck.

Bruce Betts: All right, everybody go out there, look up the nice sky and think about little bugs flying around my head. Thank you and goodnight.

Mat Kaplan: That's Bruce Betts with, things always flying around in and outside his head. He's the chief scientist of The Planetary Society, who joins us every week here, for What's Up?

Bruce Betts: Well played sir.

Mat Kaplan: Planetary Radio is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California. And its made possible by its members who know that getting called a space cadet is a high compliment. You can check out our own proto star fleet academy, at planetary.org/join. Mark Hilverda and Jason Davis, are associate producers. Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser. Ad astra.