An Archeology for the Future in Space

A detailed account of the role of “future archeologists” at the Museum of the Future and how they brought to the present a culture from the future.

Fabien Girardin
Design Fictions
Published in
29 min readJul 14, 2022

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Image courtesy of Julian Bleecker and Midjourney

This is the approximate transcript of a conversation between Fabien Girardin (Near Future Laboratory), Simone Rebaudengo (oio) and Fred Scharmen (author of Space Settlements and Space Forces) on applying design fiction to bring to the present a culture from the future. We gathered after the opening of the Dubai’s Museum of the Future to reflect on our contributions and debrief some concepts and objects we prototyped.

That conversation was terribly useful to further refine our practices. We thought that sharing our experience could also inspire other Futures Design practitioners and trigger interest for future collaborations in the space industry or in other domains.

Background

Fabien:

As American writer Ursula K. Le Guin once put it, “The future is a safe, sterile laboratory for trying out ideas in, a means of thinking about reality, a method.” In his 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon, Jules Verne hypothesized light-propelled spacecraft. Today, NASA and the Japanese and European space agencies are actively pursuing research in “solar sails” as a potential low-cost means of moving cargo and people in space. A century after Verne, Stanley Kubrick’s vision of space travel and futurity in 2001: A Space Odyssey would have an enormous influence on the worlds of engineering and industrial design, either anticipating or directly inspiring an array of technologies from touchscreen tablets, flat-screen monitors, and space robotics to, most famously, the use of AI as personal assistant — HAL9000, the forebear to Alexa and Siri.

Now, take a look around you. You’ll probably see a smartphone, a tablet or a laptop, or some other piece of state-of-the-art technology. But keep looking. There are probably also older things from another time — a five-year-old TV atop a vintage table, a Playstation next to a 1960s vase, an iPad in an old leather bag. When imagining futures, we need to understand that this stuff piles up, whether in a favela or in a suburban basement or in a space station. Humans are covetous, sentimental, and resourceful. They cling. And they don’t replace everything with the next new thing. The future is accretive and old stuff doesn’t just disappear.

This observation that contemporary design and technology sits side by side with older artifacts is an essential ingredient of how we design futures at Near Future Laboratory. For the last 10+ years we have refined an approach called design fiction that uses objects to tell stories about the everyday side of the future.

A quick introduction to design fiction by the Near Furture Laboratory.

When Dubai Future Foundation invited us to contribute to the design of their Museum of the Future, we immediately thought about a unique opportunity to mix Dubai’s excellence in showcasing technological discoveries with our particular mindset to think about the future.

Intended as a world-leading incubator for design and innovation, with a direct line to policy makers, the Museum of the Future has been given a mandate to explore the most critical global challenges the planet faces and to reimagine the future that’s coming. Through the incorporation of speculative practices like design fiction, the Museum of the Future translates technological opportunities and warning indicators into something physical and immediately relatable that people can react to.

The Museum of the Future in Dubai

From an initial workshop in 2018 to the opening of the museum in 2022, we were involved in several stages of concept developments and futures design. Under the creative direction of Brendan McGetrick (Museum of the Future) and along with my colleagues at Near Future Laboratory, Israel Viadest, Julian Bleecker and Nicolas Nova, we had the pleasure to collaborate intensively with Simone Rebaudengo (Co-Founder of the OIO creative studio), Fred Scharmen (Associate Professor at Morgan State University, author of Space Settlements and Space Forces), as well as more sporadically with Patrick Pittman and Chris Frey (No Media), David Delgado and Dan Good (Visual Strategists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory), and Galerija 12 future media studio led by Dorijan Kolundžija and Atelier Bruckner responsible for the exhibition design. Along with other stakeholders, we contributed to the creation of Level 5 of the museum, the Orbiting Space Station (OSS) HOPE that takes visitors on an immersive journey to space to experience life in 2071 as a space pioneer.

Besides producing most of the assets and designing the visitor interactions, Galerija 12 instigated the design work with an incredibly detailed foresight scenario that describes how technological developments of clean energy from space starts to give promising results in the environmental restoration of Earth. Technological game changers include nuclear fusion, antimatter production and propulsion, and terraforming among others. In addition, new propulsion technology opens new opportunities for humanity to expand throughout the Solar System, settling new planets, mining asteroids and developing a new space-based economy. This kind of optimistic imagination is part of the Museum of the Future goal to discuss potential futures from a technological perspective and inspire people to positively shape humanity’s next chapter. This is the brief we were given.

Museum of the Future. Level 5. Immersive experience at the Orbiting Space Station HOPE. It is 2071 with hundreds of humans living in orbit. Photo courtesy of TG MEDIA/Museum of the Future.

With Simone Rebaudengo and Fred Scharmen, we imagined technologies not just as a palette of tools, but as a culture. The culture of human behavior, human possibility, and human potential with technologies. We extrapolated weak signals that came from analyzing the background stories of the Space Race, the current private and public initiatives in the space industry and politics, the technological roadmaps, the historical and fictional tools and architecture designed to live in orbit and the potential future worlds depicted in science-fiction books and movies. Our contributions focused on the design of professional gear, personal objects and memorabilia that reveal the culture of life of pioneers with the dreams, fears, triumphs and failures that led to making OSS HOPE. These artifacts celebrate human ingenuity and adaptability in space

Inspirations and weak signals

FABIEN:

During this collaboration, I remember being totally hooked to 13 Minutes to the Moon, a BBC podcast about the Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 missions. Beyond the technological achievements, what really fascinates are all the background stories of space pioneers. Stories that reveal cultures, human cooperation, human adaptation, human interaction with technology. In this podcast you can hear history as it happened through the communication loop: every word, every crackle, the tension, the silences and triumph.

Humans have sustained direct presence in orbit around Earth since the year 2000 through continuously crewing the International Space Station (ISS), and with few interruptions through crewing the space station Mir since the later 1980s. Today, life in orbit has become mundane. Movements, hygiene and food intake are no longer challenges. Astronauts tweet live like any other influencers. Besides running science experiments, they check, maintain and repair the equipment, and go about their everyday lives. The book Interior space. A visual exploration of the international space station beautifully captures the details of how life in orbit takes place as in another accretive space.

View of Port Hatch into Node 3, Node 1 — Unity, International Space Station, Low Earth Orbit, Space, Photograph by Paolo Nespoli and Roland Miller

The ISS has always been a base for learning how to live and work in microgravity. Numerous experiments have studied the ‘human factors’ of how crew members interact with the equipment. I also looked at studies with a social angle on how crew members collaborate with each other. The International Space Station Archaeological Project (ISSAP) particularly captured my attention for its archaeological approach that studies ISS as a “microsociety in a miniworld”. This means that researchers analyze how crew members interact with objects and their physical environment and how these interactions have changed over time. For instance, they catalog how crewmembers personalize their habitats through visual displays of printed icons, religious items, memorabilias, etc in different modules.

Specific areas on ISS reveal how astronauts, and cosmonauts have personalized their habitats through visual displays. Images courtesy of NASA.

An objective of ISSAP is that the understanding of the material culture aboard the ISS can help future habitat designers do their work better. What these researchers probably did not anticipate was that their work brought weak signals that inspired us in the design of the material culture of the space pioneers community of OSS HOPE in 2071. Typically, they helped me frame questions such as: how do humans in orbit keep trace of their family relations on Earth? How do they modify their habitat to suit their needs? How do they display their dreams and desires? How do languages and social interactions evolve?

Access to books, academic publications, and podcasts was not enough. I needed somebody to shepherd us on imagining new spaces for future worlds. Fred, you immediately came to mind, as the author of Space Settlements and Space Forces, as professor at the School of Architecture and Planning at Morgan State University, but also because we have known each other for a long time and you understand how our design fiction approach mixes science with fiction.

When I told you about the project, you immediately introduced me to the world of the Russian cosmist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. I also remember your background stories about cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov.

FRED:

I’ve been a fan of you all’s work at Near Future Laboratory for a long time, so I was thrilled when you asked if I could collaborate on this project. In my research and design, I basically take it for granted these days that there’s no hard line between space science, science fiction, and the more mainstream spatial practice disciplines like architecture and urban design. And lately I’ve been doing a lot of writing about space history. So thinking about how stories lead to objects in the future, and how objects lead to stories, was a lot of fun to do in this context with you! I’d also been working with the ISS Archaeological Project too, starting at around the same time. I saw neat parallels in the methods that they were using to study the recent past, and the frameworks that Near Future Laboratory is using to look at the near future. They’re both about the relationship between artifacts and worlds.

As a designer working in the built environment, I’m always fascinated by seemingly simple spatial questions, like the difference between inside and outside. For me, the story of Aleksei Leonov, who is the first person to go outside of an orbiting space capsule and take a spacewalk, is intertwined with the story of Galina Balashova, who was the first space architect to design the inside of a spaceship. Balashova organized all of the complex instruments, conduits, and storage needs in the Soviet Soyuz Orbital Module into a simple desk console for working, and a couch for relaxing. She even gave the cosmonauts a little watercolor landscape, custom made by her, for each mission, that would burn up on re-entry. When Leonov left his capsule for the first time, he was the first human being to float alone in the presence of the whole Earth, the ultimate landscape. Luckily he was an artist too. He brought along a set of colored pencils and sketched the sunrise he saw, this was the first drawing made in space. Later, back on Earth, he made several paintings of himself on his spacewalk. In a way these were the first space-selfies, and this was a tradition we imagined would continue into the late 21st century.

Galina Balashova was an architect designing buildings for the Soviet space program in the early 1960s, when she was tapped by authorities to design the interiors of their new Soyuz spacecraft. Her desire to organize things in this space for living and working, tucking equipment into couch and desk out of the way, made the space more humane and livable for the cosmonauts aboard.

When Leonov was later the commander of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, in which the two Space Race Cold War superpowers — the Soviet Union and the United States — would dock their craft for the first time and spend a few days living together, Galina Balashova designed the patch for this mission. Mission patches are still an important part of the material culture in outer space. Leonov made friends with Tom Stafford, his American counterpart on Apollo-Soyuz, and drew his portrait in space. When he got back, Leonov told Balashova that the Soyuz interior she had made was much more comfortable than the cluttered inside of the American Apollo Moon ship. This conjunction between art, design, friendship, comfort, commemorated moments, shared experience, and healthy competition is a good reminder that what we bring with us to new worlds, even the small things like pencil and paper, really matters a lot.

Mission patches are still an important part of the material culture in outer space. This is the fictional patch of the Great Eastern Safety Zone installed on the Moon by a chinese-russian collaboration. The bottom says “ETERNAL LIGHT — SHACKLETON CRATER”. “Safety Zone” comes out of the growing understanding that activity on the Moon will throw regolith around at dangerous velocities, so safety zones of up to 2 kilometers in radius may be necessary around any base. “Eternal Light” is a reference to the fact that at the Moon’s South Pole, some of the mountains at the rim of Shackleton Crater are always in sunshine, the so-called “Peaks of Eternal Light.” Concept and design by Fred Scharmen.

SIMONE:

I have also always been fascinated about the simple and mundane tools and products that sit in the background of future space fictions in both movie and written format. Things like the 10 steps instruction guide to the Zero Gravity Toilet in Kubric’s 2001 Space Odyssey, or all the amazing list of technologies and artifacts from Sirius Cybernetics Corporation in Douglas Adams. What I find interesting and inspiring in these props or artifacts, is that they hint at the world behind the main story, a world made of future companies, with their future brands, technologies and design language that fill the homes, workplaces and public spaces of those futures.

2001 Space Odyssey. The 10 steps instruction guide to the Zero Gravity Toilet

Beyond products, I also always enjoyed stories and fictions about side characters and not really fancy jobs in space, things like Planetes, an animated manga that tells the stories of space debris collectors in the near future, or also short fiction from my friends from VVFA, about black market alcohol produced by miners on the moon, that of course is called Moon Moonshine…

All of this set of seemingly unrelated bits of facts and fictions has been extremely useful to start thinking about creating an ecosystem of people, their jobs, their tools, their hobbies and all the possible stories and ‘stuff’ that could be found in an orbiting space station 50 years from now, where people would not only work, but also conduct a great part of their free time and personal life.

But of course, fiction was not the sole inspiration and base for this project, as there has already been quite a sizable history of tools and products that had to be rethought to function in the ‘normality’ of living and working in space. Fabien actually unlocked this rabbitohole for me when he shared with me a historical catalogue of all the different pens that astronauts brought to space in history. Even the most simple and mundane things need to be thought through when gravity, weight, material and even form do not have the same constraints as we do on earth.

So I started looking into coffee mugs, espresso machines, packaged foods, velcro (yes velcro is extremely important in zero-g), fixing tools, garments and all the ‘stuff’ that has been made for space in the past and in the present.

NASA astronaut Don Pettit invented the Zero-G coffee cup while he was on the International Space Station

I also really love the work of my friend Octave De Gaulle, who has taken designing products for space to the next level, as he has been exploring not only the mundanity, but also the special and more luxurious moments of everyday life in space. His projects like Distiller One, a wine bottle design for zero gravity, or even the Zero Gravity Champagne bottle for Mumm are a great example of what life beyond pure functionality in space could be like.

Wine Bottle for Space, Designed by Octave De Gaulle

It’s a fascinating world, especially if you are a product designer…

When you have such a brief, that is to basically imagine daily life in space as a whole in 50 years from now, I guess the signals to look into could be infinite. Luckily Gallerija 12 shared with us a solid world-building exercise with a futuristic narrative that described the sequences of events from today that led to the creation of OSS HOPE. The technologies, the political institutions, background stories, the infrastructure, etc. This allowed us to zoom in on the everyday lives of ‘normal’ space pioneers in this particular future.

The approach

FABIEN:

That’s precisely when creating tangible prototypes from possible near futures is useful. We used objects to tell stories about people from their everyday tasks and habits, all the way to their customs and hobbies. Design fiction offers a space to engage with the critical questions a Museum of the Future is supposed to ask: What are the implications of this thing once it is in the world, embedded and circulating? What would it look like as a normal, everyday piece of our world? How will the future be felt through mundane things and experiences?

I remember one of the first tasks working with you Fred was to use Gallerija12 foresight scenarios and recreate an overall timeline that categorized eras of humanity’s engagement in space, past, present and future. We used the result of this exercise to define the historical context of our design fiction prototypes.

FRED:

This kind of exercise is really difficult for me! I’m not a historian, and I have a lot of respect for the things historians do. The ability to take all of the noise and chaos of historical change and point out patterns and clear lines between one thing and another seems like a kind of superpower. To find an entry point here, I had to go back to what I knew as a designer and design researcher.

Thinking about how design and art changes over time was helpful. The drivers of that change are themselves always changing. To get an idea about how to break down space history into moments and periods, I modeled it on the design process.

So we can say, there’s a period where people who are interested in designing new things are just free associating, imagining what might be possible, for now free of constraints and determinants. And this blue sky thinking, if you like, is a precursor to action. We’re drawing on trace paper, we’re moving post-it notes around, things like that.

Then, as I was talking about earlier, sometimes a period of healthy competition can jumpstart the evolution of a design project. One of the reasons the Space Race is so fascinating is that we can see things getting iterated and evolving in parallel. For every piece of hardware built by one nation, there’s a corresponding match by the other. This was the case with Apollo and Soyuz, and also with the launch vehicles, the Saturn V and N1. They have the same job, so similar capabilities, but sometimes wildly different solutions. The American Saturn V, designed by ex-Nazi “Chief Architect” Wernher von Braun, had five superpowerful F-1 engines to push it to the Moon. The Soviet N1, designed by “Chief Designer” Sergei Korolev, took a different approach, using 30 lower powered engines. The Soviet experiment never worked. Partly due to difficulties coordinating this insane number of rocket engines, the N1s kept blowing themselves up.

And there’s later a time where the thing that once seemed wild and impossible becomes mundane. They say that the American public became bored with the Moon landings during the 1970s, and people definitely stopped paying much attention to the Space Shuttle after the first few dozen launches. In a way, this moment where things get boring is actually where they get really interesting. What can you do with a space pickup truck? All kinds of stuff! Get a bunch of space construction workers to build you a house in space!

And then when known solutions can proliferate, many different kinds of people can get access to the space that those solutions enable. So a thousand flowers can blossom, each with their own unique contribution to the world.

But finally we go back to first principles: what was the point of doing this in the first place? As designers generally, and as practitioners working in the production of new worlds specifically, we want to make life better. So these bigger picture goals come back into play, which, it turns out, align with the ideals stated way back in the original Space Race, in documents like the Outer Space Treaty, which says that people working in space should help each other and cooperate for the greater good.

FABIEN:

And Simone, you went into a deep dive to build a ‘future history of design’ to give the project a context on the aesthetics of the professional gears and personal items we conceptualized and designed to encompass different eras.

A future history of design by Simone Rebaudengo / OIO, Lorenzo Romagnoli and Octave De Gaulle

SIMONE:

When you think of the objects around you today, some are new, designed a few years ago, some are also new or old but designed maybe 30 or even 70 years ago. The materials used, the technologies and the design languages are all mixed up and piled up in our present.

In a similar way when we started thinking about the products and tools that would sit around OSS HOPE, we wanted to reflect this notion of the future being an accretive space, with products that might be cutting edge and new, but also stuff that might be the same for the last 30 years.

If you think about it, a vintage jacket worn in 2071, might have actually been made in 2030 or so, so even what ‘old’ and vintage is in this context, it’s actually already the future for us. So to design a product that would be used in this future context, you have to put yourself in the mindset of a designer from different future times, being 2065, 2040 or 2030. And as we have to admit to ourselves, we all design influenced by the cultural, societal and technological times that we live in.

So we decided to take a step back before designing actual products, and we started by creating a brief future history of design aesthetics that might happen between 2025 and 2070. We used the future ‘facts’ given us by the foresight scenario to extrapolate cultural movements, major design influence nations, design movements and possible resulting materiality and aesthetics of a particular future decade.

Here is a little extract of our work to show you the way we went about it:

“The 2040’s were marked by the first global initiative to start harnessing the power of the sun in space and beam it back to earth. So after two decades of ‘darkness’ where uncertainties and virtual spaces dominated the everyday life of people, a new solar hope pushed forward a new positive and light cultural wave.

Fluid Glass and Light are dominant new materials used. Printing mixed smart glass into complex new shapes is a reaction to the plainness of the past decade and the abundance of recycled solar panels.

An international AI style emerges, by embracing the experimental AI design of the 20s and bringing it to the masses. Glitches, Facets and Fractals are not an ornament but the natural shape of this new design process. The first design award to a fully AI design studio was given in the mid 40s.

These years are also the boom of extreme solo explorers venturing outside of LEO (Low Earth Orbit). A new wave of extreme survival gear, inflatable exoskeletons and small spaceships is developed for these new adventures.”

This short future history allowed us to start thinking differently and inform our later designs with questions like, how is this old 2035 interface gonna look like after a decade of dominating Kawaii aesthetics? or if this tool was designed in 2050 would it be influenced by the rise of Martian Red as a main color palette? Or as 2070 would be the 100th year anniversary of Buckminster Fuller’s Spaceship earth, would geodesic structure become cool again?

While of course not an exhaustive history and using ‘present’ visual references, this process helped us create a base to design over 40 artifacts, from different times, different companies and brands and also built in places beyond earth. Beyond that, our main hope with this was to test a process that would create a wide range of inspiration as well to challenge the videogame aesthetics that often future space products seem to end up looking like.

FABIEN:

That “future history of design” was gold! We used it to prototype the different packaging for food consumed in space in 2071. That exercise forced us to ask real questions of how emerging technologies might leak into the lives of everyday people. As an example, the HOPE SNACKS box tells visitors what pioneers might eat. It also tells them where things were made. How they might be purchased. The technology available and how they are regulated. What pioneers cared about in their culture. It gathers weak signals from a wide variety of topics: Genetically modified food, biometrics. disposable circuits, future of protein and their implications on new eating rituals and healthcare. This is not meant as a prediction. With design fiction we could inject more imagination into how foresight research is practiced and communicated out to the world.

Early prototype of a ‘Made on HOPE and Available on Earth’ snack. Original concept by Fabien Girardin (Near Future Laboratory), Designed by Simone Rebaudengo (OIO) and Gallerija 12.

We went into the rabbit hole of the conceptualization of a magazine for HOPE space pioneers that would encapsulate many of our design fiction prototypes. With its familiar support, the magazine brought a typical day of life in space into the hands of museum visitors. It was also a way to take museum content outside of the museum walls with the opportunity to distribute it at the Dubai airport and have visitors bring it back to their home. The headline said “Are you space ready?” and the content offered a travel narrative in which the reader can imagine the first days when joining Orbit Space Station HOPE. The practical stories celebrated a community filled with background talent, not heroes. What I really liked about that exploration is that it forced us to explore the evolution of verbal and non-verbal languages in space communities that gather many cultures in a constrained space. What do pioneers say? What do they talk about?

Early prototype of a Monocle-like lifestyle magazine for space pioneers. Original concept and content by Fabien Girardin. Designed by Israel Viadest. Near Future Laboratory.

Working with Near Future Laboratory colleague Nicolas Nova, we imagined a kind of “space pidgin” as formed with expression mixing both technical terms and informal matters. We extrapolated the hybrid English-Russian speech currently practiced on the ISS and imagined how it would evolve into a Space Creole, a new hybrid language to live together in space in 2071. My favorite examples include:

Zuótiān café (昨天的咖啡) [ˈswɑəʊʃ(ə)n kɒfi]: a mandarin-english hybrid that literally means “yesterday’s coffee”, a term that was used back in the 2000s when astronauts recycled as much fluids as possible in space stations (namely, urine and wastewater). Now used when water tastes badly when drinking, or taking a shower in space. The term circulated from Chinese space missions to international collaborations in the 2040s.

Ovavioo: an Indian word based on the expression “Overview effect”, which is a term coined by space writer Frank White in the 20th century that corresponds to the emotional reaction to viewing the Earth from space. As it can be disturbing, spacecrew members often talk about it with newcomers.

Soudenba: a term that designates friends, families and significant-others who live on Earth often used by a crew of Senegalese astronauts in the 2030s. Based on the evolution of a French expression “ceux-d’en-bas” (“those-below”), it has a slightly pedantic connotation.

Zheludka krolika syndrom (желудка кролика Синдром) [ˈzɛludkɑ krɒlɪkə sɪndrəʊm]: Astronauts slang term made of Russian and English words (“Rabbit stomach syndrome”) to describe the physical feeling of unease after eating in space stations for a long time. The cause of this phenomena may be the overconsumption of artificial meat in space (which flavor was originally based on rabbit meat, notably because raising rabbits for food is efficient due to their high reproductive rate and their ability to subsist with basic plants).

Later, we leaked traces of that language through personal photos of space pioneers.

For instance, in an image of returning from a mission, Julien Martinez shares his Ardhweh, a portmanteau word from the Arabic for Earth, and “Weh” is “sorrow” in German. A nostalgia he felt after years far away from Earth. What I find important about this object designed with Mario Mimoso López (Founder and Creative Director of the design studio Sharp and Sour), is that it provides a counter-narrative to an optimistic future full of possibilities. The future won’t turn amazing for everyone and revealing this is also an inspiration to generate new ideas.

Personal photo of space pioneer Julien Martinez. Original concept by Fabien Girardin, Near Future Laboratory. Designed by Mario Mimoso López (Sharp & Sour).

Similarly, in the photo of receiving a Sankofa Award, Aika Amadi recalls that Regenboog no ribbon, literally “rainbows are not ribbons”, a vernacular expression mixing English and Dutch/Afrikaans that correspond to “You can’t trust appearances”. A highly important term used to describe the difference between what you see in the data as opposed to its reality.

Personal signed memory from the award-winning astronomer Aika Amadi. Original concept by Fred Scharmen. Design by Israel Viadest.

Those are my favorite personal items that we conceptualized and designed. We also worked on space gear and personas with you Simone.

Artefacts from the future

SIMONE:

Yes, we created a huge catalog of around 50 personal items and gear, that were spawned from 10 characters that we imagined. I remember that we had a great remote workshop with you Fabien and Julian Bleekcer from Near Future Laboratory, as well as David Delgado and Dan Goods from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory to imagine the type of characters that would populate OSS HOPE. We tried to imagine real-ish future people, so not only the heroes or famous astronauts, but also people that would be in space for very mundane reasons, as someone would need to be up there to fix broken materials or cook meals.

So we imagined former astronauts that became space safety experts in their late age, or fashion designers that were invited for a residency to explore new textiles and extreme conditions garments. We went down in the details to define their jobs, daily activities and also a bit of backstory to explore how and why they got to live in space in the first place.

There was Ivan Tolonov, a former Low Earth Orbit Drone pilot, who then became a Robot driving instructor for space newbies, waiting for his daughter to join him on OSS HOPE to attend kindergarten in space. Or Zhang Wuyi, a Nigerian/Chinese lunar maintenance operator, who on the side was developing indie games using decommissioned satellites and handicraft with reclaimed lunar materials.

Once we had these rich characters, then it was pretty easy to start and imagine their everyday life, the gear and ‘stuff’ that would sit in their room or that they would use everyday. Ivan for instance was a vehicle to talk about new and unexpected people coming to space, like kids.

The Children’s space suit was probably the most fun and complex artifact we had to develop. Firstly because designing a spacesuit is something that is not an easy task in general, but also because it can easily fall into known sci-fi tropes. Being a children-first piece of gear, we tried to design something that was not only functional but was hinting at space as a place of discovery and play. So the suit is an ‘agent’ or a character in itself, that helps and protects kids while in space, but that also has some unexpected features, like animal-like eyes and the ability to shoot water drops, to play with the physics of zero-G.

A children’s space suite. Photo courtesy of Susan Cox-Smith and Scott Smith.

But of course, not every artifact could be some really advanced and complex piece of technology for extreme situations, so we also developed seemingly simple artifacts, but that could encapsulate everyday culture or even free time in the future.

Zhang, being a pretty lonely dude on the moon, mostly dealing with drones, was a good person to show how downtime in space might require new hobbies or even forms of entertainment. The Space debris game is a pretty old school looking game console, built using reclaimed solar panels and printed in lunar soil (as these will probably be the most common materials up there….). This console helped us tell the story of a future game, developed in space, that would allow children and adults to control small unused satellites to gather space debris. We imagined a sort of Pokemon GO, but hunting actual potentially problematic debris.

Early render of Space Debris game. Designed by Simone Rebaudengo.

It’s a gigantic rabbithole when you start to imagine all the possible ‘stuff’ that might be in the life of these characters. We even invented a new wave of self-made products that we called Lunar Shanzhai ( a lunar variation of Shenzhen-like crazy products) to show how people in space might have the means, the time and knowledge to develop their own simple things, like tiny toys or artificial pets.

FABIEN:

Yes. We all, at some point, dug into rabbitholes without much constraint. We gave ourselves the time to dig deep and sometimes get lost. That type of effort does not often lead to a particular outcome, but it is essential to provoke the imagination as a team.

Fred, from all the concepts and background stories you brought, one particularly stuck with me. You put a particular emphasis on life that we bring to space is not just human. We depend on complex systems and webs of other life around us to survive and thrive.

FRED:

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from doing lots of reading and research about space history, it’s that no one ever really goes alone. Yuri Gagarin might’ve been up there by himself in orbit, but there were thousands of people on the ground who helped him get there and back safely. The image of the lone astronaut floating free in the spacesuit is romantic, but it never really tells the whole story.

We all need networks of support and friendship, and dangerous environments tend to foreground that need. Historically, ground control and “capcom” (Capsule Communicator) were an important part of that support for astronauts in space. In the American Apollo program, another node in that network was Deke Slayton. His official title at NASA was Chief of the Astronaut Office, and he was responsible for crew selection and involved with astronaut training. One of the original Mercury Seven, Deke didn’t get to fly himself until Apollo-Soyuz, where he met Aleksei Leonov, who had a similar role in the Soviet program. Deke was beloved and not-a-little feared by the astronauts he was responsible for assigning and looking after.

I love that we paid a small homage to Deke Slayton with the backstory figure of Deacon “Deke” Papademos, Crew Chief, amateur gardener and unofficial concierge of HOPE. The cultivation of plants in space is another part of the network of care that Deke helps maintain. Plants make air, food, and offer joy to the people who grow them, but space in space is limited. So we imagined that little curated packs of seeds from meaningful space gardens could sometimes stand in for the gardens themselves. Alice Gorman at ISS Archaeological Project talks about how many tasks ziplock bags are used for in the International Space Station. They are “gravity surrogates” she says, since there’s no one force that draws things downwards together, that impulse towards collection and collective directionality has to be more intentional. I like the plastic bag as the everyday common correspondent to something monumental and fraught like the Doomsday Seed Vault in Norway. We save things, but it doesn’t have to be taken so seriously. So the seeds are passed down in simple ziplock bags.

A privately funded Isreali mission to the Moon failed to soft land, and instead impacted the Lunar surface. The landers payload included 30 million microscopic pages of data about human life and history, samples of hardy Tardigrade organisms, and DNA from an Indian Bodhi tree , the tree that the Buddha was supposed to have sat beneath during his enlightenment. Concept by Fred Scharmen. Designed by Israel Viadest.
The plastic zip-lock bag with romaine lettuce seeds was salvaged by a crew member as part of the ISS’s final mission in 2028. The seeds are the product of the Veggie (Vegetable Production System) experiment. The ability to grow multiple generations of plants for food in space was an important technological breakthrough, but more importantly, tending to the plants that would become part of their meals gave the astronauts a deep sense of satisfaction and happiness, as they later reported. Concept by Fred Scharmen. Designed by Israel Viadest.

And I think it’s important to remember that the support we get from others matters more *because* they are *others*. They’re not you! That’s the point, that’s where we get help from. And sometimes those others are somewhat alien and imaginary, especially appropriate for outer space. Cultures in space, like human cultures anywhere, will have stories and traditions about these others, folklore and mythology that drives and supports material practice. In 2018, a Lunar lander project named Beresheet crashed on the Moon. Among other things, this spacecraft was carrying Tardigrades. Also known as “Water Bears,” these almost microscopic eight legged critters are very cute, and very hardy. They have the ability to go into hibernation and survive without food or water for very long periods of time. They also seem somewhat impervious to radiation, vacuum, and extreme temperatures, all of the aspects that characterize the space environment. So what if these guys became the subject of outer space folklore? What if they survived and are everywhere now? What if all of the places humans thought they would live in first — the Moon, Mars, Venus and Titan — all already had these other weird Earthlings there, helping to homestead the new worlds? It’s very fun to imagine space parents telling their space kids stories about Water Bears getting into adventures as they explore.

Building on the work of astronaut Karen Nyberg, who spent some of her personal time on the International Space Station, in 2013, sewing a stuffed dinosaur toy to bring back to her son, partly made from discarded food container wrappers, we imagined future human cultures in space making and trading their own little tardigrade plushies, to go with these stories.

Prototype of pioneer-made tardigrade plush. Concept by Fabien Girardin.

Concluding remarks

FABIEN:

Like archeology, imagining the future is like bringing all the pieces of the puzzle into a whole. A collection of analysis, observations and projections often fails to create a whole that is understandable by many. Design fiction forces to actually MAKE things in detail to pre-visualize a possible future with all the drawbacks and nuances. Each object gives a glimpse of everyday life and tells significant stories about how society works, what is important, who is in charge, who struggles and who prospers.

To give an example on some of the level of details, we worked on a 2041 Pioneer Manifesto that would highlight the astronauts responsibilities and obligations to the public good. We were inspired by the current Outer Space Treaty to draft a paragraph on respecting difference and rendering assistance. I loved when Fred tweaked the language and the text of the document with remarks like:

“I capitalized Earth here. Following from NASA’s own recommendations for their writing, I capitalized Earth and the Moon and the Sun, but never used “the Earth,” which they recommend against. It’s a small thing, but a stylistic connection that’s nice, I think, to suspend disbelief.”

The early prototype of a Space Pioneer Manifesto from 2041. Original concept by Fabien Girardin. Design by Israel Viadest.

FRED:

This was a fascinating project to work on for a lot of reasons, I learned a lot from both of you and from our other collaborators and fellow travelers. In architecture and urban design, there’s always an end and an edge to the page or plan. There’s a place where the drawing stops or the site meets a boundary and we’re used to going “okay, everything past that is someone else’s responsibility, we’ve done our best to engage with what’s there, but that’s the limit of what we can directly control or make.” Working with these Design fiction methods, I realized this was about making a world without edges. We had to provide enough detail to suggest even more going on, just outside the frame, past the end of the drawing and around the corner. That means there’s a lot that doesn’t make it onto the wall or even into the museum, but we know it’s there, and the things that aren’t there make the things that show up that much richer. They live in a world, just like all of us.

SIMONE:

It’s one thing to design one or few future artifacts to give a glimpse of a possible future for a client project or a small exhibition, but when you need to create a whole future world that would allow visitors to immerse not only mentally, but physically in it… a lot needs to make sense and flow. For this to happen this type of work needs a lot of voices, of expertise, and also a weird sensitivity in creating not only a plausible and engaging future, but all the future ‘past’ that brought us there.

The immersive experience of OSS HOPE after the opening of the Museum of the Future. Photo courtesy of Susan Cox-Smith and Scott Smith.

FABIEN:

I totally agree. I think that in what you describe, there is a major trap for many projects that aim at envisioning the future. There is an expectation for the future to be “engaging” or “compelling”. There is the temptation to “get people excited” about the future. I understand the constraints to attract a wide audience or capture the attention of busy executives. But these futures are not really useful to trigger the imagination. They do not really help understand how everyday lives might actually change. Or worse, they perpetuate ideas of futures that everybody already expects. They do not challenge the status quo. They are just bigger, faster or brighter. A wide majority of the prototypes we conceptualized did not make it to final production, but making them was essential to influence the whole immersive experience and pioneer culture of OSS HOPE.

The Museum of the Future is an exhibition space for innovative and futuristic ideologies, services, and products. It is located in the Financial District of Dubai, UAE.

Fabien Girardin is a founding partner of the Near Future Laboratory, a distributed network of accomplished practitioners best known as pioneers of design fiction.

Simone Rebaudengo is a product and interaction designer based in Belgrade. He is a co-founder at oio — a creative company on a quest to turn emerging technologies into an approachable, everyday and sustainable reality for humans and beyond.

Fred Scharmen teaches architecture and urban design at Morgan State University’s School of Architecture and Planning. His art and design consultancy, the Working-Group on Adpative Systems, is based in Baltimore. He is the author of Space Settlements and Space Forces.

Learn more about design fiction.

Due for publication in Fall 2022, the Manual of Design Fiction is a guide to the practice, its origins, its utility and its impact. Sign up to the Near Future Laboratory emai list to be the first to hear when this book becomes available.

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Fabien Girardin
Design Fictions

Prototyping futures to clarify the present | Co-founding Partner @nearfuturelab | Former Co-CEO BBVA D&A, Researcher @MIT | PhD @UPF