By Ariel Ekblaw, founder and lead, Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative
The Space Exploration Initiative’s founding mission is to rigorously, vigorously build out the technologies of our sci-fi space future while keeping our innovations and team as open and accessible as possible. When we say we’re “democratizing access to space exploration,” what do we mean? In the context of our blue sky goal — to realize an inclusive, impactful Starfleet Academy — we approach democratization in four core ways.
1. Democratizing access by inviting and uniting new disciplines in our creative practice.
In the antidisciplinary spirit of the Media Lab, the Space Exploration Initiative brings together artists, scientists, engineers, and designers to co-create the human (and robotic) lived experience of space. The Initiative is a sort of launchpad to support any researcher, student, staff, or faculty in our community in developing and sending their work into space. Having a background in traditional disciplines, like aerospace engineering or astrophysics, has often been a gatekeeper — a career prerequisite to participate in space exploration. Instead, the Initiative pools a wide variety of expertise and builds a community of experts across scales and disciplines, democratizing the teams building out experiences beyond Earth.
In space-related projects across the Lab’s diverse groups, we reimagine the future of space exploration, bringing the Media Lab’s uniqueness, impact, and magic to the task. While many organizations already impressively tackle the iterative engineering and scientific challenges facing space exploration, the Lab is distinct in its freedom to imagine bold, provocative, and futuristic visions, then prototype and test them.
2. Democratizing access by designing space tools, products, and experiences for all of us, not just the pinnacle of human talent embodied by astronauts.
We are conceiving and designing the artifacts of our sci-fi space future to delight and empower humanity for everyday life in these environments. This work constitutes the bulk of our research portfolio and the 40-plus projects underway across the Lab. We build, test, and deploy these artifacts ourselves on our parabolic flights, for our suborbital launches, remotely inside prospective International Space Station missions, and soon, on the surface of the moon. We’re talking about space habitats, space food, and space health, of course, but also about the musical instruments of a zero gravity orchestra and the whimsical mobility required in true weightlessness. And by designing space for all of us, we are designing to benefit life on Earth as well. Every project the Initiative supports must show how its technology, framing, and other learnings could serve immediate needs for life on the surface, in the long tradition of NASA spinoffs.
3. Democratizing access by developing hands-on, widely accessible opportunities to shape the technologies of our space future.
The Initiative builds online and IRL communities that foster open access projects, like an interplanetary cookbook soliciting submissions from across the globe and an invitation to send your personal research concept up to space with us. You’ll be able to rent time on our cubesat constellation, rather like buying time on a cloud computing cluster, and participate in open science communities for libraries and makerspaces, where you can engage with our research portfolio. And we offer STEAM outreach programs with curriculum and DIY hacker/maker guidelines for climate-sensing cubesats. The philosophy of “democratizing access to space exploration,” bringing moonshots and starshots into the purview of hackers and makers and nurturing a broad and inclusive community, courses through the Initiative’s work and guides our research platform and our extensive outreach efforts. The near future of near space, from low Earth orbit to the moon, will touch the lives of countless Earth citizens, via GPS satellites that power the apps in our pockets and space tourism that will give an entirely new audience the chance to experience the overview effect. We want these citizens to play a part in creating and shaping the technologies of space, whether or not they travel there themselves.
4. Democratizing access through the celebration of new narratives through which we can tell the story of Space Exploration, writ large.
What does it mean at a visceral human, ethical, and cultural level to undertake space voyages? What is the significance and responsibility of being a space-faring species, now that we stand on the cusp of interplanetary civilization and the anthropocosmos? What guides our understanding of the profoundness of our universe — human and non-human — and what might it mean to venture further into this expanse?
To answer this question, we turn to the storied cultural heritage preserved among Indigenous peoples, whose origin myths and practices involve the stars, the cosmos, other dimensions, and extended voyages. We can learn from these communities’ perspectives and shape the future of ethics and technology development in space using terms, concepts, guiding principles, and philosophical approaches from their cosmologies. As we begin this work, we defer first and foremost to these communities, always asking how they want their voices heard and incorporated in future space exploration narratives, if at all. For communities that find shared meaning in this, we are exploring ways to embed their stories and wisdom in astronaut training, in space policy directives, and in community building institutions that will serve as the stewards for our space commons.
At scale, democratization is ultimately about building and contributing to healthy, self-sustaining ecosystems. No one institution, even at the scale of NASA, can serve the role of Starfleet Academy alone. Our modern incarnation of Starfleet Academy will be a collective effort. Establishing long-term communities and broad engagement to realize a shared future requires rich collaboration and the sharing of technologies and ideas across institutions.
In our earliest work, we prioritized cross-fertilization at MIT, engaging with departments like AeroAstro and Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences that bring deep expertise in aerospace missions. When we grew big enough to offer concrete research collaborations, we drew in industry and a network of international space agencies and forged relationships with commercial and government partners. Our annual event, Beyond the Cradle, assembles more than 60 leading space industry chief executives, space scientists, sci-fi authors and designers, Hollywood visionaries and NASA astronauts to design the future of space exploration together. We livestream this gathering publicly, attracting an audience of thousands across the globe.
Since 2016 when we founded the group at the Media Lab, kindred spirits like Space Enabled have emerged right here alongside us, and Space for Humanity has emerged across the country. This flourishing of participatory, ethics-driven space exploration engagement, with low barriers to entry, will make democratized access to space a reality.
Yet you might still ask, why now?
We are once again at a pivotal moment for space exploration. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and a global excitement for space has returned. This opportunity to design our interplanetary lives beckons us. To wisely seize the moment, we must prioritize both moonshots and earthshots, the yin and yang of humanity’s future. The Space Exploration Initiative, a budding Starfleet Academy, and our collective space community are all places to build the technologies of our space future while profoundly benefitting life on Earth. Space exploration and democratizing access to the expanse of our cosmos is not about escaping Earth, which is the best home humanity will ever have. Rather, it is about a better vision for humanity wherever our “orbits” may be, on Earth, around Earth, or beyond.