Humanity has dreamed of different visions of what a civilization in space might look like longer than most of us have lived.
We’ve been planning ways to sustain human life in orbit and on other planets for decades. Now it feels like we’re within reach of that goal – and we need to be ready for it.
The newly formed Aurelia Institute aims to prepare humanity for a long-term presence in space through R&D, policy and outreach. Ariel Ekblaw, founder of both the Aurelia Institute and the MIT Space Exploration Initiative, spends her time thinking about and designing the next generation of space stations.
Ekblaw sat down to discuss accessibility needs for manned spaceflight, technology demonstrations aboard the ISS, and take inspiration from real life and science fiction for future space stations. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you decide to start Aurelia in the first place?
I’ve been running a lab at MIT for the past six years, the MIT Space Exploration Initiative. We’ve worked on a very wide variety of life and space artifacts, but what I saw as a gap, and something I wanted to fill by founding Aurelia, is a focus on technology, R&D and infrastructure for life in space. As great as it is to imagine all these different artifacts that we would use on the inside of a habitat, we actually still have a lot of work to do to build the habitat structures ourselves in a way that is scalable to accommodate more people in a habitat. orbit around the earth.
The stations that we see coming online in the coming years, which we are all very excited about, such as Axiom or Orbital Reef, are still based on the axial model of the International Space Station with a relatively limited total crew size. What I would love to do is have Aurelia contribute in partnership or in collaboration with Axiom and Orbital Reef and NASA and others to the next generation of technology beyond ISS-like approaches. And that could be things like self-assembly, or even something like artificial gravity.
The technology to develop these long-term human habitats in space is developing very quickly. How soon do we need humanity to prepare for a long-term human presence in space? Are we ready when that technology is ready?
I think we’ll be ready. I think we’re ready now, in a really wonderful way. The goal of democratizing access to space is to empower more people around the world to see themselves in that future. Right now, if the real estate in orbit is very small and very elite and very difficult to access, that itself is a great gatekeeper to sharing space with many people. I really think now is the time to think about scaling infrastructure in space. The other part of Aurelia that complements the R&D work is trying to prepare more people and give them a chance to really participate in the space exploration function.
The perception I had growing up, and I think it’s a very common one, is that the people going into space have to be incredibly smart and well-educated and in incredible physical condition. Is there any truth to that perception? And how do you make sure that changes?
I think it was absolutely true in the past, right? It was a requirement to get into the astronaut crew to be amazingly healthy, you know, the top of the human population. However, that is changing.
An example of this is that last year we entered into a partnership with AstroAccess for several zero-G flights. I supported their inaugural flight in October, and then we welcomed them back on our flight in May to show that we can begin preparing space exploration and microgravity environments to welcome people with disabilities — as well as recognizing that certain things we thinking because disabilities on Earth could make humans well-suited for life in space. As a concrete example, we know that our legs are very overloaded for life in microgravity. Astronauts often have to relearn not to thrust too hard because all the muscle we’ve gained over the course of a lifetime and gravity is exaggerated for micro-G. People who are in wheelchairs may be especially free and agile and able to move because they don’t need legs in microgravity the same way they do on Earth.
We will see the beginnings of ordinary citizens going to space. There may be some limitations to health risks, but I don’t see it being much more extreme than the typical health risks you would go through with your doctor before taking a zero-G flight or before going on a roller coaster.
From a technical perspective, what should you consider when building more accessible manned space programs?
NASA has done an amazing job designing the ISS for the top .001% of human talent. So the first step is to design the interior like an architect on Earth would, saying, “Okay, what are the human users? What are their user profiles? What is their experience at the station? What are their abilities or disabilities? How can we actually design the vernacular architecture of a space station to be used by people who are not trained like fighter pilots or PhD mission specialists?”
Aurelia is building TESSERAE, a self-assembling, modular space station that grew out of your dissertation at MIT. How come something like TESSERAE could allow more people to live and work in space than something like the International Space Station?
The modules for the ISS are prefabricated on Earth, which means you’ll need to have a rocket big enough to fit that entire module. That means the module cannot be bigger than the largest rocket. With something like TESSERAE, you can design tiles that will pack flat in the rocket, like Legos or Ikea furniture. Once those tiles are released into orbit to stochastically self-assemble, you can build a sphere, or essentially a buckyball, much larger than that rocket’s largest payload tub. The bigger the structure, the more occupancy. We have many years of work to really turn TESSERAE into habitat-ready technology, but it’s something we’re working on.
TESSERAE held a technology demonstration on Ax-1, the first private astronaut mission to the ISS. Tell me a little bit about what you thought about going on that mission, and what you were able to learn from those experiments.
We were delighted to be part of Ax-1. It’s a historic mission, a completely private mission to the International Space Station. It also suited us very well, with the goals we have around democratizing access to space.
What we tested was a miniature platform – the TESSERAE tiles, about the size of my palm, which allowed us to judge whether our electronics or the custom magnets we designed to be the connections of the structure and the hardware in our theoretical concept work or not. So we were able to get sensor data on how these tiles are assembled or disassembled in microgravity. And then that informs the next iteration to a human-scale tile.
Can you tell us a bit about how that demonstration on Ax-1 went?
We have just achieved some great results, which we are very excited about! We were able to demonstrate a successful, autonomous assembly. With no human in the loop, two tiles can come together, link and form a perfect, good bond. We even saw that happen with up to three tiles in just a matter of seconds.
We also saw two tiles come in where they don’t quite bond well, but they have enough onboard detection to detect that on their own, again autonomously, and they pulsed off, which is great because these are the corrective maneuvers we need to see.
The third thing we wondered is, with so many magnets packed into a small space, say a partial dome of tesserae, would our sensors pick up that density of the magnetic field as a flaw and shut the tiles away when in reality they are happy and they are in the dome? We were very happy to see that after a dome was manually mounted by one of the astronauts who helped us with the experiment, it remained stable, which was really great. It means that the combination of our electronic detection and the magnet polarity card works really well.
Great – congratulations! What is the next step after that demonstration?
One of the next steps in this technology roadmap would be to test more tiles. The Ax-1 test was only seven. We’d like to test a full 32 title set, which is what it takes to form a full closed buckyball. The second goal is to get bigger, which means we’ll probably have to get out of the cocoon of the International Space Station to test and actually deploy a system from a CubeSat in orbit, which puts the tiles on one side or the other. way still contains because we don’t want them to fly very far from each other, but allow us to bet more tiles.
Are you now developing for the next phases of this project?
We’re actually working on two things at once. We are working on the next development phases for the TESSERAE project, and we are starting Aurelia on the next project after TESSERAE. So we’re doing a trade study where we assess over 50 different concepts of space habitats, from science fiction and really demonstrated ideas, and choose between something like artificial gravity or something like an origami or inflatable station.
Why do you need to do the trading study before choosing the next project?
There’s been some really great work for decades in the conceptual design of space habitats, so we want to make sure we’re not reinventing the wheel and that we also really respect all the great shoulders we’re standing on. We stand on the shoulders of giants, as they say.
The trading study helps us assess the trade-offs between different concepts. How many separate launches of material does it take to create a scale TESSERAE habitat versus an artificial gravity habitat or versus an origami habitat? What are the costs of those three different models? How much total indoor air can you get at a given volume with these different models?
What do you mean when you say you draw from sci-fi space station concepts? Is it possible we end up with a Death Star somewhere?
We do have a rule within the team and we try to pull out of utopia. So no Death Star from us!
When we take from science fiction, we think a lot about the interior design of artifacts – a lot of Star Trek. For the actual scale of space structures. I’m really inspired by two different books. One was Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, where they’re rebuilding the ISS into this amalgam-like growing, expanding structure. They also have the idea of a small modular spacecraft called “arklets” that can dock and separate and dock and separate for reconfigurable space architecture. The second sci-fi inspiration, really an old inspiration for me, is Larry Niven’s Ringworld.
Much of our work is inspired by the 1975 NASA summer study where they brought together some really interesting people and developed this report on the future of space architecture. It’s true those photos are of what looks like a 1960’s, 1970’s suburb in some sort of space habitat – lots of Gerry O’Neill images, Wernher von Braun inspired images. So that’s kind of a cross between science fiction and planned for reality, but never built.
This story originally appeared On payload and is republished here with permission.