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Beyond the Cradle: Envisioning a New Space Age

MIT Media Lab attracts all sorts of space cadets

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Nobel Laureate Rai Weiss ’55 speaks about gravitational waves to a rapt audience at Beyond the Cradle, a Media Lab conference on space exploration.
Courtesy of the MIT MEDIA LAB

“Space will be hackable. Space will be playful.”

So began MIT Media Lab’s second annual Beyond the Cradle: Envisioning a New Space Age last Saturday. As part of the MIT Media Lab Space Initiative, the brainchild of Ariel Ekblaw G, the event brought together scientists, designers, artists, entrepreneurs, and engineers under the theme of space research and exploration.

In the spirit of the event, the sixth floor of the Media Lab displayed various space-themed paraphernalia, including space suit prototypes, scent capsules for astronauts, and various responsive and self-assembling materials to facilitate humanity’s expansion into the final frontier.

“We try to connect the engineering, design, science, and art aspects of all the things in the world and at MIT,” Media Lab Director Joi Ito said at the opening. “Design and engineering [are] really focused on solving problems and building things that are useful, while science and art [are] about asking the questions that the designers and the engineers then work on solving.”

Ito added that it’s important “not just to understand, [but] also try to imagine the things we don’t understand.”

Among the keynote speakers was Nobel Laureate Rainer Weiss, who spoke on his work in gravitational waves and LIGO. Weiss took the audience through neutron stars, black holes, and the edge of the big bang, and in his classic humor mentioned how the movie Interstellar was “too complicated” for him.

This proved to be the perfect segue to a plenary address and panel titled “Our Sci-Fi Space Future,” featuring modern science fiction writers Neal Stephenson and Nnedi Okorafor and movie and VR maker Eliza McNitt.

McNitt offered a novel perspective on virtual and augmented reality as a storytelling medium, transporting the audience visually and aurally past physical constraints and dimensions to places such as the interior of a black hole.

Okorafor, whose parents hail from Nigeria, spoke of how her stories feature futuristic inventions in the familiar yet technologically advanced backdrops of her childhood.

When asked about the balance between being scientifically accurate and delivering an engaging story, Stephenson said, “It gives me some mileage from a storytelling point of view to try to stick with a realistic physical scenario.”

To this same question Okorafor responded, “First and foremost, I’m a storyteller. … Science fiction can go beyond the possible and proven and kind of play around. That’s the agency we have as science fiction writers.”

The rest of the event was split between tracks featuring panel speakers and presentations from aerospace companies such as Blue Origin, SpaceX, and the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources. Both tracks featured interactive components, such as distributing samples of asteroids and pieces of a lightsail designed for photon propulsion for audience members to inspect.

In a compelling panel discussion of democratizing access to space, Professor Jordi Puig-Suari, one of the co-inventors the CubeSat standard, said that “space was in a situation where one could use the data but one could not participate. … You don’t have to be just a user anymore.”

Dr. Danielle Wood of the Space Enabled Research Group advocated for the discontinuation of the word “colonization” to describe human exploration of space. Instead, Woods encouraged future explorers to “learn from indigenous communities that were impacted by colonialism,” make an effort to preserve pristine places, and not create “situations where people are exploited in the process.”  

Other panel discussions dealt with the potential for life in outer space, arts and space, and the evolution of space research. Political issues were mentioned briefly during the future of space research panel, when founder of and member of NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts council Ariel Waldman announced, “Space needs to be stop being treated as a political token.”

In the panel discussion on the frontier of life in space, MIT EAPS Prof. Sara Seager brought up New Worlds Mission, an occulter designed to block starlight to observe orbiting exoplanets, and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which is scheduled to launch this year on a SpaceX rocket.

Allison Htun ’21, who heard about the event from a mailing group, said that Beyond the Cradle provided a “nice break from psets and served as a good reminder for why I’m interested in [space exploration].” Htun said, “The event also allowed me to have interesting conversations with people, each bringing a different perspective on the topic.”

The rest of the event featured a keynote presentation from the artist Nahum, workshops on space entrepreneurship and childcare, a panel of former and current astronauts, and a plenary panel featuring some of the leaders in space industry.

A webcast of the event will be available through the Media Lab.