Ariel Ekblaw Wants To Go to Space So We Can Save Earth
The 30-year-old founder of MIT’s Space Exploration Initiative is engineering small wonders with a big goal: making sure Earth remains our home.
Ariel Ekblaw remembers the moment when her future crystallized. She was 18, floating upside-down inside the hollowed-out hull of an airplane, more than 30,000 feet in the air.
At the time an undergrad at Yale University, Ekblaw’s brief moment of reduced-gravity flight came courtesy of a now-defunct NASA program that let students ride the fabled “vomit comet,” as astronauts dubbed it after these unique plane trips started being used for zero-G training back in the 1970s. The pilot steers the plane along a steep parabolic arc, granting passengers a few moments of life beyond the clutches of Earth’s gravity. Skilled pilots can tweak the trajectory to simulate the Moon’s gravity, or even that of Mars or Europa.
Ekblaw, now 30, recalls how the flight coach told her to put her feet over her head and let her hair out of her ponytail. Then he told her to actively create a memory inside her mind, to focus on the moment, because the sheer physical rarity of the situation — floating freely in air — is so foreign that, as Ekblaw explains, “you’re going to forget it in six months if you don’t crystallize an embodied memory in that moment. And I did. And it was stunning.”
“That was when I was like, okay, I’m going to work in space exploration,” Ekblaw says. “I’m going to get other people to experience space. Because it's so different. So different.”
She’s done just that. Since that first fateful ride, Ekblaw has attended Yale, then gone on to study at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, getting a PhD in space architecture. While completing her degree, in 2016 she founded what is now the MIT Space Exploration Initiative, a 40-plus strong student and faculty collaboration based at the Media Lab. She is also the founder and CEO of a Cambridge-based non-profit called the Aurelia Institute dedicated to the question: “How can humans have a life worth living in space and on Earth?”
Ekblaw’s ability to connect space travel with the pursuit of happiness here on Earth isn’t just appealing, it’s her driving force. She straddles the extremes: Elon Musk Mars City acolytes who would abandon Earth like an apple core on one side, scientists who deplore space exploration as a distraction from real-world (or, maybe better-phrased, on-world) issues. She sees a future in which humanity’s most destructive processes are moved off-Earth, like mining and manufacturing, and our world is preserved as a natural resource in its most fundamental form. Like a national park, but a planet.
To that end, she and her team of engineers are actively designing and building habitats and machines to enable more humans to live and work in space, whether in orbit or on other celestial bodies. Between the Space Exploration Initiative and the Aurelia Institute, she takes a broad approach to designing for life in space, from creating toy-car sized robots set for the Moon to musical instruments for microgravity concerts to technology for smart astronaut suits. One project, dubbed TESSERAE (as in, Tessellated Electromagnetic Space Structures for the Exploration of Reconfigurable, Adaptive Environments), is developing flatpack structures using self-assembling tiles — imagine a geodesic dome that automatically builds itself. Eventually, Ekblaw hopes to create tiles that come with Murphy bed-like features, like pop-out desks and electronics.
Ultimately, she explains, human space exploration has to be grounded in more than science for science’s sake or a completely new way of living. It also has to represent a desirable, and ultimately, humane way of life that doesn’t erase the planet we come from, but instead emphasizes the new perspective on Earth that space travel offers us: A point of reference from which to see our planet and cherish it for the life it has enabled us.
“There’s a shift of our awareness when we go out into space that is really important about helping us appreciate Earth,” Ekblaw muses as we sit together in an office at the Media Lab. “That’s kind of the philosophical side.”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
You don’t have to go far up Ekblaw’s family tree to see where she gets her explorer’s energy. Her parents were both pilots in the United States military — her mom was one of the first female flight instructors ever. Her great grandfather, Walter E. Ekblaw, was one of the early explorers of the Arctic and Antarctic, with both an eponymous glacier and a mountain on either side of the globe to prove it.
“We have a map of the Ekblaw glacier above our fireplace at home,” she says. “We talked about it a lot as a family.”
She tells me that on the Arctic exploration, her great grandfather and his fellow explorers nearly died, only to be saved by the indigenous people who lived in the area they sought to document. The tale has lessons for spacefarers now: Rhetoric around “colonizing” space has to reckon with the legacy of human exploration on Earth. We’re at an inflection point, she says, where there is the opportunity to democratize this new scientific and technological frontier.
Case-in-point: when Ekblaw was trying to get the Space Exploration Initiative off the ground back in 2016, Jeff Bezos’ private space exploration venture Blue Origin readily agreed to her request for a workshop to develop projects for space. In the seven years since, Ekblaw’s Space Exploration Institute has sent several experiments and projects into space, including plastic-eating enzymes and construction material tests to the International Space Station, and a propellant experiment launch with Blue Origin. Ekblaw’s more ambitious than that, though. She hopes that by the close of 2023, the Media Lab’s work will be taking place on the Moon.
The office we are in is a little more down-to-earth: Littered with tangled cables, abandoned pieces of circuit board, and more than one empty coffee cup. Outside, a musical instrument designed to be played in zero G sits in a glass case. It was tested on one of the Initiative’s vomit comet flights — the lab runs some 15 gravity-free experiments each year on the plane — and sounds like a synth, Ekblaw says.
Next to it sit tiny “AstroAnt” bots (also tested on a zero G flight). Ekblaw says part of the inspiration for the AstroAnts is the 2015 science fiction novel Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson. In the book, humanity is forced to evacuate Earth after the Moon partially disintegrates, living in “arklet” habitats in orbit as they try to reclaim their original home. The Moon isn’t going to fall apart on us any time soon, but the concept — that life up there could help us down here — sits at the core of her work.
The AstroAnts can do all sorts of things, depending on how they’re kitted out. In one mode, they can swarm together and, using magnetized wheels, cling to the body of spaceships to perform repair work. Later this year, one of the bots is destined to go to the Moon as part of the Lunar Outpost M1 Mobile Autonomous Prospecting Platform (MAPP) rover mission, intended to explore the lunar south pole in advance of NASA’s 2025 Artemis III manned mission, which will likely land in the same area. Armed with a temperature sensor and a camera, a lone AstroAnt will beam back data from the surface, giving astronauts crucial data for humanity’s first lunar landing in more than 50 years. With any luck, the info will point toward a potential source of water that could sustain a more long-term human settlement.
The AstroAnt’s maiden lunar voyage will be a triumph for Ekblaw’s Space Exploration Initiative and also Ekblaw’s parting gift to MIT — at the end of 2023, she plans to step back and dedicate her time to the Aurelia Institute, her non-profit that will balance research and development based on her TESSERAE space architecture concept with education and outreach. Right now, she and her team are assembling a room-sized geodesic dome that will ultimately tour around educational institutions to show people how they might live in space — though the design might find itself being used on Earth. A flatpack, easily assembled, air-tight shelter is as essential to survival for refugees and victims of natural disasters as it would be to residents of the Moon. Ditto some of her other space-focused projects, like HVAC and waste management systems.
Together, the machines capture the push and pull at the heart of Ariel Ekblaw’s work: The practical engineering that will enable humans to survive in space and the creative output that reflects our species’ need for self-expression, and even a little fantasy.
GO BIG, THEN COME HOME
It’s probably not surprising to know that Ariel Ekblaw is an avid gardener with a living space full of plants. Her favorite is called Alfred. It’s a desert plant — a South African adenium — that she’s somehow cultivated to survive, even thrive, inside her modest apartment. It’s a small testament to the ability of life to flourish on Earth, even against the odds. That, she says, is something to be cherished.
“There’s talk by other people in the space industry of terraforming other planets,” Ekblaw reflects. “The problem with that, and something that can lead us to appreciate Earth more, is that this is the only planet where we’ve co-evolved with it over thousands of years.”
Ekblaw is convinced that within our lifetimes, we will see real progress toward exporting the processes that define and drive life on Earth into space — and in particular, the most harmful processes. Early this year, asteroid mining company AstroForge announced it planned to launch a test of its platinum refining technology aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 mission slated for April and, in October, start scouting asteroids. AstroForge is one of a growing number of asteroid-focused mining companies, although none have so far succeeded.
“We don’t need to strip mine the Earth,” she says. “If we were able to actually go out and do effective mining of asteroids, there is an opportunity to take off-world a lot of the industrial burden on Earth and try to protect Earth more like a garden planet.”
Even with a climate crisis firmly in progress, Ekblaw isn’t giving up on humanity’s home base. “[Earth] will always be the best home humanity has, no matter where else we travel to, whether it’s the neighborhood of the Solar System, or if we improve propulsion, far beyond,” she says. “We’ll always be fighting against some other set of evolutionary constraints that that planet developed that's not perfect for human life. This planet is perfect for human life and it should be treasured.”
A great fan of Star Trek: Next Generation, Ekblaw is running as fast as she can toward a future in which, no matter how far we roam among the stars, Earth remains the center of the human universe. A home base, no matter how far we go and what we encounter. She tells me that she would go to space if she could. Even to Mars — so long as it wasn’t one-way.
“We’re at this cusp of the Anthropocosmos,” Eklbaw says, referencing a term proposed by former MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito in a 2019 WIRED column to mean “the epoch during which human activity is considered to be a significant influence on the balance, beauty, and ecology of the entire universe.” (Ito resigned from MIT later that year after his apparent ties to sex offender Jeffrey Epstein came to light.)
She likens the moment to when the Internet was just starting: “Some people knew it was huge and revolutionary, and some people just leaned right into it.” Where exactly it takes us, she’s not sure.
“I think most people get that no longer being a single-planet species is a big enough moment that it will be different. Not solving, not erasing all of our human trials and tribulations and troubles,” she says. “But different. Profoundly different.”
Photographs by Ken Richardson
Photo Director: Alex Pollack
SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid
SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert