Alumna brings Yale approach to MIT Space Exploration Initiative

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Ariel Ekblaw ’14 B.S. came to Yale interested in answering big-picture questions about the universe. That led to a fascination with space, a degree in physics, math, and philosophy, and an enduring love for Yale’s interdisciplinary approach to learning that has informed her current work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she founded and leads the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative.

Ekblaw, who is returning to Yale later this month for her fifth reunion, leads a 50-person collaborative team at MIT that supports 27 different research labs — including synthetic neurobiology, art, architecture, AI, data science, and robotics. Their mission, she says, is to “democratize access to space.”

Yale was an incredibly unique environment where rigorous scientific inquiry and cultural exploration into the humanities happened in one place, in concert,” says Ekblaw, who received a master’s in distributed systems and blockchain research from MIT and will soon defend her Ph.D. there in aerospace structures. She brings this same spirit — uniting scientists, engineers, artists, and designers — to her vision for the Space Exploration Initiative. “We want to empower a biologist to send their work into space; or allow an artist to tell the story of space exploration through poetry.”

On May 2, Ekblaw’s team launched six research projects aboard a Blue Origin New Shepard reusable rocket in west Texas. On board was a performance artwork called “Living Distance” that featured a human tooth; an experiment looking at how crystals form in microgravity; and 40 bees, to assess their future potential for pollinating space crops. Ekblaw’s own Ph.D. work was also aboard the rocket. She’s developing programmable hexagonal and pentagonal tiles called TESSERAE (Tessellated Electromagnetic Space Structures for the Exploration of Reconfigurable, Adaptive Environments) that pack flat and self-assemble in orbit into modular structures for living, working and performing science and exploration missions.

They’re like smart Legos for zero gravity space architecture,” Ekblaw explains. 

Ekblaw and her TESSERAE on a recent zero G plane flight.
Ekblaw and her TESSERAE on a zero gravity plane flight.

She says the tile design and her approach to “growth or accretion” models for aerospace structures was heavily influenced by two classes that were six years and two campuses apart: Neri Oxman’s “Design Across Scales” course at the MIT Media Lab, and a multivariable calculus class she took from Michael Frame at Yale, where she developed a fascination for fractals. The structures also illustrate a key principle of the Space Exploration Initiative — that “everything we work on should benefit life on Earth,” says Ekblaw. TESSERAE could have applications for robust, temporary shelter in refugee camps, for instance, or the sites of natural disasters.

Ekblaw argues in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed that humans are creeping ever closer to commercial and private space exploration, and need to do it with intention and urban planning design: a humanities-led approach, in other words. “As we push into the cosmos,” Ekblaw says, “there’s something fundamentally beautiful about humans having a role — not just robots.”

Democratization of space also means including younger generations, she says, which her initiative does via its Climate CubeSat Co-building Outreach Program, or C3, in which they mentor Boston-area students through the lifecycle of spacecraft design and exploration. Students use a mini satellite (CubeSat) to measure and track changes to the Earth’s climate. All the educational resources the lab produces, from curriculum to building guidelines to launch preparation, will be made freely available for download.

We want to let students from around the country build a sense of personal investment and engagement in climate science and the future health of their planet,” Ekblaw says. “To let them see that they can have a hands-on role.” Yale undergraduates were recently selected by NASA to launch their own CubeSat designed to measure radiation energy around Earth into space aboard an upcoming mission. 

When she returns to campus, Ekblaw says, she plans to check in on the physics department, where she got her “first taste of space” running an experiment on what’s known as a “vomit comet,” an aircraft that climbs and dips in parabolic arcs to simulate weightlessness. She co-founded the Yale Women in Physics group as an undergrad, and she’s looking forward to seeing how the ideas first hatched at Yale and developed at MIT might give rise to a synergistic Yale program, connecting her life’s trajectory.

It’s something that’s always been at the back of my mind,” Ekblaw says. “How might I engage Yale to be part of designing our human, lived experience of space?”