Plans for a future age: Project launches ‘Yale-o-nauts’ into zero gravity
On a recent flight, Yale student Paul Meuser turned his head to the side and saw his fellow passengers floating about the cabin.
“That image will stay with me,” he said.
Nothing was amiss. Meuser and two Yale School of Architecture classmates were aboard a zero-gravity parabolic research flight, which emulates gravity-free conditions in an aircraft, testing prototype items that they had created as part of a course, “The Mechanical Artifact: Ultra Space.”
The course, offered this spring by the Yale School of Architecture, asked students to consider how humans might prepare for the lived experience of space.
“An amazing experience,” Meuser said of the flight, which completed 20 parabolas simulating lunar, Martian, and zero gravity (zero-g). “It provided valuable new perspective.”
For the course, students were encouraged to imagine an architecture for a new Space Age in which humans populate the moon, Mars, and orbiting outposts. They conceived, designed, and fabricated “artifacts” of this future age — objects and devices, such as storage containers, flower vases, and specialized cameras, that might become part of the fabric of off-planet life in the not-too-distant future. As a capstone, three students, including Meuser, deployed their prototypes in zero gravity.
The course and the zero-g experience were part of a collaboration between the School of Architecture, the Center for Collaborative Arts and Media (CCAM), an interdisciplinary research hub that blends traditional arts with science and technology, and the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative, a project that supports cross-disciplinary research aimed at democratizing access to space.
CCAM Director Dana Karwas, a critic at the School of Architecture, established and taught the class with Yale alumna Ariel Ekblaw ’14 B.S., founding director of the Space Exploration Initiative. Ekblaw also secured the spots on the research flight for the three “Yale-o-nauts” — a term Meuser coined.
As the possibility of interplanetary travel and off-world settlement draws closer, it becomes increasingly important to consider how human life will evolve in space, said Ekblaw, who earned her undergraduate degree in physics, mathematics, and philosophy, and a doctorate in space architecture from MIT.
“It’s time to begin translating the artifacts of science fiction into the realities of our space exploration future, and the students’ work in this class spoke beautifully to that,” she said.
The course was inspired in part by “Portraits of a Planet: Photographer in Space,” an exhibition curated by CCAM in 2019 that featured photographs taken by NASA astronaut Don Pettit while he was a crew member on the International Space Station.
“The show generated so much enthusiasm for the intersection of art and science,” Karwas said. “Don spoke compellingly about the interesting engineering challenges in space, but he also noted how rich an environment it was for creativity. I wanted to tap into that excitement, so it made sense to teach a class focused on space exploration and architecture.
“The students didn’t quite get to go to space, but it was pretty close.”
In designing their “artifacts,” the students contemplated depictions of space life in popular culture, such as the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Tyler Krebs ’21 M.Arch. drew inspiration from various space images, including the iconic “Blue Marble” photograph of Earth taken by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972, and images from the interior of the International Space Station, depicting chambers laden with intricate instrument panels but no plant life.
Krebs conceived an idea that might enable future travelers to enjoy orchids, ferns, or philodendrons in space. His “space vase” was designed to house and nourish plants in weightless conditions. The prototype resembles Sputnik — Earth’s first artificial satellite — and features a self-contained water supply and an LED lamp to promote photosynthesis.
With the vase, Krebs strove to create a complex ecosystem that provides beauty and requires attention. “In space, the aesthetic and psychological impact of seeing and caring for a plant bears obvious benefits,” he explained.
In another project, Meuser partnered with fellow student Yang Tian to create a camera apparatus that aims to convey the feeling of weightlessness — and to make viewers question the concept of orientation as experienced on Earth and in space. Specifically, the device consists of a GoPro camera housed inside a plastic container with acrylic mirrors and a free-floating coin meant to provide the viewer a visual landmark.
“Basically, we were trying to see if we could capture three-dimensionality through normal video as opposed to virtual reality,” said Meuser.
Other student-created prototypes included a “puzzle box” storage unit designed for a zero-gravity environment, thus rendering shelves unnecessary, and a set of vibration-generating wearable sensors meant to enable people to orient themselves and communicate in zero gravity.
Their work was critiqued by a panel of artists, scholars, and designers that included Pettit, who offered the students a sense of how their objects would behave in weightlessness. The architecture students, Karwas said, possessed the ingenuity and skill to flex their creativity while adhering to the flight protocols — and to do so under a tight timeline.
“Their prototypes were beautifully fabricated,” she said. “They brought an impressive level of rigor to their work.”
And they had fun with the assignment, adding whimsical touches to their prototypes. For example, the clear globe that formed the body of Krebs’ vase was designed so that 70% of its surface area would show water while the plant occupies the remaining 30%, matching the Earths’ water-to land ratio. Its three prong legs, a nod to Sputnik’s signature antennae, are spring-loaded to launch the vase into zero gravity. Krebs housed the vase in a plastic box, where it would float in weightlessness and land on its legs once gravity took hold.
Would it work in zero-g? He had a chance to find out.
On May 20, Meuser, Krebs and a third student, Rishab Jain, traveled with Karwas, Ekblaw, and an MIT team to Pease Air National Guard Base in Newington, New Hampshire. Decked out in dark blue flight suits, they boarded G-Force One, a specially modified Boeing 727.
Ekblaw, now a veteran of seven zero-g flights, first flew on a parabolic research flight while she was an undergraduate with the Yale physics department’s Drop Team, a student group that conducts science and engineering-related experiments during such flights. That experience inspired her to organize research flights for her lab at MIT, she said.
“It’s been absolutely delightful and rewarding to have a chance to come full circle and share this incredible experience with my fellow Yalies,” she said.
Those Yalies were nervously excited before takeoff. Krebs’ family was betting that he’d get sick, he said.
The 90-minute flight performed 20 parabolas — upward and downward arcs that produce microgravity and zero-gravity conditions — interspersed with periods of level flight. The Yale-o-nauts had 15 minutes or so to organize their experiments before the first parabola.
The researchers laid flat on the cabin floor and absorbed the g-forces as the aircraft climbed to the parabola’s apex, then rose into the air as it dove. The first several parabolas simulated lunar and Martian gravity, an experience that both Meuser and Krebs found disorienting.
“It was crazy,” Krebs said. “If you did a pushup, you’d almost throw yourself into the ceiling. The slightest jump made you hover.”
Upon takeoff, Meuser focused on the work at hand: testing his camera contraption and the other prototypes.
Performing experiments amid the visceral excitement of experiencing of micro- and-zero gravity for the first time was challenging, Meuser said.
“After the first several parabolas, our carefully laid plans went out the window,” he said.
But they persisted and completed the tests even when they weren’t in complete control of their movements.
Meuser described the sensation of weightlessness as comparable to being submerged in water but without its associated drag force.
“You start floating and you can never get 100% control of your body,” he said. “It was hard to keep my body from spinning or tilting.”
He found that his body wanted to bend into a reverse “C” posture. Despite his focus on the experiments, he did glance down the cabin’s tube, which is when he marveled at the sight of his fellow passengers hovering in the air.
Krebs, who defied his family’s expectations by not getting sick, recalled feeling a sense of wonder after letting go of a pen and watching it float. He gently poked the pen with his finger, and it began revolving. “The experience of your body in zero gravity is amazing, but watching an everyday object behaving differently than you expected was fascinating,” he said.
The space vase functioned well, although it didn’t quite reorient itself on its legs as intended, Krebs reported. Meuser’s camera apparatus experienced a bug — the coin kept burying itself in one corner of the housing — but he captured usable footage that after some editing should provide viewers a sense of the experience, he said.
The flight was a fitting capstone to a compelling and enjoyable course, said both Meuser and Krebs. “It was sort of the cherry on top of an all-round great experience,” he said.
Karwas and Ekblaw hope to teach the class in the future. Presently, they are working with the students to carry their work forward.
“Dana and I have talked about the potential to help the students publish academic papers coming out of the class,” Ekblaw said. “I think their work is very exciting and has the potential to be featured in an exhibition, or at aerospace and design industry conferences.”
Karwas called the class her favorite teaching experience — one that embodies the cross-disciplinary collaborations that CCAM generates.
“The students and their designs were incredible,” she said. “I can’t wait to expand CCAM projects further into space.”