Yale project brings creative expression to space flight
Picture a spacesuit. It’s functional, and the mirrored visor is fun. But you can’t dance in it.
While the first astronaut to set foot on Mars probably won’t pirouette or perform a jazz split on the planet’s rust-colored soil, folks at Yale are nonetheless thinking about how to encourage artistic expression in space exploration.
In the spring course “The Mechanical Artifact: Ultra Space,” Yale students from several disciplines were asked to design and build a flight suit that would help tomorrow’s astronauts express themselves creatively in zero gravity. What they’ve imagined would also provide travelers reminders of home and humanity as they hurtle into the unknown.
Constructed of a mix of found materials and ingeniously engineered components, the suit they created is inspired by their examination of questions connecting architecture, design, and artistry to humankind’s future in space. While not a traditional life-support system, the suit’s mechanisms would allow its wearer to bring lively, colorful performance to an orbiting space station or Martian settlement.
And it’s already been tested in zero gravity.
Emily Judson ’22 M.E.M., a student in the class, wore the suit on a research flight that performed a series upward and downward arcs — parabolas — to produce microgravity and zero-gravity conditions.
“Weightlessness felt surreal,” said Judson, who earned a master’s degree from Yale School of the Environment in May. “It took me a while to relax and lean into the disorientation. Once I did, it was so much fun.
“And the suit performed amazingly well.”
The course and the zero-g experience were part of a collaboration between the Yale School of Architecture; Yale’s Center for Collaborative Arts and Media (CCAM), an interdisciplinary arts hub that activates creative research and practice across disciplines; and the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative, which supports research aimed at democratizing access to space and chartered the parabolic flight.
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 MIT’s Space Exploration Initiative, who secured spots for Yale on the zero-g flight. It was the second iteration of the course, which was first offered last year.
During the spring 2021 semester, students designed innovative devices and objects intended to enhance the experience of life in space, such as a vase that could sustain green plants in weightlessness or a set of vibration-generating sensors meant to help people orient themselves in zero gravity. This year, Karwas and Ekblaw had their students collaborate on creating a single spacesuit that would “perform” in a zero-g environment.
“It ‘performs’ in the sense of performance art, not necessarily in the sense of performing a
specific scientific function,” said Karwas, who taught the course at CCAM’s headquarters on York Street.
“I think the class opened people’s eyes to the idea that there are different ways to think about humanity’s future in space,” she said. “We showed that it’s possible to ponder that future in an artistic, creative way.”
The class was divided into five groups, each of which was responsible for devising, designing, and building a component of the suit. The groups were also charged with creating a model of a space habitat where one might wear the suit.
As they worked out their designs, the students surveyed artworks, architecture, and scientific research relating to inhabiting space. They also read science fiction, including selections from Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series, while contemplating how to translate sci-fi into reality.
The students had to keep in mind that the various parts should form a cohesive whole — and that the finished product would have to meet the specifications for travel on a parabolic research flight.
“The suit came together well,” Karwas said. “It’s not a Frankenstein situation with a bunch of disparate parts stitched together. It functions as a single unit. That took a great deal of collaboration.”
The suit is composed of a mix of textiles, including woven cotton, Dyneema — a superlight and strong composite fabric used in ropes and backpacking equipment — and a deconstructed pair of navy-blue Dickies coveralls. The students cut the coveralls at the waist, removed the sleeves, and turned the torso around so it buttoned up the back, creating a vest that served as the base layer for the suit’s top. The bottom half, which features a skirt, is made of layers of colorful woven cotton and covered with a gray Dyneema skin. Leftover material from the coveralls was used for pockets and ties connecting the suit’s top and bottom halves, said Judson, whose group oversaw the suit’s materials.
The other components provide playful outlets for self-expression, communication, and contemplation about space travel and the world left behind. All in some way reference Earth and our shared human heritage.
An inflatable sensory sleeve, made from a repurposed airplane life vest, creates an extension of the wearer’s body to foster communication between two people. A chest plate contains a telescopic pull mechanism made of carbon fiber that activates a device that spreads the suit’s layers, exposing the colorful weaving below the Dyneema like a male peacock fanning its tail. A silicone headpiece crowned with moss connects the space traveler to the Earth through biological matter. An amulet made of titanium and plastic features an interlocking mechanism that can only be opened in zero gravity. The mechanized locket resembles a small capsule while closed. When spun in weightlessness, the capsule opens, and a series of interior lenses align to offer an image from the wearer’s earthbound past.
“We wanted to create something that would behave differently in a zero-g environment than on Earth,” said Aleksa Milojevic ’23, a master’s student at the School of Architecture and member of the group that created the amulet. “We doodled around, sketching. We discussed how to bring an idea of culture and reality to space. We transformed that idea into the notion of a candy box in space.
“At this point, the sketches became technical. We discussed how it might open. From there, we came up with an interlocking mechanism that relies on centrifugal force to open. It became an amulet and a sort of memory container.”
Prototypes of the chest plate and amulet were fabricated with the assistance of the Advanced Prototyping Center, a state-of-the-art lab space at Yale’s Wright Laboratory that allows researchers to design and construct new components for scientific instrumentation.
About six weeks into the semester, the class held a lottery to determine who would test the suit on the zero-g flight. A golden raffle wheel was spun. It landed on Judson’s name.
“I was shocked,” she said.
Classmates Wai Hin Wong ‘24 and Vignesh Hari Krishnan ’22 M.Arch., both master’s students at the School of Architecture, were selected as alternates. At the end of the semester, Karwas and Harshita Nedunuri, a designer who mentored the students and is producing a short documentary about the class, traveled with Judson and the two alternates to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they spent two nights at MIT training for the flight. Then they drove to the Portsmouth International Airport at Pease, located on a former U.S. Air Force base in New Hampshire, from where the plane would depart. They hung out in a hangar there as the suit was inspected for approval for the zero-g flight.
As they waited for the flight, the Yale students had a look at the MIT researchers’ projects.
“They were doing amazing work,” said Wong, who designed and built the suit’s chest piece. “One student was testing a method for making spaghetti in a zero-g environment.”
Judson met an MIT researcher who is blind and was preparing to conduct a series of experiments on navigating zero gravity without sight.
The Yale students’ suit sparked people’s curiosity among the MIT researchers.
“We told them we were doing an art project, which I’m sure they could already tell,” Judson said. “They all seemed interested and open-minded about it.”
Yale was originally reserved a single seat on the flight, but a second slot became available, allowing Wong to join Judson. (“I saw simultaneous joy and panic in his face when he found out he would also be flying,” Karwas said.)
The moss-topped headgear presented a problem. It was heavy, maybe 40 pounds, and no storage bins were available in the plane’s cabin. The “Yale-o-nauts” got permission to tether it to the cabin. Karwas and Nedunuri dashed to a nearby Eastern Mountain Sports store to procure climbing rope and a carabiner clip before takeoff.
The hour-long flight performed 20 parabolas. The researchers lay flat on the cabin floor and absorbed intense g-forces as the aircraft climbed to the parabola’s apex, then rose into the air as the plane dove. Each drop provided passengers with about 15 seconds of diminished gravity. The first free falls simulated lunar gravity and then Martian gravity before reaching weightlessness.
Zero gravity was disorienting at first, the Yale flyers reported.
“It feels like someone has extracted your weight from your body,” said Wong, who assisted Judson with the suit and shot video of her testing it. “During the climbs, it’s like they returned your weight times two.”
Judson compared weightlessness to swimming but without the resistance of moving in the water. At first, she was worried about crashing into other researchers and disrupting their experiments. “It’s cramped and chaotic,” she said. “It took me a while to relax. Once I let my body navigate the space without my brain trying to take the lead, it was incredible.”
Judson has a background in modern dance, a style that emphasizes free expression, which proved handy as she maneuvered in the suit in zero-g.
“I had some training in how to let go and express myself,” she said. “After I relaxed, I started doing turns and flips and letting the suit fly,” she said. “The bottom part’s layers spread out and started floating like we’d hoped they would.”
This summer, the students have continued working on perfecting the suit’s components with an eye toward perhaps testing it someday on a suborbital flight. CCAM’s Ultra Space program, a larger initiative of which this project is part, will continue to develop, Karwas said. In the spring of 2023, in addition to offering the class again, CCAM will host a symposium on the future of space flight and exploration.
“There’s been a lot of recent interest in what people are now calling the ‘anthropocosmos,’ but much of it is focused through an engineering lens that tacks art and culture on at the end,” Karwas said. “With the Ultra Space program at CCAM, we’re trying to ground it in culture and design first to bring a different but equally important perspective on the future of space exploration.”