Science & Research

For Space Horizons participants, next stop is Moon

Workshop brings together students, professional mentors in interdisciplinary manner to plan space city

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The image of a city on the Moon is, in many circles, still the stuff of science fiction. But at this weekend’s Space Horizons workshop, participants were interested in talking about when it should be built and what it should look like.

The School of Engineering has hosted the Space Horizons workshop annually since 2008, focusing on a theme that represents an “exciting and highly beneficial space capability that for some reason is not being realized,” according to the workshop’s website. This year was dedicated to a city on the Moon.

Held in various locations on campus between Friday and Sunday and attended by an international cohort of 71 students and 10 professional mentors, the workshop aimed to reinforce “the idea that the lunar city can happen,” said Rick Fleeter, adjunct associate professor of engineering and an organizer of the event. “We aren’t building a blueprint for (the National Aeronautic and Space Administration) but putting meat on the idea,” he said.

The lunar city theme was the brainchild of Fleeter and student organizer Tomoya Mori ’16.

“After designing a lunar base for the class, I saw the potential in the idea,” Mori said. “If we can prove on the Moon that humans can live under intense radiation and in a one-sixth gravity environment, then we can apply that knowledge to Mars. The Moon isn’t the ultimate destination. It’s a testing ground for Mars and a stepping stone for the future of humanity.”

Mori was also interested in the theme’s ability to bring different disciplines together, he said. In 2014, he and Sujay Natson ’16, another workshop organizer, founded Metaplaneta, a think tank that seeks to diversify the community of people interested in space.

Mori and Fleeter worked closely with Professor of Geological Sciences Jim Head to develop the “science-engineering synergism” that must characterize space exploration, Head said. Head offered a talk on the lunar environment and geology to open the conference, establishing the scientific context for participants whose backgrounds ranged from astrophysics to visual art — the same range that will be necessary on the lunar colony.

“Metaplaneta is trying to democratize space,” said Arun Varma ’16, an organizer of the event. “We want to make space available for everyone, not just people who are rocket scientists.”

“You can’t have a city with just aerospace engineers and geologists. You need doctors, entertainment and a maintenance crew,” Fleeter said, adding that space missions have only included scientists. “The opposite of a mission is infrastructure. We want something that becomes a part of daily life. Every part of society has to become part of space.”

Mori and Natson brought this conception of the lunar city to the Swearer Center’s Social Innovation program, which awarded them a grant to conduct research on the topic last summer. The pair planned a two-week trip to Austria, Germany, Sweden and Holland, during which they met with space professionals, were invited to join a United Nations delegation on outer space and were named the best presenters at the Global Space Innovation Conference, Mori said.

They learned that the lunar city is highly anticipated in Europe, unlike in the United States. “When we went to the European Space Agency center in the Netherlands, the chief technology officer said they are planning a bunch of missions to the Moon,” Natson said. “I realized that what we were thinking of was actually realistic.”

Knowing that Mori, Natson and Varun were invested in Metaplaneta and the lunar concept, Fleeter asked them to lead the 2016 Space Horizons event. The conference was typically led by faculty members and geared towards professionals, but the student organizers chose to develop this year’s iteration for students, Varma said.

When planning began in September, the team decided to adopt an integrated design approach, Mori said. The approach “brings all the elements involved in a project from the very beginning to reduce potential conflicts and ultimately come up with the most efficient and effective” solution, he added.

The organizers split the workshop into four areas: science, infrastructure, policy and business. “We thought about the fundamental aspects of culture and society on Earth, and we concluded that these are the four that would be most fundamentally changed in the lunar environment,” Varma said.

Student participants and professional mentors were each assigned to one of the groups, which conducted brainstorming sessions Saturday. The sessions were punctuated by “integrative meetings,” during which each group heard updates from the other three arenas.

The science group focused on the potential of conducting scientific research on the Moon. “There are lots of things which being on a lunar surface helps you with,” said Ian Dell’Antonio, professor of physics and one of the event mentors. “On the Moon — relative to being in space — there is something to build upon. Relative to the Earth, there is no radio interference on the far side. Putting telescopes on the Moon could be very advantageous,” he said.

While students discussing politics threw around questions ranging from how Earthlings would see lunar citizens to whether the Moon would become its own political entity, the infrastructure group asked what the city should look like. “You have to then start dealing with important human attributes,” said Michael Lye, Rhode Island School of Design professor of industrial design and another professional mentor. “Are they going stir crazy? What is it like to live your entire life without going outside and feeling the breeze? The infrastructure has to address all that — people can’t live in trash cans.”

Though the groups worked toward presentations that the organizers hope to publish in a written report, the workshop’s main goal was “to get people excited,” Fleeter said.

To that end, all participants had the opportunity to experience the lunar surface in the University’s YURT Ultimate Reality Theater and participate in a workshop on astrotheology led by Michael Waltemathe, professor at the University of Bochum in Germany.

Waltemathe was not the only participant to travel from abroad. Mohammad Yezdani, a student at the Institute of Space Technology in Islamabad, Pakistan, gave a talk to the group about the Pakistani space program, explaining how despite religious conservatism and national skepticism towards space, he is leading an effort to provide space classes in elementary schools. “I need to get the entire population in Pakistan to start dreaming about space,” he said.

The business group discussed the obstacles facing the lunar program, most notably the incredibly high costs involved. “This is not going to make money,” Fleeter said. “Maybe we can recoup some of it — selling ‘Made on the Moon’ tourism and real estate. But this stuff won’t pay a trillion dollars.” In a talk titled “Show Me the Money,” Alden Richards suggested the improbability of progress in the foreseeable future.

But most of the room was undeterred. “The question isn’t what we want to do to get there, it is what we want to do once we’re there. It’s organic: The young people own it, and by god, they’re going to do it,” Head said. “We need to get off this planet.”