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EmTech MIT: What’s next for space research?

November 9, 2022
Stephanie Arnett / MITTR

The International Space Station hosts scores of experiments that can’t be done on Earth. But it’s also showing its age—with repairs and safety concerns becoming increasingly common as it draws nearer to its end of life. In this episode, we bring you a conversation with Astronaut Michael López-Alegría about the path forward for research in low Earth orbit, from MIT Technology Review’s flagship conference, EmTech MIT.

Sounds from:

  • What the next space station might look like, CNBC via YouTube.
  • International space station removed from orbit 2031, NBC, via YouTube.
  • Space Station to retire in 2031, NASA says, Fox 35 Orlando, via YouTube.
  • Axiom Mission 1 Launches to the Space Station, NASA, via YouTube.


This episode was created by Jennifer Strong, Anthony Green and Emma Cillekens. It was edited by Mat Honan, directed by Erin Underwood and mixed by Garret Lang. Episode art by Stephanie Arnett and special thanks this week to Amy Lammers and Brian Bryson from our events team.

Full transcript:


Jennifer: The international space station conducts research and development that can’t be done on Earth… Thousands of experiments have been carried out there… as this is the only lab where scientists can do long duration work in microgravity. It’s been important to a number of developments… like how we treat disease and purify water… But the space station is showing its age, with intermittent repairs and safety concerns, as it gets closer to the end of its life.

News Anchor 1: “The countdown is on at NASA. The international space station will be retired after 23 years in service.” 

News Anchor 2: “Towards 2031 NASA will work on first lowering the ISS closer gradually to Earth and then in 2031 bring it into Earth.”

News Anchor 3: “But NASA will likely not build the next space station. Instead it will rely on the technology of outside companies.

Jennifer: This episode, we get an insider's look at what’s next for space research with Astronaut Michael López-Alegría.

Announcer: “Dragon Space X Go for Launch..”

Jennifer: Earlier this year, he served as commander of Axiom-1… the first ever private mission to the space station, 

Announcer: “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Zero..  ignition.. Liftoff Dragon. Godspeed Axiom 1.”

Jennifer: He’s also the current holder of multiple NASA records for space walks.


Jennifer: I’m Jennifer Strong and this week we’re live from Tech Review’s flagship conference about emerging technology and global trends, EmTech MIT. 

Jennifer: Thank you. Let's have a seat. You've got not quite as many nicknames as you have, uh, accolades, not quite, but I feel like, so that everybody in the room is aware you're the same person as Mike LA, MLA. What would you like us to call you? 

Michael López-Alegría: Your choice.

Jennifer: Oh, okay. Well that makes it..

Michael López-Alegría: I'm the only guy on stage, so I, I'm pretty sure I'll know who you're talking to.

Jennifer: Speaking seriously, the space station's running out of time. A number of companies are working hard to come up with alternatives. What's the value of sustaining our presence in low Earth orbit? .

Michael López-Alegría: Well, so we just passed the, uh, 22nd anniversary of the continuously inhabited space station and since 2000 they've been, uh, doing world class microgravity science. I mean, pure and simple. You can't replicate microgravity on Earth, at least not for very long. You can do it in a drop tower for several seconds. You can do it in a parabolic flight for maybe 20 or 25 seconds, but if you want sustained microgravity, you need to go to space to do it. And so we've been doing technology development, all manner of fundamental and also a little bit of advanced research in that realm. And so we need to keep doing it. And all the agencies who participate in the ISS have expressed their interest to continue to do so. But as you mention, the platform is sort of running outta gas and um, it needs to be replaced at some point.

Jennifer: Yeah. I think that gets lost on some of us. You know, the why we are doing this, right? It's not just for tourism. The first ever private mission to ISS. You were the commander earlier this year. Uh, what were your goals?

Michael López-Alegría: So this, all the private astronaut missions that we're doing are sort of a step toward this commercial space station. So we are trying to do a couple of things. One is to get used to working with NASA and the other agencies that are part of the ISS partnership. And of course, you know, the operations, you would not imagine the amount of detail that goes into planning these missions. And so understanding all those interfaces, all the expectations we have on each other. And so we are trying to establish those, uh, lines of communication and just sort of get used to each other in a way.

Michael López-Alegría: And the second thing of course is to develop the market. We want the government customer, but we also want private customers, both private individuals, like the three that were on AX1. And we don't like the word tourism. That's not what we're about. Um, tourism has a place in commercial human space flight, but it isn’t the ISS. That's a place to do real meaningful work. And so our three citizens teamed with, uh, research organizations from their areas and they were super busy during the time we were up there. But that also helps ferment the idea of generating an economy in low Earth orbit. So we need the, the demand and, and that's the second part of why we do these private astronaut missions.

Jennifer: How was it different from the previous NASA missions? I'm sure it had to feel really different, right? You're with different folks.

Michael López-Alegría: It was remarkably similar and remarkably different in different ways. So, the similar part, sort of as a human, when I got on the ISS, I hadn't been there for 15 years. The last time I was there it was half its size. The crew was three instead of seven. It was a much less, I'll say, busy place. Now it is just loaded. You can't go anywhere without seeing something going on, on, on a rack or on a module somewhere. And yet it felt like, I use the analogy that it's like going home to the house that you grew up in that's probably been remodeled since you left, but it feels very familiar and there was just something about it that I felt instantly like I was back there. But there, it's very different in, not only in the ways I mentioned before, but for me personally, uh, you know, I was taking care of these three other folks and it was very important to me that they be successful and they'd be satisfied because in addition to being my crew mates, they're my customers. So it's a strange needle that I had to thread in order to kind of try to check both blocks, um, satisfactorily.

Jennifer: Sure. That's very interesting. We have a poll question for the audience here, and that is, have you or your company considered conducting research in space? If you wanna click on it, check yes or no. We'll get that for you just a little bit later. Also, I'm gonna take your questions soon, so if you wanna start getting those ready as well. 

Jennifer: Help folks understand a little bit more about the work you were doing and, and why it's important.

Michael López-Alegría: Well, I think fundamentally what we're doing is taking gravity out of the equation. So it is in a preponderant force here on Earth that because of it's, it's important, I guess, it's uh, it's weight. Um, it's difficult to see smaller forces like capillary effect or, you know, when you light a match on Earth, the flame burns in a certain way because you know it's heating the air above it and that's causing oxygen to flow. When you light a match in space, it burns spherically because the only way it gets fed is by diffusion instead of by convection. So all these forces that are unavoidable here can be removed outta the equation.

Michael López-Alegría: And we learned things that are both sort of fundamentally interesting from a basic science standpoint, but also have applications, and that's where we go from research or scientific experiments into technology development, for instance, uh, on AX1, I did an experiment where we had tiles that were shaped either as pentagons or hexagons. In fact, the PI is here at MIT, if I'm not mistaken. And they were magnetized. And so if you ever looked at a soccer ball, a sphere is actually composed of these different shapes. And so the idea is you could release these things and if you put 'em in the right way, they would all come together and make a sphere. And you couldn't, obviously couldn't do that in, in gravity, but in order to do that and to create structures. Taking advantage of the microgravity environment is, you know, one of a million examples of what we can do, uh, in the absence of gravity.

Jennifer: Yeah. And in terms of applications, you hear a lot about pharmaceutical research. Were there other, um, applications that, uh, folks with you were working on or towards?

Michael López-Alegría: Uh, another example, so Eytan Stibbe from Israel was taking a liquid polymer and he was, uh, injecting it with a syringe into a, a ring, an angular shape, and he would wet the inside of the ring with his fluid and keep adding fluid until that liquid actually closed. And then if he kept adding fluid after that, of course it, the, the liquid would adhere to the edge of the ring, but it would grow in thickness in the middle. And by adjusting that, he could make the shape be either convex or concave. And then we cured it with ultraviolet light and it solidified in a matter of minutes.

And so this is an idea that if you wanna make lenses in space, for instance, for applications of looking out the window or looking, making in a microscope, another thing. So I mean, I go on and on, it's um, they're all very distinct but interesting in their own right.

Jennifer: Yeah. I think I read you had 25 different experiments going on up there.

Michael López-Alegría: That's right. And when you think about the history of ISS in those 22 years that I mentioned, I think the number is approaching 3500. And just in, in a space of, you know, a week and a little bit, we did 25, so we were pretty busy up there. 

Jennifer: Yeah. Wow. 

Michael López-Alegría: Our Canadian, Mark Pathy did, uh, the first ever two-way holoportation from space. So he was, you know, in the lab I was watching him and he was having conversations with people that he thought were literally floating in front of him. And, uh, of course the people on the, on the ground thought that he was down there with them. Just another example, Larry Connor, the American in conjunction with the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic, was doing stem cell research in the life sciences glove box. So he would, you know, it's gotta be a very clean environment. And he had stem cell samples that he was treating with different additives, I guess sometimes to promote growth, sometimes to actually kill the cells and, and study them. . We did some interesting work with tumor organoids that were, um, looked at under a microscope actually from the ground and they found some interesting mutations that they would not have expected.

Jennifer: Folks, do you have any questions? If you would just raise your hand. We'll bring a microphone your way. 

Audience member: How does it feel to be in an enclosed environment for long lengths of time?

Jennifer: Do you mind to introduce yourself as well? 

Audience member: Oh, Betty Gerina, retired assistant chair of computer science at New Jersey City University.

Jennifer: Fantastic. 

Michael López-Alegría: Hi, Betty. 

Audience member: Hi. 

Michael López-Alegría: So there's closed and then there's closed. Um, I'll say that when you're at the, the most closed probably is in a space suit. When you're doing a space walk, you're, you know, you're in a very tight fitting. spacecraft if you will, which you're probably in for probably eight hours or so at a time. You know, you can obviously see outside and, and it's the biggest contrast you can imagine cuz you're in this tiny suit, but you have the expanse of the universe before you. I think that. First of all, if your claustrophobic space is not for you, um, that, that was, that isn't a particularly claustrophobic experience, but you definitely have the sense that, you know, you're, you're in a sports car, you know, it's really a, a, a very maneuverable tight thing that becomes part of you.

Michael López-Alegría: I'd say next on the spectrum is flying on the Soyuz, which is a Russian, uh, capsule. Three people. Incredibly small. I sometimes look at it now in the mockups and I can't believe I spent 48 hours in it. Going to the space station, the crew Dragon, the space shuttle, all about the same in terms probably the crew Dragon a little bit tighter, the space shuttle a little bit more. Once you get on ISS, it's pretty roomy. The cylinders themselves are about five meters in diameter and so, and the corridors, three meters. You know, it's square and you can float freely. There are, I don't know, several, there are more modules than there are people, and I remember on my long duration mission back in 2006, 2007, I'd go an entire morning or afternoon without seeing somebody because they were all doing their things in their own modules. So it doesn't feel, certainly, physiologically imposing. Now there is that sense about, you know, I can't go out if I want to. I guess people just get prepared for that psychologically, and, and it really isn't a factor. 

Jennifer:  Alright. Do we have another question? Oh, I see one in the back there.

Audience member: Uh, hello. Yeah. My name's Bruce McCabe. I'm a futurist. Um, how far are you going now with recycling and the experience there with both water and materials and that sort of thing in the ISS? Can you share a little bit of that experience?

Michael López-Alegría: Yeah, thanks for the question, Bruce. So we do recycle most of the water. We like to say that yesterday's coffee is tomorrow's coffee. So it's not just urine, but all the humidity. All that stuff gets processed, and I don't know the numbers exactly, but I want to say it's 85 to 90% of the water that is brought up ends up being used again. Now we also use water to make electricity, and in the Axiom Station we're going to use a system called a sabatier.

Michael López-Alegría:  So we breathe carbon dioxide and this sabatier process can help with the carbon dioxide that's taken from there. And right now on ISS, they've done it in the past. They use the oxygen that separates that and they combine it with hydrogen. The hydrogen is expelled overboard. But we're gonna take that hydrogen and combine it with the CO2 from the carbon dioxide removal system and make methane. So our propulsion is all gonna be organically produced, if you will. And so that's obviously very important on the ISS. You know, it's the government prices somewhere around $50,000 per kilo to get something in orbit. So it's, it's... Not cheap, but it's pretty close by. You're thinking about going to the moon or even Mars? Especially Mars, I should say. Imagine, you know, having to bring everything with you on a trip that's gonna last 18 months maybe, and you've gotta bring food, clothing, water, oxygen, propellant, all that stuff with you. The more you can recycle, obviously the better. So it's important.

Jennifer: Oh great you have a mic already. Excellent. 

Audience member: I do. Hi, uh, T Velasquez Textron Systems. I, um, run a lab that develops, uh, autonomous systems for air, land and sea. So far we haven't branched into space. I wonder what have you seen for autonomous systems that are active on ISS elsewhere in the space domain? And could you offer a projection for the future of autonomous systems? Human autonomy teaming in the context of human spaceflight? 

Michael López-Alegría: Well, I'm a pilot by training and so I can talk a lot about the manual versus automated systems. Um, of course the space shuttle was fully manual in, in terms of both the final approach during rendezvous and the landing. So a pilot in the loop. A hundred percent. When NASA decided to commercially produce vehicles to go to the ISS contracts that were run by SpaceX and Boeing, there was a big debate about how much automation they were gonna allow. So the pilot union is pretty strong, and NASA, as you may remember from Mercury days, you know, they demanded to have a window, et cetera.

Michael López-Alegría: Well, that spirit lives on and we have a lot of capabilities in those vehicles, uh, of manual control. That, um, I think the providers, certainly SpaceX would've preferred to do without, but NASA made them requirements and so they are. I could tell you that from liftoff to splash down in the SpaceX vehicle.

Michael López-Alegría: I mean, the fact is the same vehicle autonomously docks and deorbits and does everything by itself in the cargo version. So you could argue that we're completely unnecessary to do the manual tasks, but we do have the responsibility of monitoring what's going on and doing it. And we could dock manually. We cannot control the vehicle's accent, but we can of course escape if we need to.So there are some things that we still have. I would use the analogy of automated airplanes in a commercial world. Technology has existed for a long time for airplanes to auto land, auto rollout, and, and auto break. , but they only do that for training every once in a while. Or ironically, when the weather's really bad.

Now is it gonna be tomorrow when, when passengers are okay with having a cock cockpit that has no windows and no pilots in it. You see what I mean? So it's a, it's much more of a visceral, um, argument. I think in some ways in space we don't have that problem, if you wanna put it that way. We just have to deal with the pilot union still. So I would envision the more advanced vehicles or the in the future vehicles will become more and more automated and, and less and less driven by humans. 

Jennifer: There was a question in this back corner here, and I wanna make sure. 

Michael López-Alegría: Yeah, good morning. My name is Jan Bock. I'm a tech and comms lawyer in Germany and I would be interested in this space debris, which you find up there and how you get that controlled once you are on the mission.

Michael López-Alegría: So we don't really control any of it. We rely on people on the ground who are tracking that sort of thing. Uh, there's obviously the government Defense Department is quite interested in what's going on, and they are kind of right now at least a belly button for tracking the debris. , I don't know. And so I have plausible deniability on what the size of the object that they can track. But it's fairly small. And so the way we mitigate the risk is that the ISS and pretty much any spacecraft is hardened to be able to withstand a certain size impact, or I should say impact from a certain size object. And that's based purely on probabilistic risk assessments. You know, there are very, very few really big things that could hit you. And there are a lot of really small things that could hit you. And somewhere you make a value judgment and you say, I'm going to armor my vehicle to withstand an impact on this size particle or smaller. And, and that's what the ISS is. So we have a very strict, they call it pnp, probability of no penetration that we monitor all the time. I can tell you after doing spacewalks, you can see impact, uh, a lot. It looks like pitting from, from small could be a paint flex that hit the, uh, ISS, but they're traveling at very high velocity. So that's how it mitigates sort of the stuff that we can't really control. Now, the bigger pieces, which are rocket bodies and, and you know, defunct satellites, those are gradually probably. A little late, but I think in some ways, like climate change, people are recognizing that socially in a way, we have to be responsible about that stuff and we can't just discard these things. And so there'll be, I don't think I can say regulations yet, but there are certainly guidelines put up by the government with certain enforcement mechanisms that are encouraging the industry to deorbit defunct satellites, deorbit used rocket bodies, et cetera. So, slowly trying to clean that up, but it's a process.

Jennifer: Going to a question online, we have a Neil from Miu asking, do you feel the overview effect? Can it help expand your perception box? Sort of, and you should probably explain the overview effect for folks who may not know.

Michael López-Alegría: So the overview effect has been documented since Apollo days, and that is, uh, a shift in perspective that people feel when they see the Earth from space. And it is, I would say, subtle, but real. And you definitely feel more connected to both the planet and the people on it. You don't see the borders of countries like you do in a map when you're looking at it. Earth looks just like it does in a map with that one pretty important exception, and you don't see the problems.

Michael López-Alegría: It seems very peaceful and very tranquil and very much in contrast with what it looks like when you look out into space and you see nothing but you know, black darkness with a lot of white points of light. And you see that we're only separated from that by this thin blue line, the atmosphere, and you start thinking about we really ought to do our best to protect that line so it can continue to protect us. So this sense, this overview effect change in perspective has been experienced by, as far as I know, every astronaut's been to space, both suborbital and orbital missions. And I absolutely think that if we can expose more and more people to it, we can make the world a better place. And my journey in commercial space actually started when I was a government astronaut.

Michael López-Alegría: I flew on this mission to the ISS that I mentioned before with, uh, Anusha Ansari, who was a space flight participant, one of the very first non-professionals to fly. And I was a little skeptical to be honest. And after spending time with her, both in training and in space, and seeing how she communicated. In 2006, she was doing something called blogging, a brand new thing. Lots of people were paying attention, people who otherwise wouldn't care about human space flight. And this started to dawn on me that this experience, you know, we shouldn't jealously keep it. We should openly share it. And this concept of democratizing access to space has really kind of took hold then. And I truly believe that every human, and the three that flew with me on AX1 will absolutely attest to this, who experiences that, whatever their footprint is on Earth. Some of the people in that footprint will be affected by that. And you can see this multiplicative aspect of how the overview effect starts to permeate things.

And the more people that we send to orbit. And suborbit. But in, in orbit, I, the three guys that flew with me were numbers 5, 82, 83 and 84 that have ever orbited the Earth. And now that number is higher, obviously. You know, we, we just continue to spread this feeling, uh, of the overview effect, and I think it's absolutely positive.

Jennifer: I think we're unfortunately out of time. I would love to squeeze in some more, uh, questions in the audience, but thank you for helping us get this day off in an inspiring way. I really appreciate you.

Michael López-Alegría: Alright, thank you. 


Jennifer: This episode was produced by me, Anthony Green, and Emma Cillekens. It’s edited by Mat Honan, directed by Erin Underwood and mixed by Garret Lang. 

The show was recorded in front of a live audience at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with special thanks to Amy Lammers and Brian Bryson.

Thanks for listening. 

I’m Jennifer Strong. 


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