DDD Episode 004

Continuity in Space and Time ft. Melodie Yashar

Kailin Li: [00:00:00] A distinct figure strides widely forward, with its head shaped like a helmet put on for battle.  The figure has no arms, but its legs seem an amalgamation of individual forms shaped like flags blowing with the wind. In fact, the body seems to blend into the dynamic movement of its surroundings.

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is perhaps the most well-known sculpture of the Futurism movement, which was born a few years before the First World War. Umberto Boccioni, the Italian artist who created the sculpture, was one of the leading figures of the movement. Futurism arose out of rebellion towards Greco-Roman classical art, which the Futurists thought had held back Italy’s progress.

In the first Futurist manifesto published by the poet Marinetti, he declared that museums, libraries, along with morality and feminism, needed to be destroyed. Instead of appreciating artifacts from the past, the manifesto celebrates emerging technologies, such as electricity and airplanes, as propellers to a brand new era.

In 1910, Boccioni himself published a Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting, where he had contended that “all subjects previously use must be swept aside in order to express our whirling life of steel, of pride, of fever and of speed.”

 The sculpture represents humankind’s tireless curiosity and resolve to uncover what is ahead and possible. Throughout our history, we’ve shaped the planet that we’ve occupied like no other species. And as we expanded our footprint on Earth, we also look to the stars and moon beyond as a source of wonder.

 A year after Boccioni created the sculpture, the First World War broke out. It was a moment of inflection towards the mass production and usage of technologies to inflict enormous casualties and destruction, like never before.  War, the very act that the Futurists praised as necessary for progress, ended up killing Boccioni and other futurists, putting an end to the movement effectively.

Even though Futurism was short-lived, the unrelenting pursuit of “Next” is a theme that persisted globally, serving as a key motivation behind the tension between the United States and USSR during the second half of the century. Both superpowers saw the race to space as proof of their technological and ideological superiority and accelerated technological innovations to launch satellites and eventually land the first man on the moon.

Since then, engineering and resourcing challenges remain, making extended human stay on surfaces beyond Earth still seem out of reach to many. But despite these major hurdles, humanity’s pursuit and fascination with the future continues. While generations apart from the Italian Futurists, there are people today who still probe the unknown, striding towards the future, both on Earth and beyond. What did they have in common with the futurist a century ago, and what’s changed? 

Today, Adam, David, and myself Kailin, speak with someone who actively thinks about these challenges in designing for the future. Melodie Yashar is a co-founder, designer, researcher, instructor, and technologist who works with cutting edge technologies, such as 3D printing and robotics, with the focus on human factors, to create space architecture for human exploration and settlement on the moon and Mars. Unlike the Futurists who relied heavily on rhetoric and manifestos to communicate their vision, Melodie beckons the future via rigorous research and implementation. Working with other scientists and engineers, she considers the constraints of extraterrestrial settlements, and actively designs to address them. 

In this episode, we’ll explore what it means to design for the future. What does it take to implement future-facing design and concepts. And once implemented, what are the implications for humankind society and the environment? This is Design Despite Disciplines, an MDes original podcast. Now here’s David, who will speak to the implementation of future facing design.

David Zhou: [00:04:57] In order to better understand Melodie’s perspective on design, we must first establish some context. A fly over of Melodie’s background reveals a nonlinear path that has led to her becoming a preeminent voice in space architecture. How did a one time rhetoric major develop the skills necessary to break ground at such a technically oriented research driven field? Immense intrinsic motivation and autodidactic skills aside, the framework that Melodie used to carve out her own career path can be seen in our approach to design. Although a trained rhetorician, there’s no manifesto Melodie could have written during her days as an undergraduate at Berkeley that could have charted her future trajectory towards space architecture. Just as her current position is a steady, intentional culmination of her experiences in industrial design, architecture, and human robotics interaction, her visions of extraterrestrial habitation remain grounded in the projectable technologies of today. Unlike the Futurists’ approach, which rips off the rear view mirror entirely, Melodie builds from the state of the art in order to iterate towards her vision of the future. 

Given Melodie’s unique portfolio of work as a space architect, she’s had the opportunity to design artifacts that do not just exist at face value, but rather have the power to inform what technologies and values that Melodie believes should be upheld and developed moving into the future. 

In 2015, Melodie entered the space architecture scene through groundbreaking designs for a NASA sanctioned competition that prompted contestants to design a 3D printed Mars habitat for the future . When asked about the future facing influence of the project, Melodie had this to say:

Melodie Yashar: [00:06:37] That is absolutely a part of that project, the narrative of making recommendations for the technologies that can enable this structure to happen. And , it’s equally important that , we establish the values of what problems should be solved first through the decisions we make and the habitat. These images have a lot of rhetorical power  they carry a lot of weight once you, explain like the narrative behind them is that we’re hoping that the technologies to, enable this will become realized.

David Zhou: [00:07:13] Although the rendered imagery and small scale prototypes have undeniable power in the way they spark curiosity and drive public discourse around the topic of space inhabitance, their most important attributes may lie elsewhere.

Within the naturally lit and greenery filled communal spaces of her NASA Centennial Challenge winning Mars habitat concepts, Melodie advocates for human factors in a world of immense technical challenges. When detailing how those structures would be built, she is implicitly and explicitly making recommendations on the composition of the additive materials used and how the autonomous 3d printers should interact with one another during construction. These specific technologies and processes might not be fully field tested and ready for deployment yet, but in Melodie’s eyes, they should be when mission planning begins. 

While the aspirational nature of her NASA Centennial challenge winning designs are clear and obvious to the general public, Melodie herself views them much differently:

Melodie Yashar: [00:08:13] I don’t really see anything that I do or that I’ve collaborated on is particularly trailblazing because it’s really about representing  the best that we know to date in research and in science and then evidence that we can use to actually substantiate that this will be possible. So it is extremely evidence driven. There’s nothing kind of fantastical about it or aspirational about it. To me, it just feels like we’re pulling together and synthesizing constraints and information. And the latest when it comes to the thinking that will actually enable these concepts to happen and bringing it together in a way that is visually coherent and that can speak to many, many more people. 

David Zhou: [00:08:59] Even though the visual prototypes for her projects are compelling enough to currently be on tour internationally as museum set pieces, Melodie’s concepts are created from a technically rigorous foundation, which grounds them in reality: allowing them to exist neatly within the interstice of science and science fiction.

 Using Melodie’s work as an anchor, we can begin to unpack what it might mean to design for the future in a broader sense. When tackling problems that may not be feasibly solved in a matter of years, a set of interesting questions arise, what will be possible moving into the future? What should be possible moving into the future? What technologies must be developed in order to realize those possibilities? For the sake of simplicity, we’ll categorize these types of questions as questions of implementation. How do we forecast in form the technology and processes that will make the currently impossible possible?

While Melodie may have laid the groundwork for the future of space architecture. There are still many years until human habitation of Mars becomes reality. Until then she’s committed to working on projects that contribute to the vision of extraterrestrial habitation:

Melodie Yashar: [00:10:10] When it comes to deciding what I work on,  a critical value, I guess you could say value proposition that needs to be made for the work that I’m doing is can it advance the vision of people living and working in space?  Does it support that vision and will it get us there faster? What is tremendous and amazing about the work that I’m doing with ICON is that it’s both, space-related, it’sspaces applications work and it has an immediate application for building and changing the way that we construct buildings on earth in the short term.

David Zhou: [00:10:44] As a stepping stone to Mars, Melodie and her team at Space Exploration Architecture have partnered with ICON, a leading additive construction company here in the United States, in order to research suitable materials native to the moon for 3d printing lunar structures. Even though ICON is most well-known for the pioneering earthbound 3d printed residencies, the development of autonomous additive construction technologies align with Melodie’s broader vision: enabling humans to thrive as an interplanetary species.

 When conceptualizing what it means to design for the future implementation is only half of the question. For the implications of such design. Here’s Adam:

Adam Huth: [00:11:26] When designing for the future, it is especially important to consider the implications of what is being designed. Design as a whole is neutral, neither positive, nor negative, and it is up to the designer to determine the ethicality and implications of their creation. While the early 20th century Italian Futurist movement was captivated by the promises of future technologies, like the speed of aircraft and the might of the industrial city, it also rejected morality, with futurists believing that nothing should stand in the way of future progress and the past should be discarded. These ideals, along with the resentment of the current state of global affairs, particularly with regards to other European countries’ power and wealth, and Italy’s lack of it, became intertwined with imperialism and later, fascism. 

Imperialism becomes a point of particular interest in the discussion of space travel and exploration. While humans have yet to step foot on Mars, ideas of “colonizing” or settling on the red planet have been around since the 20th century. Throughout history, imperialism has led to tremendous suffering and destruction, fueled by a lust for power and wealth. This begs the question – what are our motivations for space exploration? What is the why? And what are the implications of the why

These questions of why are critical when it comes to space travel, although it should be noted that these questions are critical in all design. Will space companies journey into the unknown for the sake of progress in the sciences, or will they look like the imperialist spice companies, stopping at nothing to extract resources that don’t belong to them? While it may be a while before we see a human on Mars, we may see people on the moon in the next 10 to 15 years. The why behind a moon base varies from entity to entity. For some, the mission brings new knowledge into the sciences, for others, new capital and resources. 

Melodie remains optimistic when it comes to space exploration. 

Melodie Yashar: [00:13:37] We have to be thinking long-term about sustainable and resilient systems that can handle things like waste and resource management. And we don’t want to go and just like pillage the resources of the moon for everything  that has commercial potential. But I think that there is also, you know, we have to respect the needs and the wants of people in research and science who are sort of looking for origins of the universe and who are doing fundamental physics experiments and, and respect the needs of multiple entities and stakeholders who would want to have a place on the moon.

Adam Huth: [00:14:15] While the specifics of what humankind’s presence on the moon will look like is still unknown, conversations on the implication of what a moon base would look like for humankind are especially important – we can look to the future, but we must not discard the past.

In our discussion with Melodie, another question that arose is: “why design for space when we already have so many problems, socially, environmentally, and materially, that we have yet to solve here on earth?” While this question is important, especially in the regards to the “why” of space travel, it must be noted that designing for space is not mutually exclusive with designing for earth. When designing for space, solutions for problems on earth can be found: technological breakthroughs, new products, and deeper understandings of the human body and brain have emerged in our journey to reach the stars.

Melodie’s work with ICON highlights this – where 3D-printing structures for space brings applications to earth, such as low cost housing and more resilient structures. 

Melodie Yashar: [00:15:21] This technology is positioned and poised to build faster, more affordably and to offer a higher quality of living and like a more creative and interesting and eccentric architecture than anything that has come before in residential construction.

It doesn’t compare to traditional timber construction. And of course, like, It’s extremely resilient in areas that are hurricane prone.  There’s a great New York Times article of on the Gulf coast, there was a hurricane that went through and basically an entire community was demolished apart from the one house that was built in concrete.

Adam Huth: [00:15:59] In this case, the implications of this technology are relatively positive – structures may be more affordable, sustainable, and safer.

Unlike the futurists, the present artifacts and applications of Melodie’s work fit into a consumerist economy, addressing varying needs and wants of people. The artifacts of the futurists, with their glorification of war and violence, fed and empowered fascism. While the objects of the now give way to different outcomes, the future facing aspects of both Melodie’s work and the futurists, act and did act as forms of inspiration and wonder as to what comes next in humanity’s tale. 

That said, even in the case of 3D-printed structures, we must be critical of even the positive implications – do negative implications hide in the shadows? With these improved structures via automation comes the concerns of job loss. Will automated systems, like ICON’s 3D-printers, put people out of work?

Melodie Yashar: [00:17:04] I don’t think that autonomous construction means necessarily that you are eliminating the need for human operators and for human supervision. That is for sure. Operations at ICON is no simple task and it is not going to be a full fledged kind of AI driven autonomously conducted operation , for many, many years.

And frankly, I don’t think that any technology industry that’s working in robotics will be striving for that within a like unregulated space, like a construction site, because it’s just too dangerous. 

Adam Huth: [00:17:40] Similar to the questions of the motivations of space travel, the potential implications of automation in relation to jobs lie very much in the future. And while the effects of these technologies may be a ways away, it’s absolutely crucial to be having these conversations now. The futurists chose not to have these dialogues and one could imagine them scoffing at the concerns of job loss in this specific scenario. Without thoughtful discussion and debate, we move towards the future blindly. Both designers and non-designers alike must understand the potential implications of their work, as well as the technologies behind them, if we are to genuinely work towards a better future for all of humanity. 

Kailin Li: [00:18:28] A century later, Boccioni’s cast sculpture sits in the Museum of Modern Art, inadvertently itself becoming an artifact of the past. While the Futurists declared their quest to purge their work of the past, in practice, this proved no easy task. Unique Forms of Continuity in Space has been compared to the Hellenistic sculpture, Nike of Samothrace, as well as work by Auguste Rodin in the 19th century. 100 years from now, how will we view the work of Melodie Yashar, along with other future-facing designers? Melodie approaches the practice with intentionality and awareness that our history doesn’t give way to a blank slate just because humans have settled into outer space. Despite our mistakes in the past, she proceeds to work with a prudent hopefulness towards the future.

As new public and private space ventures continue to spring up alongside emerging design disciplines, technologies, and movements, we must enable technologies while reflecting upon their consequences. Will this new era of space exploration discard lessons from our past, or will they take them into consideration? That, along with technological breakthroughs, perhaps will also be a sign of true progress.