Angelo Vermeulen: How to go to space, without having to go to space

Hits: 1521

Angelo Vermeulen


"We will start inhabiting outer space," says Angelo Vermeulen, crew commander of a NASA-funded Mars simulation. "It might take 50 years or it might take 500 years, but it’s going to happen." In this charming talk, the TED Senior Fellow describes some of his official work to make sure humans are prepared for life in deep space ... and shares a fascinating art project in which he challenged people worldwide to design homes we might live in there.

 

  


0:11

I am multidisciplinary.

0:13

As a scientist, I've been a crew commander for a NASA Mars simulation last year, and as an artist, I create multicultural community art all over the planet. And recently, I've actually been combining both. But let me first talk a little more about that NASA mission.

0:32

This is the HI-SEAS program. HI-SEAS is a NASA-funded planetary surface analogue on the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii, and it's a research program that is specifically designed to study the effects of long-term isolation of small crews. I lived in this dome for four months with a crew of six, a very interesting experience, of course. We did all kinds of research. Our main research was actually a food study, but apart from that food study -- developing a new food system for astronauts living in deep space -- we also did all kinds of other research. We did extra-vehicular activities, as you can see here, wearing mock-up space suits, but we also had our chores and lots of other stuff to do, like questionnaires at the end of every day. Busy, busy work.

1:20

Now, as you can imagine, it's quite challenging to live with just a small group of people in a small space for a long time. There's all kinds of psychological challenges: how to keep a team together in these circumstances; how to deal with the warping of time you start to sense when you're living in these circumstances; sleep problems that arise; etc. But also we learned a lot. I learned a lot about how individual crew members actually cope with a situation like this; how you can keep a crew productive and happy, for example, giving them a good deal of autonomy is a good trick to do that; and honestly, I learned a lot about leadership, because I was a crew commander.

2:00

So doing this mission, I really started thinking more deeply about our future in outer space. We will venture into outer space, and we will start inhabiting outer space. I have no doubt about it. It might take 50 years or it might take 500 years, but it's going to happen nevertheless. So I came up with a new art project called Seeker. And the Seeker project is actually challenging communities all over the world to come up with starship prototypes that re-envision human habitation and survival. That's the core of the project.

2:35

Now, one important thing: This is not a dystopian project. This is not about, "Oh my God, the world is going wrong and we have to escape because we need another future somewhere else." No, no. The project is basically inviting people to take a step away from earthbound constraints and, as such, reimagine our future. And it's really helpful, and it works really well, so that's really the important part of what we're doing.

3:03

Now, in this project, I'm using a cocreation approach, which is a slightly different approach from what you would expect from many artists. I'm essentially dropping a basic idea into a group, into a community, people start gravitating to the idea, and together, we shape and build the artwork. It's a little bit like termites, really. We just work together, and even, for example, when architects visit what we're doing, sometimes they have a bit of a hard time understanding how we build without a master plan. We always come up with these fantastic large-scale scupltures that actually we can also inhabit. The first version was done in Belgium and Holland. It was built with a team of almost 50 people. This is the second iteration of that same project, but in Slovenia, in a different country, and the new group was like, we're going to do the architecture differently. So they took away the architecture, they kept the base of the artwork, and they built an entirely new, much more biomorphic architecture on top of that. And that's another crucial part of the project. It's an evolving artwork, evolving architecture. This was the last version that was just presented a few weeks ago in Holland, which was using caravans as modules to build a starship. We bought some second-hand caravans, cut them open, and reassembled them into a starship.

4:24

Now, when we're thinking about starships, we're not just approaching it as a technological challenge. We're really looking at it as a combination of three systems: ecology, people and technology. So there's always a strong ecological component in the project. Here you can see aquaponic systems that are actually surrounding the astronauts, so they're constantly in contact with part of the food that they're eating.

4:49

Now, a very typical thing for this project is that we run our own isolation missions inside these art and design projects. We actually lock ourselves up for multiple days on end, and test what we build. And this is, for example, on the right hand side you can see an isolation mission in the Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana in Slovenia, where six artists and designers locked themselves up -- I was part of that -- for four days inside the museum. And, of course, obviously, this is a very performative and very strong experience for all of us.

5:25

Now, the next version of the project is currently being developed together with Camilo Rodriguez-Beltran, who is also a TED Fellow, in the Atacama Desert in Chile, a magical place. First of all, it's really considered a Mars analogue. It really does look like Mars in certain locations and has been used by NASA to test equipment. And it has a long history of being connected to space through observations of the stars. It's now home to ALMA, the large telescope that's being developed there. But also, it's the driest location on the planet, and that makes it extremely interesting to build our project, because suddenly, sustainability is something we have to explore fully. We have no other option, so I'm very curious to see what's going to happen.

6:15

Now, a specific thing for this particular version of the project is that I'm very interested to see how we can connect with the local population, the native population. These people have been living there for a very long time and can be considered experts in sustainability, and so I'm very interested to see what we can learn from them, and have an input of indigenous knowledge into space exploration.

6:37

So we're trying to redefine how we look at our future in outer space by exploring integration, biology, technology and people; by using a cocreation approach; and by using and exploring local traditions and to see how we can learn from the past and integrate that into our deep future.

6:57

Thank you.

6:59

(Applause)