With the introduction of new technologies and updated approaches to teaching and learning, design education is constantly evolving. As we continue to explore new avenues for academic collaboration and knowledge creation, is space the next frontier in education?

As part of the Design in Space for Life on Earth Design Challenge, jointly hosted by WDO and the International Space Station National Laboratory last year, two teams aimed to explore this very question by developing a feasible framework for an ‘orbital university’ – an educational platform that would leverage space’s unique environment to foster innovative learning and research opportunities.

To better understand this intersection of space, design and education, we spoke to four challenge facilitators and participants, also experienced design educators: Fabro Steibel, Russell Kennedy, Nick de Leon and Ted Tagami. They share their thoughts on what defines an orbital university, the benefits it can offer and design’s contribution to this effort. 

1. What is an orbital university?

Fabro: While there is no ‘closed’ definition, some interpretations include: the orbital university connects orbit to Earth’s educational and research systems. It links a physical space in orbit to academic spaces on Earth, and uses the advanced point of view from space to look to Earth, and vice-versa. It also acts as an inspiration as to what educational systems might become – it looks to the whole planet, not to one jurisdiction and wants to make education accessible to all.

Russell: Our group defined an orbital university as an academic and research institution that would operate as an open and inclusive, multidisciplinary collaboration platform. We suggested it would start with remote residencies focused on creating a reconfigurable laboratory on the ISS, accessible via telepresence. We proposed a mantra of ‘missions, not majors’ that would be used to promote a culture of collaboration across diverse disciplines, perspectives, and geographies.

Nick: The orbital university should be an exemplar of what a 21st century university should become: inclusive, global in its outreach, a technologically enabled platform of platforms, a portal between the celestial and the terrestrial, operating at scale, and addressing the grand challenges we face, but preserving that deeply human characteristic of empathy with scientific curiosity. It would connect, inform, and inspire research and education from space, creating the future disciplines that can enhance life on Earth and our understanding of our place in the cosmos. 

Ted: Orbital University begins as a created space of bits, not atoms. It is designed to offer a place of discourse across complex problems that require multiple disciplines to solve. It will move along with the evolution of the commercialization of the space industry with eventual physical components that enable global researchers access to esoteric laboratory equipment far too expensive for any one institution. It will bring together a transdisciplinary group of academic researchers with a focus on specific missions. 

2. Why move education to space?

Russell: This question was best answered by the late Christa McAuliffe when she said: “Space is for everybody. It’s not just for a few people in science or math, or for a select group of astronauts. That’s our new frontier out there, and it’s everybody’s business to know about space.” The prototyping phase of the Design in Space for Life on Earth Design Challenge involved creating a name, brand and mission statement for the Orbital University. Our group established a working title of the McAuliffe Orbital University as a way to honour Christa and her spirit of inclusiveness.

Nick: A combination of functionality and symbolism. The microgravity, vacuum and vantage point provide an environment for research and learning that can create the skills and insights for the burgeoning space economy. But the symbolism of a space presence, not just for the next decade, but also at the start of this millennium is important. You don’t build a university with a decade long lifespan. The universities of the 14th century are still with us. This would be the first step in building a university presence beyond the bounds of earth, visible to all humanity, a place of international collaboration and knowledge creation, sharing and dissemination. 

Ted: Let’s reframe the question to “Why extend university research to space?” Successful universities thrive on research led by professors and students. Yet through the traditional credentialing process, institutions fall short of orienting the advanced student to the extraordinary complex problems that exist beyond Earth. While many papers exist, textbooks have not yet been written on the complex oblique intersections between physics, biology, chemistry, or really any discipline in concert with any one or more disciplines. This mindset of an interwoven set of disciplines coming together to solve these new complex challenges became a cornerstone of our thinking on how the future might be shaped around these new learning paradigms. Dare I say we may be entering into a post-disciplinary world?

3. What are the benefits of this unique learning environment and experience?

Fabro: The orbit position is visible to all, and reflects how education/learning environments should be accessible and common to all. Space also offers the opportunity for unique research, and use of space-based technology and educational technologies to connected hardware and learners on Earth.

Ted: There are 3 primary qualities of the environment in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) worth considering for transdisciplinary research: observational vantage point, extreme environment, and microgravity. Research is being done across all three of these domains in a matrix that spans across virtually all academic disciplines. The orbital university could enable a research platform for all engaged institutions and individuals across multiple disciplines.

Russell: The orbital university concept provides students and researchers with many benefits, none more important than the unique perspectives of Earth due to the low orbiting vantage point provided by the International Space Station. The concept of an orbiting university places the student in a unique position to view things differently. Be it virtual or real, the view from space highlights the vulnerability of earth and positions it within a different scale in the mindset of designers responding to the impact of the Anthropocene.

4. How can we apply space-based research here on Earth?

Russell: The aim of the orbital university is to nurture the best and brightest contributors from anywhere on earth to identify, prioritize and seek solutions to earth and humanity’s biggest challenges. Over the last 20 years the ISS has conducted more than 3,000 experiments, which have provided unique insight into biology and physics. Knowledge generated in space has inspired many innovations, including cell phone cameras, water purification systems and has led to discoveries in medicine, materials, and manufacturing.

Nick: The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals address the biggest challenges facing our earth now, needing urgent attention. This is a good place to start with degrees being awarded for missions rather than majors, which is what the orbital university would offer –  a degree in tackling particular types of ‘wicked problems’ and leveraging space-based research alongside different disciplines from the social sciences, physical sciences, information technology and business. 

Ted: The US National Lab aboard the International Space Station currently fulfills this role with their research in space to make life better on Earth. Applied research in artificial retinas, pure fiber optic cables, drought resistant plants, and even new understandings of how genes might express themselves under these unique stresses will lead to discoveries and new business applications. 

5. What could be design’s contribution to this effort?

Fabro: Collaborative research and educational processes need to be more accessible – there is a need to design research tools, datasets, research outputs and communication from a collaborative point of view.

Nick: Design brings not only creativity but also imagination and empathy. We need designers able to imagine and give form to the new world we are fighting for, and empathy and insight to understand how we move from where we are, to where we could be.

Russell: Design can contribute to the orbital university on many levels. Problem solving and ideation exploration through the design thinking process is a starting point. Digital communication design is integral to creating tele-present connectivity between earth and space. Communication design would also play a role in building awareness through branding/storytelling. Industrial design and architecture are also crucial areas which are integral to space exploration and the development of the orbital university.

6. Will space play a future role in design education specifically?

Ted: As in all the disciplines, design will be faced with new challenges not encountered on Earth. The third dimension will be more important in the design of spaces — how will human needs adapt to these new environments involving not just gravity shifts, but also significant changes in atmosphere, temperature, and light.  

Fabro: Yes and no. NASA has done a lot of leading research on crowdsourcing research, but the overall impact on how educational institutions work is limited. Space research grows rapidly in private sector institutions, but uses are focused on core private sector interests. Results are shared with citizens, but only indirectly.

Russell: There are many areas of pedagogy that already embrace the field of space, including futurist design, space architecture, communication design, materials design, systems design and user experience design, among others. Fundamentally, design is a connecting point of all fields of endeavour and provides a bridge between art, science, technology, engineering and commerce. It is an integral component of all new learning.

Nick de Leon is the Executive Education and Knowledge Exchange Lead in the School of Design, Royal College of Art (United Kingdom) where he leads the development of the School’s research and knowledge exchange relations.

Russell Kennedy is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University (Australia) and the Co-Director and Research Fellow of Design Mind, International Design and Innovation Platform.

Fabro Steibel is an Independent Researcher at the Open Government Partnership in Brazil, a postdoctoral fellow at the United Nations University, and a visiting researcher at the University of California San Diego. He is also the executive director of ITS Rio.

Ted Tagami is the Education Outreach Advisory Chair at ISS US National Lab, and the co-founder of aerospace EdTech company Magnitude.io, Inc.

Learn more about the orbital university, and the Design in Space for Life on Earth Design Challenge in our Design Challenge Final Report

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