Ariel Ekblaw: Space Colonization and Self-Assembling Space Megastructures | Lex Fridman Podcast #271 | Summary and Q&A

March 23, 2022
Lex Fridman Podcast
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Ariel Ekblaw: Space Colonization and Self-Assembling Space Megastructures | Lex Fridman Podcast #271


Self-assembling modular space architecture holds promise for constructing sustainable space structures in orbit and beyond, enabling space exploration and colonization.

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Questions & Answers

Q: How do self-assembling space structures work and what are their advantages?

Self-assembling space structures, like tesserae, consist of modular tiles that autonomously dock together using magnets. They offer advantages such as adaptability, reconfiguration, and the potential for large-scale, aesthetically pleasing designs.

Q: What are some potential applications for self-assembling space architecture?

Self-assembling structures could be used to build space stations, habitats, and even monumental space architecture like space cathedrals or ring worlds. They offer the potential for inspiring and enjoyable living spaces in space.

Q: What are the challenges of long-duration space travel?

Long-duration space travel poses challenges such as radiation exposure outside of Earth's magnetosphere and the need to address mental health and well-being for astronauts during extended missions.

Q: How could self-assembling space structures benefit space exploration and colonization?

Self-assembling structures offer adaptability and reconfiguration, allowing for changes in mission requirements, the number of occupants, and functionalities of space habitats. They can also enable more sustainable and scalable space architectures for colonization efforts in the future.


In this podcast episode, Lex Friedman interviews Ariel Ekblaw, the director of the MIT Space Exploration Initiative, about her work on autonomously self-assembling space architectures. They discuss her love for space exploration, the role of science fiction in inspiring real-life engineering, and the challenges and possibilities of living in space. Ekblaw explains her PhD research on tesserae, a system of self-assembling tiles for constructing large space structures, and envisions future space architectures, such as space cathedrals, organic structures, and ring worlds.

Questions & Answers

Q: When did Ariel Ekblaw first become interested in space exploration?

Ekblaw became interested in space exploration at a young age due to her parents' backgrounds as ex-air force pilots and the rich legacy of air force pilots becoming astronauts. Her father, in particular, was convinced that he would have the opportunity to go to space in his lifetime.

Q: What was Ariel Ekblaw's favorite science fiction author growing up?

Ekblaw's favorite science fiction author growing up was Isaac Asimov, especially his Foundation trilogy. She was fascinated by the focus on society and civilization in the context of space exploration.

Q: How does science fiction, including the work of Neil Stephenson, influence real-life engineering and design?

Science fiction often inspires real-life engineers and scientists, as ideas from authors like Neil Stephenson can spark new possibilities and visions for the future. Stephenson's work, which is grounded in science, challenges researchers to make his visions a reality. This cycle between authors, scientists, and engineers drives innovation and pushes the boundaries of what is possible.

Q: What is the Long Now Foundation and its relevance to space exploration?

The Long Now Foundation focuses on the long-term future of humanity and the steps that need to be taken to ensure a prosperous future. In the context of space exploration, the foundation considers how to scale humanity's presence in orbit and establish sustainable infrastructure. By democratizing access to space and creating larger, grander architectures, the foundation aims to inspire and create a prosperous future for humanity.

Q: What are the challenges of constructing space habitats that can sustain human life?

One of the main challenges is the need for self-sustainability in space habitats, including energy efficiency, climate control, and resilience to extreme space weather and radiation. These challenges require innovative technologies and systems, which can also have applications in extreme environments on Earth, such as in wildfire-prone areas.

Q: What are some potential threats to human civilization that motivate the expansion of humans in space?

As an ex-military family, Ekblaw's upbringing involved discussions about potential existential threats and the need to be prepared. Some examples of threats include nuclear war, pandemics, super intelligent AI systems, and climate change. However, instead of focusing on the need to abandon Earth, Ekblaw believes in using space technology to preserve and protect Earth, as well as to explore and expand human presence in space.

Q: Can self-assembling structures be used for applications other than space architecture?

Yes, the concept of self-assembling structures has applications beyond space architecture. It can be used for building bridges or other infrastructure on Earth, where optimization and adaptability are important factors. Self-assembly allows for efficient construction and the ability to adapt to changing conditions.

Q: What is Ariel Ekblaw's PhD research on autonomously self-assembling space architecture?

Ekblaw's PhD research focused on the concept of tesserae, which are self-assembling tiles that can be used to construct large space structures. These tiles are released in microgravity and are drawn together by powerful electropermanent magnets on their edges. The tiles have sensors for error detection and correction, allowing them to self-determine if they are forming the correct structure or if there is a bond error. The goal is to create modular and reconfigurable space structures that can be disassembled and reconfigured according to different needs and goals.

Q: What are some potential applications of self-assembling space architecture?

Self-assembling space architecture has the potential to create space habitats that are worth living in, inspiring, and visually stunning. It can be used to build structures like space cathedrals or organic shapes, as well as ring worlds that encircle planets or celestial bodies. The modularity and reconfigurability of self-assembling structures allow for flexibility and adaptation to different missions and goals.

Q: What are the challenges of living in space for extended periods of time?

One of the challenges is radiation, especially for deep space missions where there is no protection from the Earth's magnetosphere. Another challenge is maintaining mental health and wellbeing in the isolated and confined environment of space. These challenges require ongoing research and innovation to ensure the health and safety of astronauts in space.


Advancements in self-assembling space architectures have the potential to revolutionize space exploration and habitation. Self-assembly allows for efficient construction, adaptability, and the creation of visually stunning and inspiring space structures. It can also be applied to other areas, such as construction on Earth. However, challenges such as radiation and ensuring astronaut well-being need to be addressed. Overall, the future of space architecture is exciting and holds the promise of expanding human presence in space and beyond.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Ariel Ekblah, Director of MIT Space Exploration Initiative, discusses the potential of autonomously self-assembling space architectures for sustainable human habitation in space.

  • Self-assembling structures, such as tesserae, could be used to construct large space stations and habitats, allowing for reconfiguration and adaptability.

  • Challenges in long-duration space travel include radiation exposure and maintaining mental health and well-being for astronauts.

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