MFA thesis: bored in space: rituals in closed-loop environments


Rituals are a universal aspect of the human experience, they create meaning and purpose. Bored in Space: Rituals in Closed Loop Environments accepts that with technological advancements in space exploration, Mars colonization is on the horizon. The need for ritual practices follows human’s continued expansion into space. In an engineering-dominant culture, some organizations leading colonization efforts neglect to address the full spectrum of psychological human need that will arise during long term embedded states on a distant planet, yet varied experience is crucial to long-term adaptation.


The development and interest in the subject began in the spring of 2015 as a New Space project with Metahaven coupled with my work at NASA-Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The initial investigation stemmed from popular notions to potentially colonize Mars as set forth by the Mars One project. Given that Mars is barren, dry and highly radiated, establishing permanent human settlement on the red planet does not only require rigorous engineering and scientific achievement, but also a demanding attempt to study, design and develop a psychological system for the sake of sanity and well-being for future colonist. Considering the extreme environmental constraints, colonists must become highly inventive in their efforts to continuously simulate Earth-like environments and meaningful experiences. Thus, the manifestation of rituals and practices becomes a ripe subject for inquiry and design speculation.

The initial research focused on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs which discusses deficiency needs and growth needs. Within the deficiency needs, each lower need must be met before moving to the next higher level. Once each of these needs has been satisfied, if at some future time a deficiency is detected, the individual will act to remove the deficiency. Maslow's points are valid, however, I was interested in how individuals act not only in solitude, but taking his methodology further and dissecting an individual in society or a group setting, thus, I was lead to look at rituals. Ritual is in fact an inevitable component of culture, extending from the largest scale of social and political processes to the most intimate aspects of our self-experience. Yet within this universality, the inherent multiplicity of ritual practices, both between and within cultures, also reflects the full diversity of the human experience. Ritual’s rich potential insights as a tool of sociocultural analysis. It takes events from everyday life and give them a type of symbolic meaning. 


Without the ability to import and export in this constrained context, future explorers will not only tend to their daily tasks, but will spend a significant amount of time cultivating crops for food consumption, reducing their time for leisure. Overtime, impending feelings of isolation and confinement can lead to boredom and a monotonous lifestyle. If colonist must spend a significant portion of their day cultivating crops, how can a task transition into a meaningful experience with purpose and desire, or in other words, a ritual? I looked towards examples of British kitchen gardens which used to feed families. Due to economic expansion, these evolved into a culture of luxury. The progression of the kitchen garden could be a possible comparison to what gardens on Mars may become. As missions become longer, something which is seen as an indulgent luxury, such as having fresh food and growing or preparing meals in space starts to be taken more seriously. How will humans be able to re-create psychologically restorative activities that we currently partake in on Earth in a context confined to a very limited pallet of tools and ingredients? With significant time spent on a particular task such as space agriculture and crop cultivation, how might humans inject value and meaning into this task where gardening for survival becomes gardening for pleasure?

As a result, I constructed on photoshop the paintings to visually represent my research combined with my speculation of future Mars habitats:

STUDY ONE: BOREDOM (& what you make of it)

This study helped me develop an understanding of ritual manifestation with the creation of new tools in a new context while considering notions of nostalgia, memories, and self-identity. The short film was intended to be a mockumentary about a young boy currently living on Mars. My direction was to contemplate what rituals might look like in this confined environment and how the main character finds his way out of boredom. 


The interviewees were mostly selected from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I was curious to know if people were actually considering the psychological impacts for future colonists or explorers, especially in an organization that allows for this to become a possibility.

The questions below were asked to each interviewee: 


Combining concepts from the interviews, psychological research and imagery from science fiction, the photoshop examples below were intended to visualize a successful Mars habitat and more importantly, a transition from survival to experience, thus creating a future lifestyle. 


After looking at psychology, rituals, and conducting interviews with experts, a fruitful direction was to investigate what science is actually doing. The most comparable directions to consider are the advancements and achievements made on the International Space Station coupled with the technological advancements in space agriculture at the Kennedy Space Center. My research lead me to hydroponic systems, seed beds, aquaponics and even nutrient rich soil that requires minimal watering. Taking these concepts seriously, I attempted to grow my own versions, simulate a Mars environment (enclosed with no sunlight) and experiment with a variety of seeds to understand the amount of time, resources and energy these plants will need. Next, to understand how these concepts are incorporated on board the ISS, I conducted interviews with Vickie L. Kloeris, NASA's Space Food Systems Laboratory and Flight Food Systems manager who works under the Habitability and Environmental Factors Division and Dr. Grace Douglas, NASA's Advanced Food Technology Lead Scientist at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Both Vickie and Grace are in charge of all food preparation and development in flight.

1) HYDROPONIC SYSTEM: (seeds sprouted within four days)

This system required minimal effort, however growth was slow, minimal and in small increments. Making sure the water was nutrient rich became a daily task, while pruning became essential after plants reached 6" in height. 

2) AQUAPONICS SYSTEM: (seeds sprouted within two days)

Due to the toxicity in the water from the beta fish, this system required the most efforts of the three experiments. Seeds began to sprout within two to three days, however, besides feeding the fish every two days, pruning is essential to plant survival along with avoiding rot or contamination. Algae began to form after approximately two weeks, however the soothing sounds of an aquarium along with the beautiful aesthetic of the beta fish provided visual pleasure at most.

3) HYDROFARM / SEED GERMINATION WITH HEATED MAT: (seeds sprouted within one day)

This system required little to no maintenance. Soil was placed in each tray with seeds atop, watered once, and covered with plastic lid. An LED lamp was placed next to or on top of tray and left on in 12hr increments. The heated mat underneath the tray allowed for quicker germination success as seeds began to sprout within one day. Once seeds grew tall (approx. after day six), the pods are expected to be transferred into its own growing station for steady growth. This system provided the quickest seed germination of all three experiments.


Amid experimenting with different forms of miniature crop cultivation, I decided to combine my findings with my research on pleasure gardens. 

BIBLICAL BIOME: Considering concepts of nostalgia, prayer and religion, future colonist might see the book of the Bible much differently as they did on Earth. In hopes to preserve a culture under the umbrella of space agriculture, I placed plants mentioned in parables of the Bible in a plastic biome, placed an LED lamp above, and over five months, the seeds began to sprout and blossom. The growth in the images below are results of approximately six months in the biome.

ZEN HERB GARDEN: Zen Buddhist gardens were designed to be miniature stylized landscape through intricately composed arrangements of rocks, water features, moss, pruned trees, and uses gravel or sand that is raked to represent ripples in water. The garden is relatively small, surrounded by a wall, and is usually meant to be seen while seated from a single viewpoint outside the garden. Its main intention is to imitate nature, not its actual appearance, and to serve as an aid to meditation. Transforming this idea for a Mars context, I decided to place potatoes, tomatoes in place of rocks, herbs in place of moss, and a pruned bonsai tree on top of sand in a miniature greenhouse to imitate what might be seen as nature for colonists on Mars.


My final representation of rituals in a closed-loop environment was embodied in a short film that encompassed my ethnographic research, speculations on future lifestyle, rituals, and culture while capturing real questions and considerations NASA experts were actually asking. Have done the above studies allowed me to design a surreal perception of rituals in space. This was intended to provide an imaginative and emotionally significant glimpse into these daily tasks, thus allowing for ritual manifestation. The purpose of my film in not a solution, nor a proposal, but rather a tool that aims to bring forth the importance of utilizing design as a means to speculate on a more imaginative and creative living experience for the sake of the psychological well-being.