MIT HUMANS project breaks down borders, empowering global voices to reach for the stars
When the Axiom-2 mission launches later this month, it will carry with it a payload of languages never heard beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The Humanity United with MIT Art and Nanotechnology in Space (HUMANS) nanowafer, which will travel to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the mission, is a record of messages in over 64 unique languages from stargazers around the world.
Drawing inspiration from the One.MIT Project, HUMANS is a new kind of Golden Record — one that speaks not to extraterrestrials, but to humanity itself. Once in orbit aboard the ISS, astronauts will display the HUMANS wafer and play a mesh of audio submissions on a livestream, allowing contributors to hear their voices, and for some, their native languages, in space for the very first time.
Later this year, a smaller, 2-inch-diameter version of the HUMANS wafer will journey to the south pole of the moon with the MIT Space Exploration Initiative’s “To The Moon To Stay” program with Lunar Outpost and Intuitive Machines, taking HUMANS beyond Earth’s orbit and into deep space.
HUMANS is a symbolic declaration that space is a place for us all, and that our exploration of the cosmos is a global endeavor, not a national one.
Bringing unity to space: The HUMANS project takes flight
Project lead Maya Nasr PhD ’23 and her co-founder, Lihui Zhang ’21, first met in the class 16.891, a space policy seminar taught by Dava Newman. The two quickly bonded over their shared passion for space, despite facing constant challenges and setbacks due to their nationalities (Nasr hails from Lebanon, while Zhang is from China). The HUMANS project, a result of their shared frustration, is a powerful initiative that aims to increase global representation in space.
“In conversations about diversity, we put a lot of emphasis on race and gender, which are very, very important — critical,” Nasr states, “but passport privilege and nationality-based discrimination are almost never talked about, and I think it should be equally involved in the conversation.”
Backed by the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) in the MIT Media Lab, the HUMANS project embarked on their ambitious campaign in July 2021, asking participants, “Tell us, in your own native language, what does space mean to you and to humanity?” Through UNESCO and university mailing lists, as well as art and museum exhibits, HUMANS received an outpouring of responses from thousands of individuals worldwide.
“Space holds a vast and significant meaning to people from various aspects — scientific, cultural, ethical, and inspirational, to deeply personal connections,” Nasr reflects. “We were fortunate to receive several incredible submissions, from young people who aspire to be astronauts, to those who found a spiritual refuge in space, to others who shared touching stories about their loved ones who have passed away. … For them, space and the skies was viewed as a profound connection to the people they lost. It is heartwarming to see how deeply personal and emotional the meaning of space can be to some individuals.”
A collaboration of art and science: The HUMANS wafer comes to life
Once collected, reviewing submissions became the team’s greatest challenge — and greatest reward. For a year, the HUMANS team, along with many external reviewers, read and listened to each one of the submissions prior to final selection. With certain languages, such as rarely spoken Indigenous languages, finding a reviewer proved difficult. Though challenging, it was also incredibly rewarding, notes Nataliya Kosmyna, lead of content and outreach for HUMANS.
“The native speakers who helped us put all their energy in communicating the meaning of the messages as precisely as possible,” Kosmyna remarks. “I can tell you that there is no translation service out there that can truly transcribe this connection. It is beautiful and truly human.”
Once submissions were finalized, the HUMANS team worked with Nikhil Uday Singh and Tod Machover in the Media Lab’s Opera of the Future group to weave together the diverse language recordings into a cohesive audio composition that captures our shared curiosity and connection to the cosmos.
Finally, in partnership with MIT.nano, the HUMANS team embarked on the crucial phase of designing and etching the wafer. The computational implementation of the wafer was led by Craig Carter, the Toyota Professor of Materials Processing in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, followed by the CAD design preparation led by Annie I Wang, a research scientist at MIT.nano. Consistent with the mission of HUMANS, the wafer features at its center an equal-area projection map, which is regarded as the most accurate representation of the size of Earth’s continents and oceans as viewed from space. Surrounding the map are data-packed grooves created with cutting-edge nanotechnology, which store the text and audio waveforms. The wafer manufacturing and nano-etching effort were led by Somayajulu Dhulipala, mechanical engineering (MechE) PhD candidate; Jon MacArthur, PhD ’23 in aeronautics and astronautics (AeroAstro); and Jan Onchoke Tiepelt, electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) PhD candidate.
“The combination of art and science is a collaboration that we see very rarely,” reflects MacArthur. “This was a great opportunity to collaborate and reiterate the importance of space and exploration for our entire species.”
HUMANS is an interdisciplinary effort that showcases MIT’s academic diversity. Project lead and co-founder Nasr and co-founder Zhang were supported by a team of individuals from different backgrounds and fields of study. Nataliya Kosmyna, a researcher in the MIT Media Lab; Claire Cheng ’22, electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) and humanities, arts, and social sciences; and Nour Flayhan, a Lebanese artist, were responsible for outreach, website development, and content creation.
Wafer design and computational implementation were overseen by Carter and Wang. The manufacturing, nano-etching, and testing were executed by Dhulipala; MacArthur; Onchoke Tiepelt; Jorg Scholvin, assistant director of user services at Fab.nano at MIT.nano; Aditya Ghodgaonkar, MechE PhD candidate; and Vladimir Bulovic, director of MIT.nano.
Nikhil Uday Singh, a PhD student in the Media Lab, and Tod Machover, Muriel R. Cooper Professor of Music and director of Opera of the Future at the MIT Media Lab, were responsible for audio processing. The Axiom-2 ISS launch opportunity was provided through the MIT Space Exploration Initiative, with mission integration and advisory led by Sean Auffinger and Ariel Ekblaw, director of the SEI; Xin Liu, SEI arts curator; Sands Fish, SEI design researcher; and Jeffrey Hoffman, professor of the practice in AeroAstro.
Lastly, the MIT Office of the General Counsel (OGC), specifically Jason Balesta, provided crucial legal advice throughout the project’s development.
In celebration of the impending launch, HUMANS is collaborating with the MIT Museum to host several events — After Dark: Space on May 11 from 6-9 p.m., and Exploring the Collections the afternoon of May 14. After Dark will give attendees a chance to see the HUMANS wafer in person, along with presentations and interactive workshops on various space-related topics. On Sunday, visitors will get up-close and personal with a wide array of objects from the museum’s collection, with a focus on HUMANS. Once the wafer is in orbit, the HUMANS team and the MIT Museum will host a livestream to watch as astronauts display the wafer and play the audio composition for the first time, date and time to be determined.
“HUMANS set out to challenge our prior conception about space and space exploration and collected answers that were not only inspiring, but humbling, and interestingly, invoked a deeper sense of what it means to be a human,” reflects co-founder Lihui Zhang.
The team encourages everyone to search the collection of messages and learn more about the project at humans.mit.edu.
In addition to the HUMANS nanowafer, the upcoming Axiom-2 launch will also carry the Gravity Loading Countermeasure Skinsuit to the ISS for technological demonstration and physiological investigation by the Axiom-2 crew. The team is supported by AeroAstro and the SEI, and led by Rachel Bellisle, PhD student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology, and Dava Newman, director of the MIT Media Lab. The skinsuit is an innovative intravehicular activity suit designed to mitigate some of the physiological effects of microgravity. The system is intended to supplement exercise during future missions to the moon, and eventually, to Mars.