Prototyping our Sci-Fi Space Future:

Designing & Deploying Projects for Zero Gravity Flights

Syllabus for Graduate Course MAS.838 / 16.88

Instructors: Ariel Ekblaw, Joe Paradiso, Jeff Hoffman

Class period and room: Tuesdays 9am - 11am, E14-514B

Recitations: TBD [optional/as required, see below]

12 units [2 hrs class time; 2 hr recitation time; 8 hrs out of class homework]

Course website:


Course Description: 

Welcome to the MIT Media Lab’s course on project development, prototyping, and deployment readiness for parabolic flights. This course supports an annually chartered research flight. Admitted student teams will be offered project-deployment slots on the MIT Space Exploration Initiative’s (SEI) Spring 2022 parabolic flight. This course will cover three main topic areas:

Weekly sessions will rotate between providing direct preparatory steps for the parabolic flight, building skills towards project development and testing, and providing background knowledge and relevant real-world examples via guest lectures. Recitations will be offered throughout the course, to support prototyping and project development outside of class hours. Students are expected to attend recitations, but can opt-out if they can demonstrate prior mastery of the skill in question. Short problem sets will be assigned, associated with the Mechanical Design, Sensing & Electrical Design, and Manufacturing lecture content. Limited readings will be required, with short reading responses and project page documentation submitted via the PubPub course website.

By the end of the class, we expect student projects to be ready to pass an internal Critical Design Review (CDR) with an accompanying, mature prototype. Students will be expected to use the intervening time over IAP to finalize a flight-ready model and submit final paperwork to the parabolic flight provider, with MIT Space Exploration Initiative guidance.

This class is not intended to teach the fundamentals of mechanical design, embedded programming & circuits, and rapid prototyping from scratch. On most topics, we will assume prior knowledge. If you are new to these skills, we recommend taking How to Make (Almost) Anything in parallel.

Admission to the Course: 

Admission to the course will be done by a “project team” consisting of one or more members. Interested graduate students apply via an online webform (link below) and share details on their proposed concept and team members. Depending on interest level and the number of applicants, we may have to cap team size to 3 or 4 people per project, actually admitted into the class. We do NOT require that all members of a team take the class, just a minimum of one representative for the project.

Admitted teams will be invited to take the class together and the associated single, coordinated project will be granted a tentative “project deployment slot” and one tentative “flyer slot” for a member of the project team to accompany and carry-out the research on the Spring 2021 flight (see definitions below). This means that several students may take the class together to work on a collaborative project, but we can only reserve one flyer seat per project. We will not choose who the ultimate flyer/operator is out of the team members -- this is up to the team and their research advisors.

Final determination of confirmed project deployment slots and confirmed flyer slots will be decided upon completion of a rigorous, novel prototype and thorough documentation that can demonstrate nearly-complete readiness to fly by the CDR at the end of the class. Course instructors will make the final determination on what flies. We do not intend to admit more projects into the class than we would have space for in the flight, so the course is therefore not a competition between teams. The reserved slots are there, but must be earned by high quality project completion.

Due to the physical constraints of the parabolic flight, we will only be able to admit a small total number of projects (and the final count depends on the physical dimensions of each proposed entry). Please see the course website for full details on admission criteria. The application will be open through Friday, September 17th, with final selections announced by Sept 20th, in preparation for the 2nd full class on September 21th. We strongly suggest applying as early as possible to give more time for review of your application, and because slots will be filled on a rolling basis. All applicants should attend the first class on September 14nd.

Interested in deploying a research project, with no need to personally accompany it? Great! These types of projects are easier to admit into the class, as they don’t require an additional reserved “flyer” spot, which are in short supply. Projects applying in this category should be primarily passive (e.g. physiological sensors worn by participants or similar), and not require extensive efforts from other onboard flyers.

Not sure if you want to apply but are still interested and want to learn more? Please fill out this form so we can share the link to our first class

How to apply:

Fill out this webform (linked to via course website as well):


Project team: Consists of one or more collaborators on the same project.

Project deployment slot: A reserved opportunity to deploy a single research experiment or project on the parabolic flight. Presumes a certain amount of floor layout space for hardware, room to operate, and floating space in the cabin.

Flyer slot: A reserved opportunity for one human to accompany and carry-out a research experiment or project on the parabolic flight as an operator.

Selection criteria:

Course Requirements & Evaluation:


Grade Percentage

Attendance, class participation, recitations


Reading responses, project pages, and p-sets


Mid-term Preliminary Design Review (PDR) + early prototype hardware review


Final project

  • Project prototype for zero gravity flight must be nearly complete and team must pass a final internal review (CDR)
  • Project will be graded on novelty of the concept, execution & demo-ed operation, and thoroughness of technical paperwork completion in advance of Spring 2022 deployment


Caveats on Joining the Class and Spring 2022 Flight:

Course Schedule:

A recitation will follow most lectures. Students can be exempted from attending recitation if they submit, by the night prior, a past assignment or portfolio project that shows mastery of that week’s topic. The recitation will provide an introduction to the skill that will be covered in the following week (paired with a pset).

The schedule is based on previous years, and may change to accommodate the many guest lecturers coming to speak to the class. An updated syllabus will be distributed after any major changes.




Reading + Recitation Topic

Sep 14th 

- Overview: review of syllabus, admission procedure, course expectations.

- Parabolic flight basics (flight trajectories, parabola microgravity quality, airplane equipment and international venue options, etc.)

- Effects of reduced gravity on humans

Ariel Ekblaw, Director, MIT Space Exploration Initiative

Joe Paradiso, PI for Responsive Environments group, MIT Media Lab

Jeff Hoffman, Co-Director, Human Systems Lab, MIT AeroAstro


Syllabus; admission criteria on course website; The Physical Behavior of Objects when Gravity is Missing; Weightlessness


Meet & Greet for teams; opportunity for collaboration/team forming

Sean Auffinger, Mission Integrator, MIT Space Exploration Initiative

Sep 21st 

Parabolic Flight Prep (120 min)

Ariel Ekblaw


- Parabolic flight provider’s “Payload User Guide

- Student Introductions

- Brainstorming activity

- Payload User’s Guide (PUG) overview

Sep 28th 

Parabolic Flight Prep (120 min)

Matt Carney, Biomechatronics Engineer at Amazon, frm. MIT Media Lab Biomechatronics group

Jamie Milliken, MIT Space Exploration Initiative


- Karmali Parabolic Flight Dynamics paper


CAD 3D modeling

(OnShape). Sean Auffinger

- Mechanical design & buckling analysis; structural calculations for withstanding envelope of flight conditions; factor of safety limits

- Sensing, actuation, and circuit design for zero gravity projects

- Best practices for safety, fault analysis, redundancy, and recovery

Oct 5th

Space Exploration Lenses (120 min)

Cady Coleman, Ret. NASA Astronaut

Jeff Hoffman

Sana Sharma, SEI Staff Designer

Ekblaw, Hoffman



Aesthetics of Verticality

The Reasons for a Symposium

In Free Fall

Mediated Perception Towards an Experience of Extreme Environments


The Effect of Altered Gravity States

Psychedelics can have the Same Overview Effect

Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth

We are all Aliens

Planetarium chapter of the Geostories, Another Architecture for the Environment book


Design Approaches and Aesthetics of Zero-G, Sands Fish, SEI Staff Designer

- Musical instruments in space

- Painting in space

- Moodboard/Design brainstorming activity and feedback session

- CAD pset due (Oct 8, 11:59pm)

Oct 12th

Space Exploration Lenses (120 min)

Ariel Ekblaw, Jeff Hoffman

Chris Carr, Assistant Professor, Aerospace Engineering & Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Tech


Nanopore Sequencing


None this week

- PubPub pages


-Life Detection Instrumentation, Venus mission study, microgravity experiment prep

- Design pset due (Oct 18, 8:00am) 

Oct 19th

Parabolic Flight Prep (60 min)

Dava Newman (9-9:30)

Jeff Hoffman


Rebecca Masterson, MIT Space Systems Laboratory

Javier de Luis




Office Hours - PDRs

- Examples from prior zero gravity flights (highlight of research missions across MIT & NASA’s research program)

- Designing for the deployment environment (constraints, restricted materials, unique operating affordances & considerations, etc.)

Space Exploration Lenses (60 min)

- Engineering for zero gravity & the space environment


Oct 26th

Parabolic Flight Prep (120 min)


Ekblaw, Paradiso, Hoffman, Auffinger,


PDR Assignment Description

ZERO-G Paperwork


Completing the PIP - Sean Auffinger

- In-class PDRs: 12 presentations, 13 mins each (with overflow, depending on availability)

Nov 2nd

Space Exploration Lenses (120 min)

Danny Hillis, Inventor & Cofounder, Applied Invention

Che-Wei Wang,

Founder, CWandT

machine shop, art & design practice,

Xin Liu, Arts Curator, MIT Space Exploration Initiative


New Models for Democratic Engagement

Prof. Danielle Wood’s Lecture

Electronics Kit BOM


Embedded Programming, Circuit Design, Sensing. Patrick Chwalek, Responsive Environments group, MIT Media Lab

- Designing for 10,000 years. Long Duration Development and Robustness.

- Manufacturing as an Art and Design Practice

- Discussion of examples from ML 2019 flight; fine arts to performance art, mixed-media, and interaction design; from historical examples to contemporary

Nov 9th 

Parabolic Flight Prep (60 min)

Ariel Ekblaw, Sean Auffinger, Jon MacArthur, Pat Pataranutaporn, Shreeyam Kacker

Sunanda Sharma


3D Scanning and Printing

CNC Machining



- Panel of previous student flyers

- Previous PIP examples

Space Exploration Lenses (120 min)

-Biological experiments in microgravity

Nov 16th

Space Exploration Lenses (60 min)

Jeff Hoffman

Ariel Ekblaw

Sean Auffinger





- Physiology of Microgravity

- Next steps for working with SEI (Suborbital, ISS, Lunar deployments)

- PubPub Reviews

- CDR/PIP Questions

Nov 23rd 

Parabolic Flight Prep (120 min)

Nicholas de Monchaux, MIT Professor and Head of Architecture

Sana Sharma, SEI Designer

Course instructors


Machine Shop overview

Remote Manufacturing



- Nicholas de Monchaux lecture: Fashioning Apollo

- Mission Patch Creation

- Office Hours, CDR, PDP Questions

Nov 30th

Parabolic Flight Prep (120 min)


Ekblaw, Paradiso, Hoffman, Auffinger,




Open Office Hours

- In class CDRs - Day one



Parabolic Flight Prep (120 min)


Ekblaw, Paradiso, Hoffman, Auffinger,




Open Office Hours

- In class CDRs - Day two

Dec 2nd


Veteran Flyers Panel & Reception

Note: outside of class time!

- Astronauts training flights + ISS flight time


Ekblaw, Paradiso, Hoffman, Auffinger, Dava Newman, Nicholas de Monchaux

Ret. Astronaut

Cady Coleman

Dec 10

Last day for orders/reimbursements

Dec 13th

Final PIPs due



Flight day!

MAS.838 / 16.88 | Fall 2021