Melodie Yashar is the co-founder of SEArch+ (short for space exploration architecture), a senior research associate with San Jose State University Research Foundation at NASA Ames, and an instructor at Art Center College of Design. Formerly a designer and architect at various firms, she currently works on the relationship of advanced software and hardware systems for spaceflight. Before joining a Zócalo/ASU Interplanetary Initiative panel, “Can Space Exploration Save Humanity?,” she called into the virtual green room to discuss the rhetoric of space exploration, teaching “Life on the Moon” over Zoom, and nerding out on cybernetics.
How does your background in liberal arts come into your current work?
I think that my liberal arts background, more than anything, has been instrumental for communicating ideas to different types of subject matter expertise and disciplines. A lot of what it means to work in an interdisciplinary environment is that you can speak to different expertise without losing the big picture of what's going on.
What made you gravitate toward design for space?
I always knew that—despite the fact that I couldn't have ever foreseen that I would have a contracting position at Ames or I would be doing the work that I'm doing with SEArch+—what interests me the most, generally speaking, is working at the intersection of design and technology. In the times when I was working in traditional hospitality, residential-driven architecture, that was a gap for me that I was looking to fill. I try to keep that balance of design and technology in my research.
What have you been doing to decompress during quarantine?
I've been trying to spend a lot of time outside. Being physically active has been a welcome change. It wasn't something that I was so devoted to or routine about.
Also just being able to read more often, and having it be a central part of my day is another welcome change. I was moving around a lot before this all started, mainly because I was interested in meeting the relevant people in this field who are paving the way for construction on other planets and paving the way for technology development to happen so that we can 3-D print on the Moon and Mars. It was a lot of networking—and when the potential to network was suddenly gone, my focus shifted pretty radically.
SEArch+ designs architecture and systems for human habitats on Mars and the Moon. Is there a conversation in the industry happening about the ethics of colonization—or has it already happened?
In my experience, the rhetoric of a colony, or even the term colonization, is hugely problematic. It's something that I try and stay away from. “Colonization” is not even a word that we would use to describe what we're trying to do. Phrases like “lunar outpost” are more in line with the rhetoric of what we want to accomplish, or “pioneering human habitat.” Even phrases like “a moon base” have been discussed as being problematic. At this stage we're doing some rhetorical sidestepping because, frankly, the technology development roadmap for what we're working within is very aggressive.
Do you think that rhetorical sidestepping is sufficient?
I think there needs to be more of a discussion about the ethics and policy driven approaches to lunar expansion when it comes to international collaborations, or a lack of international collaboration, for example—particularly when it comes to landing sites and resource extraction and utilization. These are all things that we should really be on the same page about. There's also this question of planetary protection, which comes up a lot when we're talking about the Moon and Mars. As would be expected, there are conflicting opinions because there are conflicting motives. It's a topic that I want to become more involved in and that I hope I can contribute to a bit more in the future.
What's your favorite step in the design process?
Well, so much of what I'm doing right now has been research based and research driven and evidence driven. It's counterintuitive, but instead of there being a specified or finite research phase, I feel like—at least for the work that I'm doing right now—I'm always learning, and I'm always incorporating new ideas and new things that I read from publications, or even research shared infrom the news, because (as an example) some of the data that we have about the radiation environment on the moon changes as research is published. It's a living thing. Research never really stops, and that's one of my favorite things about the work that I'm doing right now.
Is there a piece of equipment or technology that you're dying to get your hands on?
We've been talking about working with regolith simulants such as JSC-1A or LHS1, which are lunar soil simulants, for so long, and I've never seen it or worked with it in real life. I know these materials are in extremely high demand, and I would love to see what this stuff is.
You’ve spoken about struggling with whether to let women’s work speak for itself or drawing attention to work being done by amazing women. How has your thinking on this evolved?
Particularly within the science and engineering domains, what I've found is that a majority of the women I've collaborated with are really not looking for what might generally be perceived as a “helping hand” in allowing their work and their research to be brought to the forefront of public attention. And while I understand and I completely see the need to approach research and scientific findings objectively and based on their own merits, what doesn't necessarily factor into these discussions are the systemic roadblocks that have been put in the way for women and people who are typically considered minorities to actually get to the point where your work is being considered equally amongst others.
So there's a challenge there for sure. And I certainly want to be somebody who's recognized for my work more than anything, but I also think that particularly in today's world, celebrating women, celebrating their stories, and celebrating unconventional and non-traditional paths toward groundbreaking work is something that should be recognized. I definitely fluctuate depending on the context and depending on what we're discussing, but that's been a real thing that I've encountered, and that I also see my female colleagues encounter as well.
Is there a woman in your work or education whom you've looked up to as a model for how to approach these roadblocks?
Monsi Román has been a real helping hand and patron to SEArch+ throughout our work. She is a scientist, a leader, and someone I look up to who has been immensely supportive of our development. She is so enthusiastic about what she does and is really someone who accelerates the work that NASA is pioneering overall.
You're teaching a “Life on the Moon” course at ArtCenter this fall. Is it weird, teaching at your own alma mater?
I wouldn't say it's weird so much, but I do feel like I am developing a relationship with the students, and I understand the curriculum that the students are working through in a way that others might not. But that said, I'm a new instructor there. And since it is a topic that's close to what I do professionally, in some ways I see it as an extension of the research and the work that I do. Because it's a design studio, it's important to me that the students have the opportunity to bring their own sensitivities and interests to the table. Some students are rethinking the experience of eating and dining in space, and others are rethinking the experience of using the toilet and the commode in space—so a wide range of human centered design problems.
What have you been reading lately?
Oh man. Well, the fiction I've been reading, I've been reading Camus. I've read A Gentleman in Moscow. I've read a bunch of Octavia Butler, and I started reading Anna Karenina. And then the non-fiction stuff I have, let's see... there's a book on the Iranian revolution. My background is Iranian. There's a whole bunch of books on cybernetics, which I nerd out on. And John Maeda's How to Speak Machine is another one.
That's an ambitious quarantine reading list. Speaking of your Persian background—do you bring any aspects of your cultural heritage into your work as a designer?
I don't think I'm at the point where I have or where I could say that I do. Although one of the amazing things that has happened over the years, especially through social media, is that a lot of young Iranian architects, students, and even engineers have reached out to me celebrating the work that SEArch+ has done and noting how inspirational our history and trajectory has been. That has been a very welcome surprise and something that I'm pretty excited about.
My last question: What is the most recent thing that's inspired you?
The rise in social and political activism that we've been seeing in this period, and particularly the willingness to gather—which is so ironic, given we're in a social environment where you can't physically gather. There's such a human need for connection right now, particularly when it comes to having a voice, and assembling groups of people is absolutely the way to do that.