Human technology

At the forefront of space innovation | MIT News

George Lordos is not your typical graduate student. A degree in economics from Oxford University, an MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management and a 20-year professional career did not end his learning journey. His lifelong passion for space, especially the prospect of making a sustainable society on Mars a reality, brought him back to school once again, this time to study aeronautics and astronautics. at MIT.

Lordos vividly remembers the impetus of this change in his professional trajectory. In 2014, SpaceX began demonstrating reusable rockets. “I realized that [developing] rockets that can go into space and back, it was like inventing sailboats that can cross oceans, or trains that can cross continents, for the first time,” he says. As human space travel became more and more feasible, Lordos adds, “I was looking at it all sideways, and I didn’t want to be left out.” Now he’s squarely on the front lines, developing technologies to support human life on the Red Planet.

A long-standing fascination with space

Originally from Cyprus, Lordos has been interested in space, particularly the idea of ​​living on Mars, since high school. As president of his high school astronomy club, he organized a trip to see Halley’s Comet, attracting more than 100 students. However, the trip did not go as planned; cloudy conditions ruled out any hope of seeing the comet. His classmates didn’t seem to care. “Everyone was much more interested in each other than in finding the comet. I think I was one of the few who was more interested in the comet,” he recalls. Luckily, on a camping trip a few days later, the night sky cooperated, “and there it was in all its glory.”

After considering studies in engineering or economics, Lordos attended Christ Church College, Oxford University, earning degrees in philosophy, politics and economics. He appreciates the perspective he gained through his degree. “One of the greatest gifts of my life was that I, an IT enthusiast, had the opportunity to learn to think about the important challenges facing our world,” he says.

Lordos worked for a travel company for several years digitizing its operations before returning to school to earn his MBA at MIT Sloan. After graduating, he worked for Bain and Company for a few years, then spent the next 13 years as a serial entrepreneur and self-taught engineer in information technology and energy efficiency consulting.

Throughout this time, his interest in space has never wavered. Before his first semester at MIT Sloan, he flew to Denver to attend the founding convention of the Mars Society, a group of engineers and scientists pushing for humanity to go to Mars. “I left the convention convinced that one day humanity would establish a sustainable civilization on Mars,” he recalls. “The only question in my mind was whether this would actually happen in my lifetime.”

In 2015, inspired by SpaceX’s reusable rockets, Lordos began to seriously consider returning to school for a doctorate. Even though he had missed the application deadline for MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, one of his economics professors at Sloan encouraged him to apply for the System design and management (SDM), aimed at mid-career professionals. “This program gave me the formal training I needed to fill in the gaps because I was a self-taught engineer for 15 years,” he says.

Build a city on the red planet

During his freshman year at SDM, Lordos applied and was accepted into the AeroAstro program, where he focused on finding ways to support human life on Mars. Given its distance, he explains, “the only way to live there requires substantial autonomy.” In his research, which relies heavily on modeling, he drew on his background in economics and technology to develop a quantifiable cost-benefit analysis method that measures effort, cost and value, qu he calls ‘lifetime embodied energy’.

“Through evolution, biology constantly seeks to optimize the use of energy,” he explains. “As a result, lifetime embodied energy is a measure of the past and future energy that must be expended to obtain value from any system. This metric helps the system architect make trade-off decisions more light, especially for infrastructure, and leaving more energy available to fuel long-term sustainable growth.

Beyond his doctoral research, Lordos also enjoys prototyping, which he pursues through various NASA competitions, including the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts (RASC-AL) and the Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-Changing (BIG) Idea. challenge. Over the past five years, the teams he has led or mentored have won 11 NASA awards for their designs, including prototypes of a high and light lunar tower And one ice extraction system for efficient water harvesting on Mars.

To support his teams, Lordos founded MIT’s Space Resources Workshop, where he serves as lab supervisor with support and guidance from Jeffrey Hoffman, professor of the practice and former astronaut, and Olivier de Weck, professor of the Apollo program and professor of astronautics and systems engineering. The studio is currently home to three teams of over 40 members, including 10 students from the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP).

In June, a team led by Lordos won first place overall in NASA’s RASC-AL for designing vehicles capable of reliably producing, storing and delivering rocket propellant to Mars. For the upcoming BIG Idea Challenge in November, he’s leading a finalist team building a field-reconfigurable robot to traverse extreme lunar terrain, named TOWARDS (short for Walking Oligomeric Robotic Mobility System).

In addition to NASA competitions, Lordos and his colleagues have won other notable awards, including from the Mars Society and the AeroAstro Department. For example, his team won first place for city ​​of starstheir vision for a sustainable city on Mars, as part of the 2019 Mars Colony Design Prize competition.

Find a “glimmer of hope”

Now in his senior year, Lordos admits that despite his success at MIT, being an older student hasn’t been without its challenges. There are basic stumbling blocks, like being “several decades away from my last math class,” he says. And there are other more complex issues. “When you’re an older student, you have other things going on in your life,” he says. He felt this keenly, as his wife’s career in Cyprus and their children’s university studies separated the family for long periods. He knows that he could not have continued his studies without their support. Nonetheless, he says, “one of the benefits of being a mature student is that for me, after a lifetime of experiences, it’s natural to see the big picture and also know what details matter. most.”

Lordos’ biggest challenge came suddenly at the end of 2021, when he was diagnosed with cancer. Fortunately, he received a lot of support. With his wife, children and MIT colleagues by his side as he went through treatment, he says, “We felt like all of MIT was part of our family. Today, he has every reason to hope for his future: a few weeks ago, he was declared cured of cancer after a scan.

He’s also hopeful about the promise of space. “Building a city on Mars is an opportunity for a second branch of human civilization. There are many things we would like to fix on Earth and our society, but it is difficult because there are so many competing interests. When we start over in a new world, we have the opportunity to work together for the greater good of all and to shine a beacon of hope for those of us who strive to make Earth a better place. .