Design for Real-Life Scenarios

Frame_ December 2014

Design for Real-Life Scenarios at the Edge of Space Fiction

Read the full article online at Frame

Disaster Playground is a creative platform investigating the design of emergency procedures in the international space programme, with world-renowned space experts at NASA, the SETI Institute and an all-star team of composers, writers and international collaborators. Launching in March 2015, we caught up with this mega-project’s creator to find out more.

The fire in the Disaster Playground’s engine is Nelly Ben Hayoun – designer, explorer, seeker of extreme experiences, and not a person to take no for an answer. She already managed to set up the first International Space Orchestra and is in training to go into space herself. So if you wanted someone to figure out who was in charge if ‘the big one’ was ever to hit Earth, Nelly Ben Hayoun is who you’d want to call.


How did your fascination with space start in the first place?
I have always been fascinated by space, the scale of the universe, and travel. It drives us to speculate: how are we going to survive it? There are all of these technical and scientific questions that I love to think about, but there is also the fact that I’ve always been drawn to extreme challenges. I’m completely fascinated with places that are very difficult to access due to geopolitical barriers. Amongst all my projects, producing a project at NASA has been the most challenging, nerve-wracking but absolutely sublime experience.

Tell us more about Disaster Playground.
Disaster Playground is about the design of emergency procedures, nailing down who is in charge, who defines the procedure when things go wrong, and according to which rationale. It’s not like we get bombarded by meteorites all the time – but imagine there is an asteroid landing on the Netherlands – not even a big one – it could damage all of Amsterdam. We have the tools that could deflect it before it comes here, but first we have to change the way we monitor the sky and organise politics to be able to deal with it in time.

We have to pay attention.
Yes, and we have to pay to support the Near Earth Object Programme. You don’t get a space agency rolling for free. NASA is the only agency who has been working seriously on the threat of asteroids (Europe is starting with the Neoshield programme). Why would they pay to protect the Netherlands? There is also an international coalition of scientists and diplomats (United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs), who put a proposal in 8 years ago for dealing with asteroids – called the ‘Asteroid Threats: A Call for Global Response’ – and only now, did the United Nations agree that there is a problem we need to address!

How likely is the threat of an asteroid impact?
Rather likely actually. Between 2000 and 2013, an infrasound system catalogued 26 major explosions on Earth. It also became clear that this was not such a speculative threat with the 20-m-wide object that landed in the Russian city Chelyabinsk in 2013.

Your website says that Disaster Playground documents the edge of space fiction. Could you describe further?
Disaster Playground is a mega-platform, with many outcomes: there is a documentary feature film (to be released in March 2015), an exhibition, books, debates… I like to call these mega-projects. Disaster Playground is about the design of emergency procedures and nailing down who is in charge. There is a chain of command in place – running from the reception desk at NASA to the monitoring devices (telescopes), and from NASA headquarters, to the Whitehouse and finally to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs where the final action plan will be decided (at least on paper).

So, space fiction?
Doing the project, we, of course, came across Hollywood’s version of apocalypse/space catastrophe in films, such as Armageddon for example. There is an ongoing dialogue inside the feature film and the other project outcomes on the role that science – in our case scientists – should fulfil. We are looking at the pop culture as a start and then we engage with the reality of each events, the real people who are the ‘real Bruce Willis’. Thus, comes about the term ‘space fiction’. Disaster Playground aims to get you to engage critically with the human condition in place in the space programme, the craft, the real people doing it, their quirkiness, sometimes their imperfect reactions and their successes.

What does Disaster Playground mean to you?
I am looking at designing ‘extreme experiences’ for the public in order for them to question what the future of space exploration might be, how could they make dark energy in their kitchen sink, and other surreal experiences. I believe that, by taking an extreme approach, you really get them to actively engage with a cause or a research and that is what motivates me when it comes to space exploration: I want to see the next woman on Mars or on an asteroid, and without public backing that will not happen. Disaster Playground is a critical platform that engages the main actors of the project to reflect on their practice and get members of the public to engage with what the craft of space exploration is, who are the people ‘making’ it, and where is this all going?

What is one major downside of not getting funding for the space programme?
There is a loss of institutional knowledge, which is incredibly sad. NASA is already forgetting the craft and the knowledge of generations. Not many people can now do the necessary archival work. Funding comes and goes, and governmental cuts hit the space programme very heavily. We haven’t archived all of the successes from the Apollo mission! I went to visit some place in the middle of Texas (the Lunar and Planetary Institute USRA) where they have the flight plans of Apollo 11, 12, etc… They are the only copies in existence. Some have been scanned and available online but a lot of them are lost in these shelves.

It’s cultural heritage!
Absolutely, but there is no money to support an archiving system. Someone needs to do a PhD and archive it all… I’m doing a PhD, but not on the archiving! It’s mainly about the International Space Orchestra and Disaster Playground, about how you can implement design of experiences within an institution for its own benefit, and for the benefit of the public. These projects are not about me gaining personal access; they are about sharing the knowledge that I gain. I’m not working for scientists. I’m working for members of the public to access this incredible knowledge in an experiential manner.


Disaster Playground is a mega-platform project that engages the public at many levels with various outcomes – documentary feature film, books, an immersive experience, debates, exhibitions. The creative platform launches in March 2015 with the release of the film. More information at: