News Space 24 September 2018

Why we need to send artists into space

The SpaceX mission to send painters and poets to the moon could have world-changing ramifications. Lauren Fuge reports.

"Here Men From Planet Earth", by Apollo 12 crew member, now full-time artist, Alan Bean.

"Here Men From Planet Earth", by Apollo 12 crew member, now full-time artist, Alan Bean.

Mid-September 2018 brought big news for science and art alike: as its first private lunar mission, Elon Musk’s company Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) plans to send artists to orbit the moon. Slated for launch in 2023 aboard the company’s Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), the “Dear Moon” project is being backed by Japanese entrepreneur and billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who intends to take six to eight artists with a range of backgrounds, from literature to dancing to architecture.

Each artist will be asked to create a work upon return, making it the first time that art will be produced by non-astronauts who have travelled into space. The participants will undoubtedly have a vastly different way of seeing the world than the scientists and engineers who have so far made the journey, and it’s thrilling to imagine the artwork that may eventuate and how it may strengthen the link between humans, our own planet, and the grander universe.

Over the past half century, only about 550 humans have experienced the planet from beyond the thin blue line of its atmosphere. These astronauts have repeatedly reported that seeing the Earth from above seems to flip a switch in their brains, transforming their perspective of our planet and our place in the universe — a phenomenon termed “The Overview Effect”.

They realise that humanity is living on a tiny speck, like an organic spaceship travelling through the darkness of the universe, and that the planet and its inhabitants must be conserved and protected. They return to Earth with a profound understanding of life’s connectedness — and a sense of responsibility to share these revelations with those left down below.

Edgar Mitchell, lunar module pilot on Apollo 14 and the sixth man to walk on the moon, explained to People magazine in 1974: “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”

Since we can’t just ship all the world’s politicians — or regular citizens, for that matter — up into orbit, we rely on the astronauts themselves to communicate these feelings of wonder and transcendence. But this has always been a profoundly difficult task.

In speeches, interviews and writing, astronauts throughout history have struggled to convey their feelings of global connectedness and awe. Since poetry isn’t high on the lists of prerequisites for them, these otherwise highly-talented explorers often found themselves the subject of ridicule, because their attempts fell back onto bland, empty adjectives such as “beautiful” and “fantastic”.

In his memoir Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journey, Michael Collins of Apollo 11 laments: “We weren’t trained to emote, we were trained to repress our emotions, lest they interfere with our complicated, delicate and one-chance-only duties. If they wanted an emotional press conference … they should have put together an Apollo crew of a philosopher, a priest, and a poet.”

Of course, no space agency would have dreamed of that.

NASA did, however, have the foresight to equip astronauts with cameras, which sometimes resulted in photographs that step up where words fail. Consider the iconic Earthrise and Blue Marble images, taken by the Apollo 8 and 17 missions respectively. Both capture the entirety of our blue planet, hanging delicate and alone in the vast, dark emptiness of space.

These humbling images are considered among the most influential of all time, and some — such as historian Robert Poole in his 2008 book Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth — even argue that they kickstarted the environmental movement.

But neither image was carefully composed for its artistic influence: both were completely unplanned, resulting from instinctive human reactions to the beauty and awe of the moment. The transcript of the Apollo 8 mission even shows that as the crew members fumbled to take the photograph, they were joking around about the fact they had not been scheduled to do so. It has never been the priority of space agencies for astronauts to create art in space.

These days, space can be shared in real-time with the Earth-bound public below. Modern astronauts often use social media to reveal a little of the almost-spiritual wonder, but while ground-dwellers might be awed by glossy pictures of our deserts and mountains and oceans from above, the powerful, profound shift in awareness is much more difficult to duplicate.

"Earthrise at Christmas, December 1968", taken by astronaut William Anders: beautiful, but opportunist rather than considered art.

'Earthrise at Christmas, December 1968', taken by astronaut William Anders: beautiful, but opportunist rather than considered art.

William Anders/NASA

Despite the incredible volume and quality of images and videos being created in space, there has been no huge shift in the public’s behaviours in terms of valuing and protecting our planet — perhaps partly because much of the population isn’t tuned into the latest space news, and partly because these images are only representative, and thus inadequate to express the emotional crux of the experience.

The key to succeeding here may simply be to create art.

By nature, art aims to transcend its form, conveying the core emotional experience rather than just providing a representation. This is exactly what astronauts need: a method of expression that reaches beyond limited language and technology, just as their experiences reach beyond anything that people down on Earth find familiar or relatable.

Many astronauts have turned to art for this very reason. Russian cosmonaut Alexey Leonov and Apollo 12 crew member Alan Bean both painted and drew on their return from space, and Bean even became a full-time artist after retiring from NASA. More recently, NASA astronaut Nicole Stott painted the first watercolour in space and has now retired to spend more time on exploring space travel through her art.

Others have tried poetry. Alfred Worden of Apollo 15 wrote a book of pieces based on his experiences in space, called Hello Earth; Greetings from Endeavour. Here’s a sample from “July Launch”:

On we soar
Engines roar
Smoother ride
Vacuum outside
Horizon in view
Launch phase is through.

The poem’s intent is commendable but, with the best will in the world, its literary merit is dubious. It does not convey the kind of world-changing awe that a more skilled writer might kindle.

The first poem written in space was by Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, on the International Space Station (ISS) in 2009. Translated into English by Janine Beichman of Daito Bunka University in Tokyo, it reads a little more wondrously:

Afloat in the darkness before my eyes, the watery planet bluely glows
How strong is my affection for that ancient home of ours,
how deep my gratitude for the gift of life
Tomorrow, I will dare the blue sky and open up worlds unknown
for there we have our dreams

This poem is part of a project called Ucyu Renshi, or “space poem chain”, a collaborative program started by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in 2006. The poems within it are an open-ended string of stanzas, developed from the traditional Japanese renga and renku forms by the poet Makoto Ooka.

Contributing poet Wakako Kaku sums up the project’s drive succinctly: “It cannot be only poets who believe that we must not entrust our inquiry into the nature of the universe exclusively to science.”

But only some poems are contributed by JAXA astronauts on the ISS; the rest come from the general public, professional poets, and cultural figures on the ground.

To more authentically and skilfully portray the experience of space travel, there is an obvious next step: send trained artists.

SpaceX’s intent to fly a group to the moon within the next five years is an electrifying proposition. Though candidates have not yet been approached, project lead Maezawa says he will select artists from a range of disciplines, including a painter, a director, a musician, a novelist, a dancer and a fashion designer. This will hopefully be in addition to ensuring cultural and geographical diversity, which will all be important in ensuring this project has the furthest possible reach, tapping into the interests and emotions of large swathes of the population.

The practical details of the endeavour are still under discussion, and there is doubt that it will ever get off the ground – but if it does, then what a world-shaking journey it will be. A handful of trained artists will experience the terrifying thrill of wrenching free of the atmosphere and hurtling hundreds of thousands of kilometres through seemingly unending darkness, and then will watch ancient volcanic moonscapes spin gently before their eyes, with our own fragile planet rising in the background, more in need of protection than ever before.

What will these artists feel? How different will it be to the experiences of scientifically-trained astronauts? What beauty will they be moved to create, and how will we react to it, us with our feet planted so firmly on the ground? Will we finally be driven to take seriously our role as stewards of our one and only planet?

By changing the way we see our Earth, their art could literally change the world.

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