Space Needs Artists
By Roger Wortman, guest contributor
The Importance of Artists in Space
There is a rejuvenation of interest in space activity. Governments and corporations actively explore concepts to extract resources from celestial bodies. Declining launch costs and microsatellites allow for more efficient access to low-Earth orbit (LEO) by smaller companies, non-profit organizations, and academia. Advanced scientific instruments are routinely deployed to further decipher the Solar System and wider universe. Even the ultimate goal of human space flight has a renewed push from private industry and policy makers. Space tourism is a burgeoning industry which promises routine access to space for millions of people. Crewed missions to Mars are under serious consideration and discussion of permanent colonies on the Moon are no longer taken in jest. In the coming decades governments and private companies will guide humanity into the cosmos and possibly beyond. However, despite the rapid advances in technology and motivations of the powers that be, humanity remains poised to repeat past mistakes.
Each opportunity for advancement in space operations is rooted by an underlying agenda. Resource extraction efforts are driven by profit and reinforced through capitalism. Easier access to LEO and advanced deep space observation increases research opportunities. Space tourism and missions to the Moon or Mars are anchored by nationalism and prestige. These facets of space operations enable the economy, scientific advancement, national defense, international status, and much more. However, there is one clear void in the collective architecture of space activity: human expression. The international community risks a reversion to the competitive nature of the Space Race and the Cold War if fierce competition remains unchecked. As such, humanity has encountered a crossroad. There is a binary choice to be made between deliberately infusing space operations – specifically crewed missions – with a focus on the human experience versus a continuation of providing elite pilots, advanced professionals, and the ultra-rich with the experience of space flight. An emphasis on the latter creates the hazard of repeating the tensions of the Cold War and fomenting great power conflict, especially with regards to strategic weapons. Whereas, inclusion of the former is an opportunity to unite cultures, provide perspectives, and strengthen societal bonds while celebrating the expansion of humanity throughout the cosmos. Space needs artists.
Why Art is Important
Art defines humanity. The expression of emotion through the description of experience is unique to each observer. Much like a handwritten signature, every artistic output is exclusive and literally one in several billion. Each rendering depicts a small facet of the human story. Collectively, these manifestations of emotion convey the spirit of an entire species. They describe the joy, pain, melancholy, curiosity, fear, and much more. Art conveys life through a kaleidoscope of human emotion and experience. Therefore, art is not a thing, but rather an act. It is the trifecta of past experience expressed through creativity and massed on to an audience. It is communication to others. Art is an intensely powerful craft which conveys individual experiences throughout society and across generations. Anthropologists study prehistoric art to learn about ancient cultures. Art historians interpret centuries of works to understand past societies. Contemporary art imbues humanity with wonder and self-examination. The English film producer Alan Parker describes art as a medium which makes other subjects breathe. It gives weight to topics and speaks to complex issues. The activity of art is the essence of humanity and as such is needed everywhere. Humans need art.
The Intersection of Art and Space
The idea of space related art is not new. Cave art from 15,000 BCE depicts stars and constellations along with renderings of animals. Steles from ancient Mesopotamia depict battlefield victories and incorporate celestial objects in the engravings. One of the most famous paintings in western civilization is Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh. The magic-like swirls of a blue and yellow night sky continues to mesmerize people 150 years after its creation. These examples and an innumerable volume of others reinforce humanity’s connection with the stars. However, art is not limited to physical creations. Society shows deep connections to space through folk tales, myths, music, religion, published literature, and much more. Every possible form of artistic expression can include the relationship between culture, society, and space.
Contemporary art involving space is ubiquitous. Earth observing assets capture stunning images of the planet. These moments in time are often viewed across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, and although were captured for scientific purposes can relay the same beauty and inspiration of a professional photographer. Deep space observation efforts using the Hubble Space Telescope produced the most widely known picture of a distant object. Known as The Pillars of Creation, this 1995 image of the Eagle Nebula provides valuable scientific information to the space community, but also acts as an inspiration of space exploration while underscoring the beauty of the universe. These examples underscore the intersection between art and science. Technical endeavors to glean information about the cosmos can also be viewed through an artistic lens and help define humanity’s place in the universe.
Crew members are also known to create art both in space and upon return. Astronauts on the International Space Station occasionally use spare time for small artistic endeavors. Photography, creating models, music, and much more are all examples of art created in space. Art is also brought to the ISS. A variety of works in multiple mediums are sent with either crew members or on supply vessels. These pieces are put on display in various ways throughout the station to celebrate the art, artist, the ISS, and the overall effort of human space flight. This unity between space and art is on display virtually everywhere. When astronauts return to Earth some create their own art to express their space experiences. One of the most ubiquitous astronaut/artists is Alan Bean. As a crew member of the Apollo 12 mission, Bean was the fourth person to walk on the Moon. He is widely recognized as the only artist to accomplish this feat. Inspired by his experience, Bean began a massive artistic endeavor to relay his space experiences to the public through painting. Much of his work focuses on the Moon landing and various aspects of spaceflight. His depictions of fellow astronauts and their exploits on the lunar surface have become iconic pieces depicting a time of wonder and exploration. His most famous painting, The Spirit of Apollo, is textured acrylic with moondust on aircraft plywood. Truly an original and one of a kind work. Alan Bean’s efforts, and the many others who depict space through a personal artistic lens, underscores the influence space can have on those who experience it.
The reduction in launch costs combined with the advent of micro satellites, and high-altitude balloons create multiple opportunities for artists around the world. In late 2018, American artist Trevor Paglen cooperated with SpaceX to launch a satellite into LEO. The satellite’s mission was to extend a 100 foot balloon constructed of highly reflective mylar material and act as a mirror visible from Earth. Without a utilitarian objective – communications, sensors, etc – it is considered the first attempt to launch a satellite with the sole purpose of being an art installation. Although the satellite was lost in space due to technical issues, it remains a milestone in the accessibility of space for the larger public. However, launch costs remain out of reach for many artists and as such the usage of high-altitude balloons is the preferred vehicle. Countless artistic projects are conducted using these assets. In 2012 a Canadian team used a balloon to send a Lego figurine to the stratosphere and captured striking images of childlike play and complex scientific projects. Another artistic venture into the stratosphere occurred in 2014 when a team launched a curated bouquet of plants. Capturing the entire journey in a series of images, EXOBIOTANICA demonstrates the surreal juxtaposition of botany, décor, and space activity. Access to the upper regions of the atmosphere provides great insight for a variety of fields, to include art. Motivated by the ideas of space and wonder of the universe, these artists and many more like them will continue to use the universe as a canvas. This human connection is undying and eternal.
Art is also present on deep space missions. Both Voyager spacecraft contain a Golden Record. Acting as a time capsule, these identical objects contain a catalog of music, images, sounds, and greetings in an attempt to provide any potential discoverer – future humans or otherwise – with an explanation of the variety of cultures on Earth. This is a beautiful example of the fusion between art and science. The Golden record, however, was not the first attempt at such a feat. The Pioneer series contained plaques describing humans and the location of Earth in the galaxy. Furthermore, considering plaques as a medium of sculpture and engraving, virtually all spacecraft sent into deep space contain a commemorative marking incorporated into the design or attached internally. As such, virtually every probe sent into the cosmos contains art, and therefore the Solar System is littered with these renderings.
However, the intersection of space and art remains devoid of a major participant: the artist. Aside from Alan Bean, few humans who have experienced space returned to create a portfolio of work. This can be excused as crewmembers on space missions are professionals in non-artistic fields. Commonly pilots, scientists, engineers, or other fields, astronauts are sent for practical and mission focused reasons. Art is simply not a critical requirement for space operations. Therefore, it is understandable that the Apollo series did not incorporate a sculptor. SkyLab did not require a painter. The ISS has no functional need for a theatrical performer. These missions are funded by governments to complete a specific set of actions in support of a larger mission. Alan Bean was not selected for Apollo 12 due to his keen eye and skills with oil paintings, he was a professional pilot and engineer. His artistic nature is simply a secondary benefit. However, as technology advances and new space industries evolve there is an opportunity to correct this deficiency. The advent of space tourism will create new possibilities for all humans to experience and appreciate space, to include artists.
Space tourism is a growth industry. Though not yet operational, early testing and results show promise that in the near future citizens will be able to purchase seats aboard spacecraft for short duration flights into LEO. A variety of companies are pursuing this goal: Blue Origin, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Boeing, and others. However, these companies will not have the honor of sending the first tourist to space. That moniker goes to American businessman Dennis Tito. Through a $20M ticket fee paid to the Russian government, Tito became the first space tourist in 2001. His eight-day journey changed the landscape of civilian access to space and sparked a technological rush to provide this service to the wider populace. As a result, this burgeoning industry is evolving at a rapid pace. Estimates vary on when the first solely tourism flights to space will occur; some assess it will be in the early 2020s. Whatever the outcome, space tourism is rapidly approaching.
The demand across the world for a seat on one of these spacecraft is exceedingly high. Although scientific polling of public interest is limited, the ubiquitous discussion and excitement about this topic is palpable. From pop culture references to venture capitalist discussions, it seems everyone has an interest in watching the young field of space tourism evolve and come into its own. One quantifiable data point is reserved seats. As of 2019, Virgin Galactic claims it has received 600 reservations for leisure and entertainment trips to space. At $250,000 per seat – pre-paid – this level of interest and dedication by the populace is staggering. However, herein lies the major problem. Each reservation for Virgin Galactic is a quarter-million dollars. This does not guarantee the price will remain fixed, nor does it reflect possible required training and logistics involved in preparing for space operations. Furthermore, Virgin Galactic is the only company who has released pricing and reservations. Blue Origin has yet to release pricing schemes while SpaceX and Boeing remain in the development phase and are not prepared to publicly offer any reservations. However, it is likely pricing structures by these companies may match those of Virgin Galactic as to remain competitive. Regardless of possible variation or similarity in cost per ticket, this experience remains out of reach for those without a six-figure disposable income.
As of 2018, the average per capita income for the top 25% of countries was $38,871. In contrast, the lowest quarter of countries experience a per capita income of $10,346. Although this averaging is likely skewed by countries experiencing extreme poverty as well as countries with dominant wealth, the overarching point remains that tickets for space tourism is well out of reach for billions of people around the world. This will limit the market share for these companies to those who can afford the price, and as a result only the rich will be able to experience space flight. This is not to say those who can afford it should not. In fact, any person with the financial security and desire should be able to purchase and experience the best these companies have to offer. It is simply a fact that the majority of citizens will not enjoy these same services. This is especially poignant when it is considered that those with the financial means to do business with a space tourism company are likely in industries which provide such paychecks. Corporate chief executives, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and a variety of other high paying fields are the likely market share for space tourism. An example of this is seen in the previous space tourism efforts by the Russians. Of the seven civilians who paid to spend time in space, each of them are business tycoons or technology sector moguls. Of note, a lack of artists.
The United Nations (UN) should subsidize seats in the space tourism industry through a politically binding resolution. By acquiring a reduced price on select tickets aboard civilian spacecraft, the UN can facilitate a wider scope of participants and provide less fortunate individuals with the ability to experience space flight. Furthermore, an early investment in the space tourism industry by the UN demonstrates resolute support for this new field as well as encouragement for human space programs writ large. However, these subsidized seats should not be provided on a random basis nor should they be used for profit. Tickets acquired by the UN should be allocated to signatory countries of a political binding agreement in support of space access for artists.
Any politically binding agreement involving the UN must be properly sensitized to member nations and receive a breadth of support. To facilitate this, the U.S. should lead an effort to draft a UN resolution addressing acquisition of space tourism tickets and distribution throughout member countries. Furthermore, the U.S. should work with wealthy nations – Canada, Japan, Germany, etc. – to provide the majority of funding to support subsidies. Through this resolution the UN and the donor countries would highlight the importance of international cooperation, support a developing industry, and most importantly create a global sense of community surrounding the fusion of human space flight and art.
Creation of a politically binding agreement is the preferred approach for this initiative for a variety of reasons. Primarily a humanitarian effort, this proposal seeks to simply enhance a sense of global togetherness and unity. The lack of security component, threat, or consequence necessitates that any UN resolution should be strictly voluntary. Unlike previous UN resolutions designed to avoid conflict or disaster, this effort only seeks to bring countries closer in spirit and understanding. Any UN member country which does not desire to participate should be respected in its decision. Furthermore, inclusion in the initiative should be purely from a financial donation basis. This is the simple idea of providing funds to support subsidized tickets. In contrast, any country which decides to rescind its membership shall be afforded the opportunity at any time with no penalty other than termination of access to the UN subsidized prices. The politically binding nature of the UN proposal is intended to create an atmosphere of international cooperation and collectiveness through human space flight.
As with any international agreement the language must be precise. Loopholes and nuance which foments corruption must be mitigated. The spirit of the agreement is to enable artists access to space. However, there must be an international benefit to their participation. Therefore, the stipulations of the agreement language must include nationally recognized or professional artists from participating countries. This can include renowned painters, sculptors, authors, poets, musicians, film makers, and much more. The signatory country’s leadership must select these individuals based on self-determined criteria. Furthermore, each artist should agree to produce a pre-determined number of works based on their spaceflight experience for complete donation to the UN through the UN Humanitarian Resource Institute. In such a scenario, these works would become outright property of the UN and included in be various touring exhibitions. Reproductions for host nation archives would be permitted free of charge, however associated profits from the sale of commissioned art would require donating to the subsidy program for a specified period of time, e.g. ten years.
The Benefits of Exposing Artists to Space
The contemporary globalized world allows for communication and interaction on scales never before experienced by mankind. The interconnectedness of multiple societies has generated wealth beyond imagination, facilitated ideas at the literal speed of light, and ensured economic stability of vast portions of the population. However, this same interconnectedness is creating schisms between cultures and societies. The threat of great power conflict is again emanating throughout the international psyche. Current and former superpowers continue to vie for control over resources, terrain, and space. Domestically, many countries, developed and emerging, are experiencing cultural tensions from a variety of causes. The world is arguably connected more closely while simultaneously conflicted by its tight proximity. This manifests in politics, economics, and legislation and as a result the spacefaring nations are defaulting to previous behaviors of absolute competition. Continuing down this path risks massive destabilizing combined with a possibility of large scale conflict.
The late American painter Thomas Kinkade once professed that art transcends cultural boundaries. This sentiment encapsulates the previously described proposal. Spaceflight throughout human history is dominated by pilots, scientists, and engineers. These individuals all speak of an experience dubbed the overview effect. Described as a cognitive shift one experiences when observing the Earth as a complete system, multiple spaceflight crewmembers widely report this phenomenon. To their credit, many of those who experienced the overview effect attempt to describe and relay the emotions elicited during spaceflight. This results in a clear understanding and account of the event; however clinical verification is drastically different than emotive communication. As such, the message tends to get lost in translation. This is likely due to a variety of factors. However, one clear data point is that spaceflight crewmembers are often not professionally trained artists. The inherent challenges of communicating these types of experiences requires years of exposure in a specialized field. Throughout society one group of people are uniquely skilled at relaying this sort of experience to an entire society: artists.
Regardless of medium, artists possess an uncanny ability to convey ideas across cultures. It is this reason that the UN should subsidize and make available flights to space for a variety of artists from different countries. Through this effort a comprehensive story can begin to unfold with regards to humanity in space. The experience of microgravity, the isolation of distance, the humbling nature of seeing the planet from LEO can all be collected and portrayed through the art of a trained professional. The description of orbit is fascinating to hear from those who experienced it. However, the description of the same event through the words of the late American poet Maya Angelou would have been breathtaking. The artistic creations from 19th Century French painter Claude Monet or early 20th Century Russian author Leo Tolstoy after experiencing the overview effect could have spoken to millions. However, the modern world need not deal in hypotheticals from artists gone by. There is a large cadre of modern day practitioners which can provide the exact same humanism and unity from an experience in orbit. South African painter Lionel Smit, specializing in the human essence of the ethnic Cape Malay community, can provide first hand insight of space from an African perspective. Siddharth Sathe, a sculptor from Mumbai, India with an expertise in recreating the human form can leverage his precision and attention to detail to the experience. These two examples are represented thousands of times over in the art community. Over time, every possible medium could be represented from any participating country to create a collage of experiences drawn from space flight. As the effort continues and an entire catalog is created a thousand human stories will emerge all shaping a single narrative: how space has always connected humanity, and how it can continue to do so.
Cost and Culture
Spaceflight is expensive. This is what underpins the estimated $250,000 ticket prices and limits the ability for artists to use space as a venue for art. Research and development for space operations often runs into the millions, if not billions, of dollars. These governments and private organizations deserve compensation for their efforts and a respect for their industry as a whole. This is why this international space proposal is designed as a subsidy with an option to buy in for signatories. Through UN member contributions the entire world can appreciate and experience an all new method of expression derived from space travel. Inspiration for music, film, sketching, metalworking, and much more can be drastically improved through providing artists the experience of LEO. This collection would assuredly be a high-water mark for the fusion of cultures and highlight not only differences in expression, but similarities of message. The price for an initiative such as this would be high. Assuming each UN member participated a total price of $50 million would be required. However, through negotiation and clarity of terms these costs could be offset by direct agreements with space tourism companies as well as financial returns from exhibition tours. Yet, despite the price tag or question of who pays for what portion, the UN and its members must first recognize the benefits of such a program. The global unity from artistic expression created out of a politically binding agreement in an international forum is the purest definition of diplomacy and has the potential to define humanity across all regions and cultures.
A Possible Blueprint
Creating a politically binding agreement for an unproven concept would assuredly foment concern from some skeptics. Debate over benefits of the program or feasibility of missions risks bureaucratic stagnation within the UN. However, as is proven throughout human history bold artistic endeavors are often the result of arts patronage, and there is one initiative that may provide the proof of concept for this model.
Billionaire entrepreneur and art enthusiast Yusaku Maezawa is financially supporting a human spaceflight venture focused on exposing artists to the overview effect. Operating under the name #dearMoon, Maezawa’s patronage is arguably the most ambitious and expensive privately funded art experiment in history. Working with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the #dearMoon project aims to send a group of artists on a six-day circumlunar voyage and commission works upon return. Envisioned as a crew of 4-6 creators with expertise in differing mediums, Maezawa hope to bring the artists to space, and through them expose space to humanity.
The mission profile for #dearMoon is more complex than traditional space tourism initiatives. Currently, companies striving to provide public access to space focus on short duration flights to LEO, some limited to sub-orbital journeys. The #dearMoon concept exponentially increases the mission duration and allows more time for the overview effect to marinate. The #dearMoon concept asks artists not to simply go to space, but live in it for a short period. Furthermore, the lunar flyby serves as a centerpiece for the adventure; one that imbues an experience only an elite few have seen before. After the six-day journey each artist is encouraged to create works in their disciplines and share these pieces through a #dearMoon exhibition. Although in the initial stages, #dearMoon remains on schedule for a 2023 launch.
Maezawa and Musk’s ambitious – and self-funded – plan to enable these artists places them directly in the role of arts patrons. Ancillary motivations aside, the immense risk these men assume in supporting this venture through private funds shows a dedication to the arts and belief in the power of human expression. It also reinforces the concept of UN subsidized tickets for artists. The #dearMoon model can serve as a blueprint for how a politically binding agreement is structured. Artists often need patrons; there is an opportunity for the UN to fill that role.
The Way Ahead
The UN is in a unique position to shape the narrative of humanity’s relationship with space. Rapid advances in technology combined with the inevitable expansion of space tourism creates opportunities for governments around the world. Failure to seize these golden moments will only result in continued domination of orbital access by wealthy nations, their respective militaries, and those with six-figure disposable incomes. This scenario provides humanity with a status quo. Conversely, a politically binding agreement to subsidize space tourism seats for artists can provide a different path. Forethought and planning by the UN along with leadership from the U.S. and other wealthy countries can create inroads for all nations to experience the wonder of space flight. The first step in true expansion into the cosmos is through artistic expression and interpretation. Only when every culture can contribute to a global portfolio can humanity cease to be an observer of the universe, and become a full participant.