If Space Shuttle Atlantis reaches orbit successfully after Monday's
scheduled launch, nine people will be in space by Monday night. Seven on
NASA's servicing mission to the International Space Station; two on Russia's
Mir Space Station. All of them are engineers.
Back on Earth some 6 billion people will be going about their business. The
vast majority unaware who, if anybody, is in space. A miniscule proportion
of those left on Earth have any engineering training or any sort of formal
scientific education whatever.
There are many good explanations for the fact that engineers and scientists
have a lock on space travel, so critics rarely step forward to protest the
monopoly grip that the technically educated have on access to space. Most
folks have just accepted that advanced degrees in science and engineering
are necessary to do an adequate job in orbit.
But that isn't necessarily so, which is a point that 36-year-old designer
and choreographer Richard Seabra wants to make clear. Seabra is proposing to
send artists and performers into space to work in a special art module that
he wants to become part of the International Space Station (ISS).
Seabra wants to see to it that the arts and humanities are given a permanent
place in space, that science moves aside to make room for the bounty of
other cultural pursuits humans value.
I think we're just sophisticated enough right now to start including the
arts and humanities into space exploration, Seabra said on a recent
freezing day in Washington D.C. Seabra, a Brasilian American who lives in
Holland and performs mainly in Europe and Brazil, had come to the United
States to attend a conference on utilization of the International Space
Station and to visit family.
The idea is to change the attitude towards the word 'exploration' -- what
space exploration is. I don't think Space exploration should be the province
of science alone. Arts and humanities have something to say about space
too, Seabra said.
Musicians, writers, video artists, film makers, dancers, anthropologists and
philosophers could all do fascinating work -- every bit as significant as
the experiments that chemists or biologists put aboard spacecraft, Seabra
says. Photographers, sculptors, theologists and poets would all find
profound ways to contribute to the exploration of space and the human
And since we're in this expensive exploration phase of space, then why not
just include the arts and humanities alsoNULL
The logic is understandable. Everything aboard the space station is
subsidized. With the average cost of sending material into space roughly
$10,000 per pound (.6 kilogram), no project that requires humans to visit
space comes close making money. NASA talks a great deal about
commercialization of space, but it has yet to demonstrate that any sort of
human-staffed space program will ever be able to justify itself in purely
Even the most fundamental space-based research is really just subsidized
play, Seabra suggests. Whether the world's space agencies are playing with
protein-crystal growth or flame in microgravity, it's all just tremendously
expensive experimentation. So set a little aside for art, he argues.
With NASA's share of the ISS estimated at about $37 billion, and the entire
cost of the station much greater than that, Seabra laughs when he says it
should be possible to throw a billion or two at the arts.
He envisions artists in residence aboard the ISS: Each might stay up on the
station for three months a time, living with astronauts and creating work
that could be broadcast to the millions of people across the globe below.
I think there's a lot of potential for getting the art out, Seabra said.
Over the internet, live broadcasts, cable, or filming it and bringing it
down and distributing it in movie houses here.
This kind of distribution could even have the potential to make part of the
station profitable, Seabra contends. Occasionally a superstar recording
artist might be given an opportunity to perform or make a music video in
space. Imagine the Beastie Boys or Prince in orbit.
Half performance space and studio, half library and lounge for overworked
astronauts, the module would become the cultural hub of the space station.
It could be a place where astronauts could come to cool off at the end of
the day; a place where they could read or watch the rehearsal of a
one-dancer space ballet.
Seabra is calling his proposed artistic enclave the ISADORA Module
, naming it after modern-dance pioneer Isadora
Duncan. While Duncan is most widely known for the freak accident that
strangled her in 1927 (her flowing scarf was caught under the rear tire of a
car in which she was riding), she is acknowledged as the mother of modern
Seabra hopes the ISADORA Module might set space activity free from the
strict boundaries of scientific pursuit just as Duncan emancipated dance
from the rigid rules of classical ballet.
Although his primary interest is in dance, and he is most excited to see how
dancers will react to the freedom of weightlessness, Seabra says he is
committed to variety. It would rotate between disciplines, he said, But
always with somebody capable of commenting in a different format.
It is easy to view the module as an unrealistic idea that will never get off
the ground. But those who call Seabra a dreamer don't know how radically
scaled down his plan for the ISADORA module already is. The concept actually
sprouted from Seabra's plans for cities on the moon
. One of the central
features of each of his carefully-planned moontowns is a sports and
performing-arts complex to showcase cultural events such as low-gravity
theatre, dance and athletic competition of all kinds.
The idea of performance and athletics in outer space excited Seabra, but
with colonization at least another century away, he lost patience. A much
more realistic and immediate venue for space art was the International Space
Station, already under construction. Seabra began working on plans to
customize a standard ISS module to fit his vision. The module could fit in
the space shuttle's payload bay and be easily attached to the station.
Artists' work would immediately boost interest in space, Seabra reasons,
because it would give people an interesting mix of productivity to watch.
That is an opinion that Seabra doesn't hold alone.
For space to be successful, we're going to have to take the whole culture
with us, not just the scientific aspects of it, said Arthur Woods, an
artist who has worked for more than a decade to make art a part of outer
space. In 1993 Woods raised and paid close to $80,000 to have a crooked
yellow sculpture called Cosmic Dancer
flown aboard Russia's Mir Space
Art is a good way to do it because the artists are sensitive and they can
give other dimensions to the space experience, dimensions that the science
and research can't capture, Woods said.
Even many NASA operatives agree with that assessment, but they also point
out that a number of artistic astronauts have done creative work based on
their experiences in space.
Most of the astronauts are very well-rounded people, and so many of them
actually do have a talent in art, says Kathy Clark, chief scientist for the
International Space Station at NASA. Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean was an
accomplished painter and has produced a good amount of space art, and
shuttle flyer Michael Collins has written about his experiences, Clark said.
In later years Bean, who in 1969 became the fourth person to walk on the
moon, said he wished that he could have painted something while he was on
the moon, but the thought had never occurred to him.
The arts would be a good way to expand interest in what astronauts do in
space, Clark acknowledges, but she is skeptical that the space program is
ready for a string of artists to be rocketed to the station. It's very
limited the number of folks who go to space, and the amount of work they
have to do is tremendous, Clark said. And also it's still a pretty
dangerous business, so I'm not sure that it's time for NASA to seek out an
artist per se.
For Seabra, though, it's high time.
The very fact that astronauts are so busy is a strong reason for the space
program to recruit full-time artists who can work in a place like the
ISADORA module. About two thirds of the 8-meter (27-foot) length of the
module would be a tidy performance and studio space.
The other one-third would be a cozy lounge where artists and astronauts
could gather to talk and relax.
One of the biggest problems with the current ISS design, Seabra said, is
that it's an uncomfortable spartan, plastic and Formica submarine. NASA
engineers have forgotten to build for psychological and aesthetic needs, he
says. They've forgotten comfort. They're still thinking of this as a ship,
when in reality it's a home and an office, Seabra said. A home and an
office in space should be cozy and comfortable, he said.
One of the big problems in space is that without gravity there is nothing to
create the sensation of pressure against the body. That pressure is one of
the main sensations that can create coziness, Seabra said. Sleeping is often
difficult without the weight of covers or the lump of a pillow -- a problem
that astronauts have addressed by tying pillows to their heads, and
fashioning sleeping bags that inflate around astronauts.
A sofa in zero gravity isn't much good for relaxing, but Seabra has designed
what could serve the function. It's a cushion pit, fashioned of a number of
bean-shaped pillows -- each one about 5 feet tall -- that astronauts could
squeeze themselves into to lounge comfortably.
The space program grew up in a very intriguing time in design. The 60s and
early 70s, and I really like those visions for modules, Seabra mused. Do
you remember the sunken living room, shag rugs, the funky lamps and nylon
string sculptures on the walls? It's very wallpaper magazine. There is a
comfy-ness that they were on to back then. And it's a nice one. And I think
it could be quite appropriate.
The lounge would only become really pleasant after years of people living
and working there, Seabra said. This is just a space where an ISS culture
can develop. Astronauts might end up going there and leaving a painting or
two. Somebody - an artist - might leave a sculpture they did, or a poem, a
Each astronaut might bring his or her favorite book to leave behind. Perhaps
libraries or private collectors could be persuaded to donate special books,
say, first-edition Jules Verne novels.
While the module would certainly be a wonderful place to relax, former
shuttle astronaut Charlie Walker isn't sure the space program needs it.
Walker, who flew on three shuttle missions in the early 1980s and is now a
manager at Boeing, said space is harsh, and the cost of getting there means
everything that goes into orbit must be absolutely necessary.
That's why you pick the people who don't really put the creature comforts
high on their priority list. You pick the sort of people who generally can
survive living in a station at the South Pole over winter. That's just
because when you're on the frontier you don't have the same level of luxury
that you can when you're back in civilization, Walker said. It's a luxury
that maybe in our space program we can't afford yet.
Still, Walker said he is enthusiastic about most of Seabra's ideas, and he
does see the value of incorporating art into the manifest of activities
planned for the station.
I have no idea if or even when such a performing stage or theatre in orbit
may become a realistic proposal, but I do hope something happens to expand
art into outer space, Walker said. It would be a means of public outreach
that hasn't been explored that should be explored.
Artists find that statement a very weak drink. Choreographer and performer
David Lakein who is familiar with Seabra's proposal and also works in
Holland, says the artist is an essential communicator, not just a fun public
There is this fundamental question overall about why are we even up there,
Lakein said. Do we even belong in space, and why are we exploring, and why
are we even considering living up there in colonies and all those things?
I think artists could play a very important role in finding a way to
express those questions and experiences and that newness through art.
Although Seabra admits that his proposal is a longshot, he is vigorously
campaigning for it, and has no patience for naysayers.
I think people are ready for it. I'm not saying they're thirsty for it --
because it hasn't occurred to people yet. But I think they like the idea,
and it's time.
My ultimate goal is I would like to get people to change their attitudes
about what are suitable pursuits in space, and if I can help achieve that
shift, then I've been successful, he said.
By Greg Clark
Staff Writer, Space.com