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"Can Art Break Science's Monopoly Grip on Space?"
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Space.com
, , USA United States of America

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 spirit.

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 economic terms.

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 dance.

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 Station.

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 postcard, something.

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 relations trick.

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


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