If he were as captivated by space as these ambitious artists are, he might well try to wrap the moon.
By Ivan Amato

(FORTUNE Magazine) – AMONG THE FANTASTICALLY complex gear carried by the space shuttle Discovery when it roared into orbit in March 1989 was a hermetically sealed glass cube the size of a jack-in-the-box. Filled with water from 18 of the world's major river systems, it contained trace amounts of most of the elements of the periodic table. Inside the water was a smaller cube covered with featureless holograms; inside that was a vacuum.

Nestled in a cargo module and never touched by an astronaut, the cube went up into orbit and came back down without a hitch--the first official nonscience payload to be taken into space by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's shuttle program. The assembly, known as the "Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture," was a work of art by Lowry Burgess, a professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. It represents, he says, the nothingness that became everything.

Underlying the work's conceptual complexity is a simple conviction that Burgess shares with a cadre of upward-looking artists: Mankind's exploration of space needs to be about more than just scientific and engineering chops. As Frank Pietronigro, co-founder of the Zero Gravity Arts Consortium, based in San Francisco, puts it, if people are going to travel and live in space, they will need art to keep from going nuts.

This is not entirely a pie-in-the-sky vision. NASA has had a space art program since 1963. Mostly it has commissioned paintings of space themes, but it has also given the green light over the years for Burgess, Pietronigro and other artists to use government-owned vehicles for their artistic pursuits. Last year performance artist Laurie Anderson received a $20,000 stipend from NASA and the title "artist in residence." She developed a show called The End of the Moon. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has embraced the notion of integrating cultural projects into the mission of the Kibo Japanese Experiment Module, which is slated for attachment to the space station. And the European Space Agency (ESA) has commissioned a report on the "cultural utilization of the International Space Station."

The definition of space art remains free-floating, but there are several categories among the works and proposals out there: art intended for venues on earth; on spacecraft and space stations; in space itself; or simultaneously in more than one of those places.

Daniel Goods, an artist employed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, came up with an earthbound work called "The Big Playground" to convey the scale of the cosmos and mankind's exploration of it. For part of this work, Goods had a JPL machinist drill a hole into a single grain of sand, which viewers can see through a magnifying glass. The grain represents the Milky Way, and the hole represents the portion of the galaxy in which astronomers have found 120 planets or so. To represent the universe's 100 billion galaxies, Goods notes, would take a half-dozen rooms full of sand.

Other artists are exploring how the low gravity of space can open up new artistic possibilities. In a 1998 research flight, Pietronigro, intermittently floating weightless inside a NASA jetliner flying steep U-shaped arcs, squeezed paint from pastry bags into the volume of air within a portable "studio" made of plastic sheeting that he had tethered to the plane's interior. "Drift art" is what he calls the result. At the end of the flight, paint was everywhere, including all over the artist himself, yielding what Pietronigro describes as an unintentional appropriation of Jackson Pollock.

French choreographer and dancer Kitsou Dubois has been investigating how low gravity can add dimensions to her medium. Over the past decade she has flown, sometimes with a team of performers, on a dozen or so parabolic flights to experience weightless dancing.

Then there are those who place their works in extraterrestrial venues. The ill-fated Beagle 2, a small ESA Mars probe that lost contact with its mother ship, the Mars Express, just after being released on Christmas Day in 2003, carried two works of art. One was a painting of colored dots by British artist Damien Hirst, whose metal-oxide tints were to serve double duty as calibration materials for several of the probe's analytic instruments. The other art onboard was an original "call back" tune by the band Blur. Had the spacecraft survived, it would have sent the tune back as a signal to controllers on earth that everything was okay.

Works like Burgess's fit into the category of space art that combines space and earthbound elements. When the "Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture" came back to earth, it was embedded in a 400-million-year-old stone outcrop on the grounds of the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass. Another project in this category, conceived by Dublin artist Anna Hill, is called "Space Synapse System." The hub of the proposed project's space-based element will be the Symbiotic Sphere, a grapefruit-sized metallic orb adorned with gems and precious metals that will free float in the ISS. Cameras, microphones, and other sensors on the orb will record activity and gather information from ISS occupants (their heart rates, for example), satellites (images from planets and moons), and other information-generating agents. The Symbiotic Sphere will process the information streams into sets of instructions that it will beam to end-points on earth. These could include interactive stations in museums or a light system on Liberty Island that would "paint" the Statue of Liberty with an ever-changing pastiche of colors, reflecting the data that the orb is crunching at any particular moment.

As with any art form, of course, there are critics. "I don't remember Scotty saying, 'Captain, paint me a picture,'" says Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a group that is working to zero out any public funding of space art. And plenty of scientists, engineers, and policymakers think space is no place for people at all, let alone their culture. Putting humans into space, they say, is hugely expensive, occasionally lethal, and of dubious social and scientific value.

But as long as President Bush is committed to sending manned missions to the moon and Mars, there is hope for the skyward-looking artists, and they have been organizing as never before. This year they convened two meetings, one in California and one in Switzerland, and floated a 50-page white paper titled "The Arts and Space Community." Planned for September 2006 is an event called World Space Culture, whose organizers hope to present "the first space opera," performed simultaneously by actors on a terrestrial stage and crew members of the ISS.

"This is a worldwide movement now, and there are hundreds of artists involved," says Burgess. David Raitt, a senior technology transfer officer for ESA, has become a kind of in-house champion of the movement for that agency. As he sees it, "the confined environment of manned space stations could be transformed into a broader, more open arena which could become the subject, canvas, or theater for a wide range of cultural and artistic activities." He adds that the PR value could be huge, drawing the attention of people who otherwise might not pay attention to space science and engineering.

Pietronigro, Burgess, and their brethren say simply that quixotic as it might sound to want to put art into space, it would be far stranger not to. Proclaims Burgess: "If we are going to move human beings into outer space, you are going to have to move their culture with them." The safe return on Aug. 9 of Discovery, the same shuttle that carried Lowry's "Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture" 16 years ago, keeps alive the hope for these artists that it still could be people, not robots, who become the future couriers of human culture in space.