For the Reasons of Poetry: Arting in Space

This essay originally appeared in ART PAPERS May/June 1985. The text has been reproduced here as it appeared in print in 1985.

Joseph McShane, “Payload G-38″, bottom view showing power-supply and control system, 19” diameter, 1984, (photo: Charles Lyon)

Shortly after dawn on October 5, 1984, the space shuttle Challenger blasted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. As usual, it had a variety of payloads in its cargo bay—including a small cylindrical canister mounted unobtrusively along a side wall. Known to the mission planners and the flight crew simply as “Payload G-38,” this sturdy, insulated can contained the elements of the first sculptures to be fabricated onboard the orbiting shuttle. The artist responsible for the project is Joseph McShane of Prescott, Arizona.

G-38 actually contained two separate but related sub-payloads. In one, eight spherical glass bulbs, about 4 to 7 inches in diameter, were sputter-coated with gold, platinum, chrome, and aluminum vapor. McShane chose this process because sputter-coating requires a vacuum, and vacuum is a fundamental condition of outer space. At the same time, these particular metals were used because they are relatively tolerant of incomplete vacuum, such as is found at the altitude attained by the shuttle (approximately 160 miles). The process and materials were thus keyed to the specific conditions available, which no doubt contributed to the success of the project. The spheres, blown by the Schott Glass Works in West Germany, returned to earth glossed with a thin, smooth mirrorization: space-dusted bubbles.

G-38’s other part was a clear glass globe about 14 inches in diameter fitted with a raised exit port, stainless steel tube and a valve. It left the earth containing 22 liters of sea-level air at sea-level pressure. Once in orbit, the valve was opened (by a command from the payload’s microcomputer), letting the air escape through a vent in the canister. The valve stayed open to establish equilibrium between the vessel and its environment, then closed before the shuttle left orbit. The sphere returned to earth containing 22 liters of ultra-thin upper atmosphere. Now permanently sealed, it is attached to a vacuum gauge with a digital read-out. The gauge is sensitive enough to show moment-to-moment changes in the pressure difference between the inside and the outside of the sphere caused by changes in the ambient temperature and barometric pressure. McShane: “The sculpture then is not the glass, but the outer space contained within. The sphere serves only to keep the one-g earth atmosphere from intruding …”1

These precisely formulated conceptual/minimal pieces were made possible by a NASA program known as the Get-Away Special (GAS). Although the shuttles were primarily designed to carry large payloads into low orbit, even the largest payloads rarely fill the cargo bay completely. Under the GAS program, individuals and groups from any nation can fly small, self-contained experimental payloads at discount fares when there’s room available. Dozens of GAS payloads have flown already, and reservations for hundreds more are on file. Fares start at $3,000.00 for up to 60 pounds/2.5 cubic feet.

The rules governing the program are still evolving, but NASA’s main concern is protecting the safety of the shuttle, the crew, and other payloads. All GAS projects must fit completely inside cylindrical aluminum containers provided by NASA. These come in two sizes: 2.5 and 5 cubic feet. There are strict limits on the release of materials from the containers, and the only assistance that the crew can provide during a flight is to flip a few switches. Any process that requires active regulation must have its own automatic control system—plus whatever support systems are needed: power supply, data recorder, etc.

Another set of restrictions derives from the program’s purpose, which is to provide low-cost opportunities for scientific and technical experimentation—not art making. GAS projects must be designed to yield some identifiable “technical benefit”: new physical data, testing a hypothesis, proving feasibility, etc. Artists seeking to take advantage of the program must come up with projects that function convincingly as technological research first, with the expressive and aesthetic aspects remaining outside of NASA’s frame of reference. In McShane’s case, the sputter-coating of the spheres was conducted as a materials-processing experiment: to see if it is possible to make thin-film metal depositions in the relatively gaseous shuttle environment—a question of genuine interest to would-be space manufacturers. The 22-liter vessel was to bring back a sample of that environment for further study.

A more daring GAS experiment/sculpture is planned for early next year. Joe Davis, a fellow at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, has a launch agreement to orbit a high-power electron gun in an attempt to create and artificial aurora visible to observers on the ground. The electron gun is being built this spring at MIT’s High Voltage Research Laboratory. If all goes as planned, its narrow, pulsed beam will shoot down from the shuttle’s cargo bay to the denser layers of the ionosphere, causing them to glow. There are too many uncertainties to know exactly how this might look from the ground, but it may resemble a faint, streaky luminous cloud that brightens and fades with the pulsing of the beam (1 millisecond per second). It would only be visible at night, of course, in clear, dark skies along the shuttle’s flight path. Davis calls the project New Wave Ruby Falls—alluding to Ruby Falls, Tennessee, site of an artificially-illuminated underground waterfall advertised as a tourist attraction on roads throughout the south.

(Note: New Wave Ruby Falls will not harm the ionosphere. The amount of energy involved is trivial compared to the solar wind and signals from terrestrial radio and television transmitters. The auroral effect depends on a temporary concentration of energy, which the ionosphere will quickly dissipate.)

Davis has another project, Light-flight, which may fly before Ruby Falls. A small but very bright strobe light will be mounted in a GAS canister and aimed down toward the earth. Its collimated (non-diverging) white beam will be used to try to resolve uncertainty about the minimum point-brightness that can be seen by the unaided human eye, and to test the practicality of using this off-the-shelf device for optical communication between the orbiting shuttle and ground-based observers. The Light-flight payload is being put together by Davis and industrial design students at the Rhode Island School of Design. A subsequent mission would have the light beam modulated with slow-scan television signals, and eventually he hopes to flight-test a two-way earth-to-orbit light link.

In order to get this work into space at the earliest opportunity, like McShane, Davis had to cast his art in the mold of science, to qualify for the GAS program: “NASA would neither qualify [nor] disqualify a project simply because it contained or pertained to a work of art, though clearly if the artistic and scientific aspects of such a payload could be at all separated, then NASA would fly the science and not the art. Here integration of the sensibilities was as important as integration of the hardware …”2

Since Davis and McShane both want to “integrate the sensibilities” in their work anyway, this was not an oppressive requirement. But while McShane followed a conservative strategy in G-38—using already well-understood techniques (albeit in a novel context)—Davis’ Ruby Falls entails development of a new capability, making it far more risky, though potentially more a breakthrough. Artificial aurorae have been created before, using rockets to release chemicals in the upper atmosphere, and the shuttle has already flown large electron guns for other purposes, but Davis’ proposal is quite novel, and it was initially greeted by space researchers with great skepticism. That he has since been able to persuade so many that it is theoretically possible, technically feasible, and scientifically worthwhile, is in itself significant: even if his mechanism fails in orbit, he will still have shown NASA that artists are capable of contributing more to the space program than they have been allowed to so far.

NASA has had an Art Program since 1962, when (according to a publicity text) “Nationally known artists were invited to visit NASA sites and record their perceptions in drawings and paintings, which would then be donated to the government. The first event to which artists were dispatched was Gordon Cooper’s final Mercury flight in May 1963. The artists covered the activity side-by-side with news media representatives …”

With the end of the Apollo program, US manned space activities temporarily halted. Public interest in space dwindled, NASA’s budget shrank, and its Art Program went into hibernation—until NASA’s graphic design director, Robert Schulman, revived it in 1977. He has run the program ever since.

“Currently five artists are dispatched to each Shuttle launch: one is permitted in the room with the astronauts while they are suiting up and others are scattered around the pad at various sites. Smaller teams attend the landings …. Others troop through aerospace plants between missions to acquire that part of the Shuttle experience. Each artist receives a $1,500 honorarium to cover the expenses of attending an event. In return, NASA receives all on-site sketches and one major work inspired by the visit.”3

There is no formal procedure for applying to the Art Program. Schulman receives a steady flow of slides, tear-sheets, and portfolios to review, and he also contacts artists whose work he feels would “fit in well” with the work commissioned thus far. He alone commissions artwork for NASA and chooses artists to observe launches and landings. Unsolicited applicants are never rejected outright; most are just “considered” indefinitely.

The Art Program’s purpose, Schulman says, “is to document NASA’s history through the eyes of the artist.” From the beginning, art has been in practice defined as synonymous with two-dimensional picture-making—preferably realist easel-painting. Photographers are better off approaching NASA as journalists. No sculptors have ever been chosen, though Shulman claims he has “a couple I have identified for something coming up.” Dancers, musicians, and poets need not even try.

With its emphasis on traditional visual media and representational skills, the Art Program is unabashedly conservative, and NASA seems to like it that way. Until the GAS program, with its altogether different aims and criteria, there was scant hope for artists working in non-traditional modes to participate in NASA activities, and then only for those whose work fit that program’s stringent rules. What about those whose work is neither science-like nor illustrational?

Consider Lowry Burgess (another MIT fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies and head of the graduate program at Massachusetts College of Art). For years he has been trying to get permission to deploy a piece called The Gate Into Aether over the Pacific Ocean. His chances are improving, as access to space services increases, but the obstacles that remain reveal some of the difficulties of working in space.

The Gate Into Aether is a ring form of ice consisting of 18 sections of frozen waters taken from the mouths of 18 great rivers throughout the world (Mississippi, Congo, Columbia, Ganges, St. Lawrence, Danube, Rio Grande, Indus, Rhine, Tigris-Euphrates, Amazon, Yang-tze, etc.). These rivers are combined in pairs with other waters from springs, waterfalls, geysers, glaciers, and wells …. Between each of the frozen sections are sonic holograms (wave  fronts of sound captured in light) of the ecstatic singing of plans, animals, and people.”

As Burgess envisions it, the ice-ring, measuring about 18 inches in diameter, would be taken out of a refrigerated container by a shuttle crew-member and gently placed over the Pacific by hand: a crowning. The ice would sublime (evaporate without melting) leaving the sound holograms to flutter down into the atmosphere like leaves, burning completely during reentry:

“As if animated by a surprising impulse, waters were from all over the world … gathered face to face and mouth to mouth: memory of the world as water … welded by a chill rapture of song lifted into high and absolute silence at the rim of the world … released, sublimed as crystals, as the sun scatters the starry night in a diasporal seeding of the streams in air, ind infinitesimal rain ….”4

Until recently, NASA forbade the deployment of solid objects from GAS canisters—even when they were sure to disintegrate quickly. The first exceptions to this rule are scheduled to occur as this article goes to press: two small satellites are to be ejected from GAS containers by spring-loaded catapults during Mission 51-B in mid-April. One is supposed to remain in orbit for about a year; the other, about six months. If they succeed, and if further deployments are allowed, this will greatly increase the range of projects possible under the GAS program—though there’s no sign yet that NASA will ever let crew members perform any task for GAS payloads beyond switch-flipping.

Joseph McShane, “Payload G-38″ (partially assembled) 19” diameter, 1984. Not visible is the tube and exit vent for the large glass sphere and the cylindrical payload container provided by NASA. Three of the smaller spheres fit on the curved tubes emerging from the large sphere’s support (photo: Charles Lyon)

Burgess sees the gesture of placement by a human hand as important to the symbolism of his piece, and anyway, The Gate into Aether isn’t remotely scientific in content or intent. This, his hopes have been pinned not on the GAS program, but on NASA’s deciding to let the shuttle carry nonscientific payloads. This decision, and procedures to implement it, were announced late last summer. As stated in the Federal Register:

“Nonscientific payloads are eligible for flight … on a space available basis.” [That is, after scientific and technical payloads have been accommodated. Requests are screened for technical feasibility, safety, compliance with regulations, etc. Those that pass must then be approved by a committee of high-level NASA administrators.] “No payload will be accepted for flight which is inconsistent with NASA’s mission or otherwise not in the national interest. No human or animal life will be permitted in a nonscientific payload. Nonscientific payloads will not be permitted to operate as free flyers [untethered satellites] … All nonscientific payloads proposed—or which appear to be proposed—solely or primarily for the purposes of advertising, publicity, endorsements, or other means of promotion.”

Prior to the adoption of these rules, during the period allowed for public comment, NASA received letters proposing that the shuttle carry art at reduced rates; that the Nonscientific Payload Evaluation Committee include “a representative from the arts”; and that they drop the requirement that payloads return to earth on the same flight that carried them into orbit.

All three proposals were rejected: “NASA intents to avoid contributing unnecessarily to the already substantial accumulation of objects currently in Earth orbit …. The accumulation causes difficulty for tracking activities and could pose a potential hazard at more densely cluttered altitudes. Therefore, unless a clear necessity is served by leaving a payload in orbit, it will be returned to Earth aboard the same flight that carries it into orbit …. In addition, we do not wish to increase the number of space objects that reenter Earth’s atmosphere.”

The Evaluation Committee, they affirmed, is limited to NASA personnel: “The Committee does not expect to make recommendations on proposed payloads based on issues of artistic merit, precluding the need for a member with arts expertise. If an occasion should arise in which such expertise is needed for its deliberations, the Committee will seek assistance from such recognized authorities as the National Endowment for the Arts.”

The reason someone had proposed that art fly at reduced rates was that the draft rule had indicated that service fees ‘normally will be based on total operations cost recover”—in contrast to the GAS program, with its deep-discount fares. Having to pay full commercial rates raises the cost of working in space into the stratosphere (so to speak). But, they replied, “NASA has no authority to single out arts payloads as more worthy than other categories, therefore justifying their flight at subsidized rates. It is the objectives [sic] of the Agency to treat all nonscientific payloads equally, whatever their nature.”5

At present, all requests to fly nonscientific payloads on the shuttle must include $1,000 as a processing fee. Those that are approved can expect to be charged a base fare of about $1,500 per pound, plus “integration” fees figured on a case-by-case basis, for handling, installation, and other services. (To see how significant the discount is in the GAS program, note that the base fare for a 200-pound GAS payload is $10,000; the base fare for a nonscientific payload weighing 200 pounds is nearly $300,000!)

But for Burgess, cost is a secondary issue: mainly there is that obvious conflict between the current policy preventing deployment of “free flyers” and his plans for The Gate Into Aether. Someday, the evaluation committee may be willing to ease this policy, or agree to a one-time waiver, but apparently not yet. Even then, Burgess will still have to convince them that the ice ring can be safely handled in space (unless all gases dissolved in the waters are purged before freezing, and the ice ring is kept in a sealed container, it might erupt when exposed to vacuum and sunlight); that its trajectory will carry all particles away from the shuttle and out of its flight path (even with the energy randomly released by the break-up and subliming of the ice); that the holograms will in fact fall from orbit and burn up quickly (how quickly?); and so on. Convincing them that the project is feasible and safe will not be easy.

Burgess came away from his recent talks with NASA officials with the impression that while they like The Gate Into Aether as an idea, it involves too many practical uncertainties, and requires too many exemptions from the rules, to be approved anytime soon. Nonetheless, he is convinced that they would like to fly an artwork under the Nonscientific Payload Program as soon as they find one that qualifies. So he recently filed a flight request for a piece which he had intended to propose after The Gate: The Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture. This one would not require the waiving of any regulations and could be assembled quickly. If it is approved—Burgess expects to meet with the evaluation committee while this article is in press—it could be ready to fly in a matter of months.

The form and symbolism of The Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture are far too complex to describe here in full, but the basic structure is that of two sets of nested cubes, one to be installed near the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, the other to be put someday in the crater Korolev, on the far side of the moon. The two sets refer to each other by approximately inverting each other’s nesting order: the outer surface of the terrestrial set is tiled with small blocks of bronze, smoky lead glass, and blue pearl granite; the innermost cube is a vacuum lined with holograms of empty space (six exposed but blank plates). The innermost cube of the lunar set will be made of the bronze, glass, and granite laminate; its outer surface exposed to the lunar vacuum and covered with holograms of visionary scenes: a foot splashing in water, a hand metamorphosing into a tree covered with wings instead of leaves.

Only the two innermost cubes of the earthly set would fly on the shuttle. Measuring five inches on each edge, this portion is cut from a slab of petrified sycamore wood found at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. A square hole pierces the slab, its ends covered by poetic texts printed holographically, so that the words appear to hover apart from the physical surface. Burgess: “This dark crystal 40-million-year-old tree seizes a cubic pressure chamber which contains all the chemical elements, solid, liquid, and gaseous. This chamber also contains the purified waters of The Gate Into Aether. In this pressurized and elemental vise floats a further cubic vessel framed with its six holograms of nothing, a cubic vacuum.”  When the core of The Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture returns from orbit, the rest of the terrestrial piece will be built around it, then imbedded in an outcropping of 300-million-year-old rock a few miles from Walden Pond (the crater Korolev was chosen as the complimentary site because some of the moon’s oldest rock is thought to be exposed there).

Burgess’ work is closer in spirit to alchemy than to science, a kind of material poetry. There is no logical, functional justification for the core of this piece spending a week in orbit before being interred. But each component of the Aperture has been exposed to some sort of processing-ritual in a place with “mystique”: the waters from The Gate Into Aether were distilled on the shore of the Dead Sea, the “holograms of nothing” were exposed in a pitch-dark cave under the crater of an extinct volcano. The Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture is a knot of disparate legends connecting distant times and places more than a thing to be looked at. Serendipitous, paradoxical, it represents a kind of thinking that NASA has never been able to accommodate before, but which in fact implies very little burden on their operations.

McShane, Davis, and Burgess have not run into any problems with NASA on the issues of personal gain and publicity stemming from their space-work. These are issues on which the agency is known to be sensitive, however, and must be factors in the way they respond to projects proposed by artists. One instance in particular made them wary.

A Dutch artist, Paul Van Hoeydonck, persuaded NASA to let the Apollo-15 astronauts leave a small sculpture of his on the moon in 1971. Titled The Fallen Astronaut, the satin-finished milled-aluminum figurine was placed on the lunar dust with a plaque listing all of the astronauts and cosmonauts who had died during previous space missions. This simple tableau is a tasteful and poignant tribute to those who gave their lives in the early days of space exploration, yet it is virtually forgotten today—in part, no doubt, because NASA disapproved of the way Van Hoeydonck’s gallery capitalized on the event. “FIRST ART ON THE MOON” was the bold headline of the full-page ads the Waddell Gallery placed in leading art magazines, offering 950 copies of the figurine, each one signed and “similar in the most exact detail to the sculpture on the moon,” for $750 apiece (950 x $750 = $712,500).

NASA still carries photographs of The Fallen Astronaut in their public information files, but the official caption describes it not as the first art on the moon—not even as sculpture—but merely as “a small figure,” with no mention at all of Van Hoeydonck.

It’s hard to guess how they would react to a similar event today. Some of the Apollo astronauts were reprimanded for carrying postage stamps and other souvenirs into space without permission for private sale on earth. Van Hoeydonck got permission to have The Fallen Astronaut left on the moon, but it isn’t clear whether NASA knew about the 950 clones or the marketing plans ahead of time. They still forbid the use of launch services simply to create souvenirs. But this is the era of Reaganism, of space commercialization, of public assets being used to foster private enterprise. How this will affect the Nonscientific Payload Program remains to be seen. Their rule barring payloads that “appear to be proposed … primarily for the purposes of … publicity [and] promotion” shows there are limits to what NASA will tolerate in the way of orbiting attention-grabbers. On the other hand, the rules say nothing against financial gain.

And what of the NASA Art Program? Despite its broad-sounding name, Robert Schulman continues to see its mission as limited to the visual chronicling of events in NASA history (with occasional forays into planetscapes and pre-NASA aviation). The Art Program has no formal role in the evaluation of nonscientific payloads, and Schulman expresses no interest in having it be otherwise. Nor does he intend to commission any payload projects with Art Program funds. He may, however, be involved in “working out the parameters for the selection of artists to go into space” someday as citizen-observers.

Meanwhile, the Nonscientific Payload Program has finally given artists interested in using the shuttle the opportunity to walk in the front door for the first time (instead of slipping in the back way via the GAS program). The executive secretary of the payload evaluation committee, Tony Maull, emphasizes that not only is the new program designed to accommodate artists, it was largely their interest and effort that led to its creation:

“We began to look seriously at developing a nonscientific payload policy because of inquiries from members of the arts community,” he recalls. “People like Joe Davis and Lowry Burgess and others who were using very modern materials and techniques. We saved all of these proposals, waiting for the day when we finally got the shuttle operating and on a reliable schedule, and as that day approached, we went through our files and tried to figure out how we could best accommodate the people who wanted to send up nonscientific payloads. We really had mainly artists in mind, because their representations had been the most vigorous and the best thought-out …”

“I think that all of us at NASA are clearly aware that what motivates the American people to support the space program—and it is their program, not a hobby-shop for us—isn’t just for the reasons of science and engineering, but perhaps as important, for the reasons of poetry, the spirit of adventure. We’re moved to be off [the earth], for reasons that are probably harder for engineers to understand than it is for artists. We’re not going to get involved with judgements of artistic merit. We just want people to know that the door is open now for concerns that go beyond science and engineering.”

Robert Horvitz was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts and studied art at Yale University. Upon completion of his B.A. degree he was hired by Yale to teach drawing. From there he went on to teach courses in contemporary art at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and studio art at Phillips and Abbott Academies. In the 1970s he was a regular contributor of feature articles to Artforum, writing about artists such as Chris Burden, Alan Sonfist, and Alan Sondheim. He was Art Editor of Whole Earth publications from 1977 until 1991. Horvitz exhibited his drawings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston, and elsewhere.


1 Joseph W. McShane and C. Daniel Coursen, “G-38, 39 & 40—An Artists’ Exploration of Space,”Proceedings of the 1984 Get-Away Special Experimenter’s Symposium, August 1–2, 1984 (NASA Conference Publication 2324
2 Joe Davis, “Spacescapes/Payloads for the Arts,” Proc. 1984 GAS Exp. Symp. (NASA Conference Publication 2324
3 Sarah G. Keegan, “NASA Art Program,” press release, August 1983
4 All quoted passages about Burgess’ work from an unpublished manuscript, “The Quiet Axis” by Lowry Burgess, 1984.
5 Nonscientific payload rules and replies to public comments in the Federal Register, August 31, 1984, p 34445-34447