Art In Space

How I joined the largest art exhibition in outer space

It still blows my mind to say this. Two of my drawings were laser-engraved onto the side panels of a satellite, and then were loaded into a rocket and launched up to the International Space Station, and now are currently orbiting our planet at 7 kilometers a second. This epic feat — joining the largest art exhibition in outer space — was only possible due to the collaboration of two visionary teams at Planet Labs and Autodesk Pier 9.

Planet Labs is an aerospace company based in San Francisco. Their mission is to image the entire earth every day — documenting our planet’s changes over time and showing the effects we’re having on Spaceship Earth. Two years into their mission, they’ve already launched world’s largest fleet of earth-imaging satellites (and they’re just getting started).

Autodesk Pier 9 Workshop’s website

Autodesk’s Pier 9 Workshop — where I’m fortunate to work as the lead Experience Designer for Ember (Autodesk’s professional DLP 3D printer) — is what I think of as Maker Heaven. It’s hard to fathom how much creativity happens at P9, where employees, artists in residence, and shop staff all work, collaborate, and push the creative limits of a mind-boggling collection of industrial-strength hardware, software, and materials.

Although having my mind boggled is a daily occurrence at P9, I was still shocked and delighted to hear the Senior Creative Programs Manager, Noah Weinstein, announce an open call at the pier for art that would be sent into space. In that moment, the awesomeness of P9 expanded to a whole new level for me — an extraterrestrial one.

SpaceX launches a flock of Planet Labs satellites.

When I was a child, I dreamed of being an aeronautical engineer. I wanted to make spaceships. But over time, it become obvious that I had more of a penchant for art, design, UX, and right brain stuff than I did for engineering, so when the opportunity arose to do the next best thing — to create artwork for a spaceship — I was ecstatic.

Like when I was a child, I became obsessed with drawing again. After creating and discarding countless concepts, I started focusing in on the dance between art and science, and how together they enable humanity to transcend its terrestrial limits and take flight to the stars. I remembered the mythic, ill-fated flight of Icarus, and imagined that he had an opportunity to take a second flight, having the lesson of hubris from his first attempt. This inspired what became “Ascension.”

Ascension

I was overjoyed to learn, when the review process had finished, that “Ascension” was accepted into the collection. And then I got a surprise — they wanted me to create a second piece, a panel for the opposite side of the satellite. How could I resist? Back into drawing obsession I went. [I’m so grateful to my amazing wife for her patience during this period!]

I drew inspiration for my second piece from the endearing term that the people at Planet Labs use to refer to their satellites: Doves. And it seemed fitting to balance the masculine imagery in my first piece with complementary feminine imagery. Imagining a celestial personification of this heavenly dance (with an Art Nouveau feel) inspired my second piece, “Dove Dance”:

Dove Dance

Once my art was finished and approved, the hard work of getting the pieces fabricated, loaded, and launched went into the capable hands of the engineers at Planet Labs. I wasn’t involved in this part of the process, so I can’t share anything about it… but here’s the awesome result:

Two Planet Labs doves being deployed from the International Space Station

With the satellites adorned and deployed, there were only a couple things left to do: Celebrate! And document!

For the celebration part, Sarah Brin, Pier 9’s Public Programs Manager, created an epic (and quite literal) launch party at the Chabot Space & Science Center. Sarah, Noah, Forest Stearns (Creative Director of Planet Labs), and Adam Tobin (Exectutive Director of Chabot) gave rousing speeches about the project in the great domed planetarium, followed by an artists’ panel, consisting of Alex Glow, Scott Kildall, Audrey Love, JoeJoe Martin, and myself (Reza Ali and Eric Forman, whose work was also included in the exhibit, were unable to attend). We spoke about what this project meant to us, what inspired us, and answered questions from the audience. A beautiful, short video about the project was projected on the dome (embedded below).

Standing with my wife and infant son in front of my panels at the Chabot exhibition.

Representations of the satellite panels — cut, drilled, powder-coated, and laser-engraved, just like the originals — were displayed on easels for all to see.

For the documentation part, Noah created what’s likely the first truly extraterrestrial Instructable, How To Send Art Into Outer Space.

For a brief overview of this project (including some words from yours truly), check out this video, created by P9 documentarians, Charlie Nordstrom and Blue Bergen…

I feel profoundly honored to have been able to participate in this project, and wish that all serious artists could have a similar opportunity. Due to the success of this project, I think it’s quite likely that there may be additional opportunities for artists to submit their work, so stay tuned!

If you’re wondering, “How can I get my art in space?” I can’t say for sure, but these things could help:

Power on!