Fewer than 700 people have ever flown to space. For many, after they return to earth, they’re struck by what they saw in orbit. A few of them try to translate the experience using art.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A private mission to the International Space Station is set to take flight this weekend. Four astronauts will spend about a week at the Orbiting Lab conducting experiments, talking with students back here on Earth and focusing on art. As WMFE’s Brendan Byrne reports, there’s a long history of art and space.
BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: When John Shoffner found out he was going to space, he wanted part of his mission to focus on children, asking them specifically a simple question.
JOHN SHOFFNER: What would it be like when we live in space? In your mind as a 10-year-old, a 12-year-old today, what does that look like to you?
BYRNE: Shoffner remembers his inspiration – a painting he made almost six decades ago of Gemini’s Ed White, the first American to conduct a spacewalk.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ED WHITE: I feel like a million dollars. This is the greatest experience. It’s just tremendous.
BYRNE: After that flight, Shoffner, as an 8-year-old, helped start a young astronauts club. That early dream was put on hold. He went on to become an investor, pilot and racecar driver. But now at age 67, Shoffner will become an astronaut. He purchased a seat on a SpaceX capsule from Houston-based company Axiom Space, and he’ll join former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and two Saudi Arabian astronauts. And some of the art created by young students is coming along, too.
SHOFFNER: We’re going to show some of the selected art entries and poetry on the space station during our flight.
BYRNE: The contest is the latest in a long history of art in space. Robert Pearlman, founder of collectspace.com, traces the first piece of orbital art to Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov on a 1965 mission.
ROBERT PEARLMAN: He carried with him some colored pencils, and he sketched the horizon and the different colors that he saw during a sunrise and sunset as he circled the Earth.
BYRNE: And others soon followed. A sculpture called “Cosmic Dancer,” sent to the Russian station Mir in the early 1990s, danced in weightlessness. Shuttle astronaut Nicole Stott brought a set of watercolors when she went to space. To start painting, she’d scored out some water from a drink bag which would float around as a tiny ball.
NICOLE STOTT: What was so cool – because of microgravity, surface tension behaves a little bit differently, which is why you get that ball of water to begin with. And you could take your brush and just touch it – you know, touch it to the ball of water. And all of a sudden, that whole ball of water was now a ball of water on the end of your brush.
BYRNE: Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield brought the art of music to orbit, packing his acoustic guitar and recording a rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SPACE ODDITY”)
CHRIS HADFIELD: (Singing) Lock your Soyuz hatch, and put your helmet on.
BYRNE: For others, it wasn’t until they returned to Earth that artistic inspiration would strike. Apollo moonwalker Alan Bean was so taken by what he saw, he picked up a brush and painted those lunar landscapes. Speaking to NPR in 2016 from his home studio in Houston, he reflected on being one of the few artists to visit another world.
ALAN BEAN: Someday I hope that that painting right there would be in a museum on the moon. Someday a thousand years from now, there will be art museums on the moon. Maybe one of these paintings will be there. Who knows?
BYRNE: For John Shoffner, he hopes focusing his upcoming mission on art will inspire students to think big.
SHOFFNER: It’s all about imagination. So we want young people to take up the vision of themselves and imagine themselves in the role that they really, really see. So hopefully this is a good kickoff and others will follow.
BYRNE: And after his upcoming trip to space, Shoffner says he may dust off his art brushes once more a half-century after his painting, a copy of which he’s bringing with him, started it all. For NPR News, I’m Brendan Byrne in Orlando.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS HADFIELD SONG, “SPACE ODDITY”)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.