Artists Hope To Create New ‘Science Fiction’ with Zero-Gravity Flights

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Artists Hope To Create New ‘Science Fiction’ with Zero-Gravity Flights

By NICK ADDE
Space New Correspondent
posted: 03 May 2007
07:17 pm ET


washington — If artist Frank Pietronigro and his colleagues can raise the money they need to charter a plane to take them on a flight in zero gravity this July, he feels they can break new ground for future human space flights.

But don’t count on Pietronigro’s group for scientific or technological innovations.

He and his friends are artists — not scientists, engineers or aviators.

“We want to create a new ‘science fiction’ for the year 2500,” said Pietronigro, a San Francisco resident who holds an associate fellowship at the Carnegie-Mellon University School of Fine Arts in Pittsburgh.

“Artists floating in weightlessness today are creating those new ‘science fictions,'” Pietronigro said.

While it would be nice for such endeavors to provide the same fodder for the future as Buck Rogers films did for the present, Pietronigro and his fellow artists believe their work has a much more practical application as well.

“Artistic activities in long-term [space] missions will reduce stress, decrease boredom, and build stronger relationships among crews from all over the world,” said Pietronigro, who helped establish the Zero Gravity Arts Consortium in 2000 with fellow artists Lorelei Lisowsky and Laura Knott. The group is dedicated to improving artists’ access to zero-gravity and space flights.

“As an artist, I don’t have the skill set to prove this hypothesis [is] correct,” Pietronigro said, “but I feel it in my heart that art can address these life-science concerns.”


Pietronigro realizes cargo bays of space-bound craft are typically the dominion of scientific and engineering research. As such, he understands that artists like himself face an uphill battle — particularly in the United States — to pursue their vision.

“Like [with] scientists who want to place payloads on the space shuttle or the ISS [international space station], there is a lot of competition,” Pietronigro said.

This means artists wishing to see any of their projects travel on a space flight must have a good idea of the processes and procedures for garnering that payload space, Pietronigro realizes.

Prior experience working on lofty but earthbound projects for Discovery Channel, Turner Broadcasting Corp. and the San Francisco Arts Festival gave Pietronigro the marketing, sales and project management skills necessary to help fellow artists approach NASA, the European Space Agency and the Russian Space Agency with their ideas.

“I don’t sit alone in a studio and create what I want to create,” he said. “I like to go in, see what’s going on and provide a service to the community.”

The astronauts who deploy on future flights to the Moon, Mars and beyond will be confined in their spacecraft for long durations. They will need something to do besides work and sleep, artists like Pietronigro say. The answer, they say, lies in the humanities, and in artistic and cultural expression.

As a kid, he remembers watching Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, James A. Lovell and William A. Anders fly around the Moon for the first time on Christmas Eve 1968. Artists like Pietronigro regard the photos of the Earth taken by Apollo 8 as landmark pieces of space art.

“The world was captivated by those images,” Pietronigro said, but a whole generation has no recollection at all of that era, or the memories of the “communal, global experience” it triggered.

“The most important image we’ve seen for a long time is that of the Earth from the Moon,” said Lowry Burgess, an art professor at Carnegie-Mellon and colleague of Pietronigro who created the first non-scientific payload to travel into space in 1989.

For that 1989 shuttle mission, using grant money he received from the Rockefeller Foundation (he won’t say how much), Burgess had put together a complicated multimedia work that included water from 18 great rivers from around the world, which had spilled into the Dead Sea and then purified. After the water returned to Earth, he placed it in a spring near Valley Forge, Pa., reinstituting it to the planet from which it came.

A slow-scanned image of Burgess returning the water was recorded, turned into sound and then short-wave, then sent to a transmission station in New Jersey which bounced the image off of the surface of the Moon to the Millstone Haystacks radio telescope in Groton, Mass.

The bounced short-wave data was then converted back to sound and then to an image, in the form of a set of holograms. Some of the images are on display in Paris, others at Carnegie-Mellon, Burgess said.

His 1989 work was another manifestation of what has been done since ” the first humans looked at the sky,” Burgess said. “People have always projected the most important aspects of their own aspirations into the sky, and brought it back to how [they] behave on Earth.”

Along that continuum, Pietronigro and two other artists — Tania Fraga of Brazil and Gavin Starks of Great Britain — hope to fly this summer on a modified Boeing 727-200 airliner belonging to Zero-Gravity Corp. (Zero-G)of Las Vegas and Cape Canaveral, Fla., on an artistic mission of sorts. It would be Pietronigro’s third such zero-gravity flight (he went up last year with Zero-G , and in 1998 on a NASA aircraft).

If they raise the more than the necessary $100,000, largely through sponsorships and grants, the artists will bring an interactive robotic sculpture made of rubber produced by a sustainable development project in the Amazon. The robot’s joints will be programmable.

“We’re interested in creating a transmission between the body of the artist and the robot, and having the biometrics monitored,” Pietronigro said.

Using Wi-Fi, they plan to transmit information from Pietronigro’s movements into a computer and then into the sculpture, to see if there is any relationship between his responses and the sculpture’s movement.

They hope to ultimately generate a host of byproducts from the effort, including a documentary, traveling exhibition and materials to be used by educators.

For its part, Zero-G sees potential interest generated by art projects as a way to expand their business, which was established in 1993 with the intent of bringing zero-gravity flight to the masses.

“We want to make space very participatory,” said Peter H. Diamandis, Zero-G ‘s chairman and chief executive officer.

“If this group is able to get the level of sponsorship they want we’d imagine there would [eventually] be flights dedicated to artists experimenting with new kinds of weightless art forms,” Diamandis said.

The so-called parabolic flights — the term coming from the arc paths the aircraft fly — create multiple moments of weightlessness.

Zero-G ‘s existence certainly made planning — if not coming up with the money — easier than before.

“Our only alternative [before] was to work with the space agencies,” he said. “American artists are at a great disadvantage because private donations are needed to support these activities rather than public funding.”

Fellow artists in Europe, Japan and Russia, on the other hand, enjoy considerable support from their governments, Pietronigro said.

“One artist has done 40 parabolic flights with the French,” he said.

Success this summer may foster greater interest — and public support — in the United States for art in space, Pietronigro hopes. The ultimate beneficiaries, he believes, would be those selected for long missions into space.

“The question is how do we improve the quality of life for people who travel in space,” Pietronigro said. “I believe the humanities — artistic and cultural expression — are the next steps in space exploration.”