Touching the Sky

I like to joke that every time I say something authoritatively, especially online, circumstances will conspire that will make my statement look somehow silly in retrospect. Like the time I explained to my friend that diving to the bottom of the Marianas Trench was totally possible, even though it had been done only once, in the 1950s... and then a few weeks later James Cameron became the first to do it in 52 years. Or that time I wrote an essay about the Civil War comparing it to a horror story and then some guy wrote Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and made heaps of money. "We haven't detected any signals from alien civilizations so far." I say, "Of course, with my luck, now that I've said that, we'll get a message tomorrow."

That's what happened back in November of 2008, when one of my online friends innocently enough asked her friends who they would want to be if they could be anyone in the world for one day. Whoever we chose, we would have all of their skills for that day, but wake up as ourselves the next day with only memories.

"Either an astronaut in orbit or an acrobat for Cirque du Soleil." I answered. Being able to instantly become someone who already had the years of training necessary for either endeavor and get straight to doing incredible stuff sounded like a good way to spend a day making some awesome memories.

And, true to form, a few months later, in June of 2009, circumstances conspired to make that statement look silly -- because somebody managed to do both! Guy Laliberte, a Canadian former acrobat and fire-eater who had founded Cirque du Soleil in the 1980s, was announced as the next space tourist to visit the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. As a space fan, I watched his mission's launch and docking with the station -- and laughed to see Mr. Laliberte emerge through the Soyuz hatch wearing a rubber clown nose! (A few of my friends made noises about that being "undignified", at which I rolled my eyes.) I watched his live "Poetic Social Mission" broadcast a few days later, featuring performers around the world interpreting the theme of clean water and its importance to life, although because of homework, I regrettably had to stop watching before the end.

After his safe return to Earth later that month, I didn't think much about Laliberte for a while, although I felt proud that I recognized his name when I saw it in an article about Cirque du Soleil in Southwest Airlines Spirit magazine. (This is the case with me and a lot of people connected to space but active in other fields, like Elon Musk and Richard Garriott.) But earlier this month, my Mom mailed me an invitation she'd gotten to a gallery show of photographs he'd taken on the station. "I thought we could go to this together when you come home for break," the sticky note she attached read. My mom appreciates my interest in space travel, and she's picked up a lot from listening to me, but art is definitely her area of expertise, so the exhibit sounded like a good intersection of our interests.

That proved to be the case. I'd seen a lot of photographs taken from the space station before, but never blown up and hanging on the clean white walls of an art gallery. The format encouraged me to look at each photo twice -- first as a documentary piece and then as a work of art. (Like how I'd heard Bradford Washburn's aerial mountain photographs described a few months earlier.) One of the first photos in the gallery, showing clouds over the Gulf of Mexico, was a perfect example of that. My first thought was that the photo perfectly illustrated how cloud tops are flattened out by the temperature difference when they bump up against the tropopause, the boundary between the troposphere and stratosphere. But my second thought was that the lower clouds looked like they'd escaped from an old Dutch masters' seascape.

That was appropriate, given how those paintings of ships setting sail from Holland for exotic ports had been the Renaissance equivalent of the paintings of rocket launches I'd seen at the Air and Space Museum the summer before in the NASA Art exhibit. But, of course, those artists had never had a view like this--they'd never seen the clouds from ABOVE, casting shadows on the world below. That was a view only possible in our current age of flight.

Like the live presentation, Laliberte's photographs focused on the theme of water, showing either bodies of water or dry areas without water. Zoomed in so far that no identifying geography was visible, some of these views appeared abstract--swirls of different-hued blue formed by currents and depth changes in the Caspian Sea and sharp pink outcroppings of rock in the Sahara sticking out of the sand. Some of the photographs were on watercolor paper, which slightly reduced the detail level when seen close-up, making them appear more like paintings.

Having spent the past semester taking a class in Archeological Remote Sensing, my eyes instinctively picked out roads and farm fields, (and areas of greater and lesser growth within the fields) and even the round shapes in fields created by circular sprinklers. But I also found myself pointing at a photo of a peninsula in Turkey and telling my mother "It looks like a leafy sea dragon!", and commenting on the contrasting colors in other photographs.

This artistic-scientific duality was perfectly captured in the 89-minute documentary film about Laliberte's training and flight that played in the gallery, Touch the Sky. In addition to following the mission itself, the film also featured interviews with several of the astronauts and cosmonauts he trained alongside and covered an incredible amount of ground, from the question of the station being safe for tourists to the effects of the Columbia accident on the astronaut corps and their families to the memories of the Apollo program that unite the current generation of space travelers, professional and private alike. Like I said about Space Dive (another documentary about a jeans-wearing, tattooed, nontechnical individual training for a space/near-space mission), watching films about space events I followed as they happened is always enjoyable because it gives me the chance to relive them with more clarity. Thus, it was nice to "meet" and "fly with" Jeffery Williams, Nicole Stott, and Gennady Padalka again. A special treat was being able to see Scott Kelly, recently announced as a crewmember for an upcoming yearlong mission aboard the station, and Chris Hadfield, the current station commander, in interviews filmed long before those present developments. (Another treat was the appearance of noted musician and space enthusiast Bono, who participated in the live broadcast event.)

The film captured Laliberte's initial sense of displacement at being an individual with a nontechnical background in such a highly technical environment, but also how he found common ground with the other astronauts and cosmonauts training in Russia. While Laliberte was an artist who happened to be a space traveler, several of his colleagues were space travelers who happened to be artists--pioneer spacewalker Alexei Leonov described not only his cosmonaut experience, but also his artistic process as a painter and his paintings, and Commander Hadfield played a song he had written about the Soyuz rocket. This symmetry made the idea of a strict artistic-scientific division look rather silly, putting the lie to the "cold, logical machine" and "eccentric, foolish clown" stereotypes that one might have expected the protagonists to fall into.

I wondered if I could get a copy of Touch the Sky to show at the next SEDS meeting after we returned from break, maybe to play at an event open to the whole student body. I thought it definitely captured so much of what I'd been talking about with our lack of members from outside of the College of Arts and Sciences and College of Engineering. Back in April, we saw that some business students are just as enthusiastic about space travel as we are, and having aspiring space entrepreneurs in our club would make it all the stronger. And the same is true for every other residential college. How much stronger would our club be with the addition of aspiring space doctors, lawyers, educators, artists? What new perspectives would we gain?