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The Art Of Life Is Universal

For this publisher, the art of space is finding images of our spaceships in action - such as this image of the Pathfinder spacecraft on Mars as taken by the Sojourner rover
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  • by Hans-Arthur Marsiske
    Zurich - Jun 27, 2002
    One might say his studio is the universe, because the art work of Arthur Woods focuses on space. The Swiss-American artist who lives near Zurich conceived and built the first sculpture designed for a zero-gravity habitat and actually managed to exhibit it on the Mir space station.

    This "Cosmic Dancer Sculpture" now lies at the bottom of the Pacific ocean together with the remains of Mir station. But Woods is not discouraged although the prospects of doing similar work on the International Space Station (ISS) look very dim. With undiminished force he continues to strive for a space program that measures up to its cultural significance.

    SD: Mr. Woods, what are your personal memories on the beginning of the space age?

    WOODS: I was quite young when my family moved to Florida. My father was in the military and worked with mobile liquid oxygen production for the Redstone rocket and he thought the new space center in Florida might offer new opportunities for him. Actually, he moved the family to Florida and later got a job at Cape Canaveral. I was about 11 years old then, as the U.S. space program was getting under way. During that time there were numerous rocket starts and as we were living only 10 or 15 kilometers away, I saw most of them. When a loud rumble signaled the start of a missile launch, everybody always ran outside to see if the launch would make it or not. So, that was very exciting for me as a young person. I personally witnessed the Mercury and the Gemini manned launches. When the Apollo program was approved the local population exploded. In about a year or two the population of our neighborhood went from 5,000 to 50,000 and the northern part of Merritt Island, which then consisted mainly of alligators and orange trees, was converted to the Kennedy Space Center. It appeared that everybody living there was working in the space program and everything was very focused on the goal of going to the moon.

    SD: Did you become involved yourself?

    WOODS: While I was a university student, I had the opportunity to get two summer jobs as a document carrier at the Kennedy Space Center in the Apollo program. I had my badge with a "secret" security clearance and I had the feeling I was contributing to this great program. Although my contribution was very minor, it was shared with everyone else doing their essential part. I was exposed to all of the technology and all of the construction that was going on. From time to time I would see the astronauts preparing for Apollo. Also, I worked there a few months after the tragic fire of Apollo 1 that killed three astronauts on the launch pad. So, even the risk involved in going to space was ever present among the workers.

    SD: What would you consider the main accomplishment of Apollo?

    WOODS: I think the Apollo program is very firmly planted in the mind of society as the most significant human technological cooperative endeavour ever undertaken. Equally important, it is the first time in history that humans actually stepped on the surface of another planet.

    And although we haven't repeated it since then, this event has remained a part of the vision of humanity going into space.

    SD: For many people Apollo was also an aesthetic experience, mainly because of the beautiful images of Earth seen from space. Could you try to balance these cultural implications against the technological and scientific ones?

    WOODS: The most important cultural significance is this: A goal was set and an enormous amount of resources and people had to come together to make it happen. My personal memory is that everybody was behind this vision. Apollo shows that if humanity really wants to achieve something significant, they can do it, they can build not only the necessary technological structures but also the social structures.

    SD: Would you consider the footprints on the moon as a piece of art?

    WOODS: They definitely are a very significant thing, but a piece of art?

    If you use the image of the footprints to communicate something of that experience, may be. But then you might call the whole Apollo program a piece of art. Some people have even called the World Trade Center disaster a piece of art. In both cases, a very remarkable collective experience took place.

    SD: Space agencies are defending their budgets by pointing to the scientific, technological, and commercial values of space exploration.

    But by the general public space still seems to be perceived mainly for its beauty represented by pictures of the Hubble space telescope or remote sensing satellites.

    WOODS: On the global appreciation of our place in the universe the space program has definitely changed our perception of who we are in the cosmos. Going back again to Apollo, one of the most significant results was the picture of the whole Earth seen from space. It was the first time we saw our own planet from the perspective of space against the blackness of the universe. Many ideas grew from here, the idea of whole Earth, of interrelatedness, the idea of spaceship Earth. It had an enormous influence on psychology and even political ideology. And this influence continues to be produced by the space program by looking into the deepest parts of the universe and coming back with these gorgeous and sometimes provocative images.

    SD: One might say that one mission of art is to make the invisible visible. But that is done also by space observatories or remote sensing satellites that show Earth and space from new perspectives and in spectral areas invisible for the human eye. Is it a mere coincidence that these pictures often resemble abstract art?

    WOODS: Probably not. As artists started looking at the world in abstract ways, looking for meaning, so did scientists. A remote sensing picture of the Earth appears as an abstract image but at the same time is also a very realistic representation. These artistic and scientific concepts are working very closely together and influence each other.

    SD: But how consciously is that been done? Images of Earth for instance are produced to show for instance the distribution of certain molecules in the atmosphere. The beauty of these images often appears as a mere by-product.

    WOODS: From my point of view, images of nature are naturally beautiful, whether it's trees, sunsets, stars, or galaxies. What makes Earth seen from space especially beautiful is that we're looking at life, we're looking at a living planet with all its colours and contours. Going back to the art point, you might look for instance at the abstract expressionists in the fifties like the American artist Morris Louis. He made these very huge canvases with a few stripes of paint on either side and left the center empty. Actually, this artist was trying to explore the infinite or at least the vastness or the emptiness of space. Doing that, he was part of his time. While he was using the means of art, others were using the tools of technology to get a grip on infinity.

    What artists, scientists, humans are exploring often has to do with the spirit of the time. Every epoch has its own art language. Nowadays we're living in a very digital kind of language media. So art, science, and technology are quite closely connected.

    SD: It appears to me that artists don't exert as much influence on the space program as they should, considering the aesthetic significance of space exploration.

    WOODS: Actually, there was always a very close relationship between artists and scientists, especially in the area of space exploration.

    Starting with the first astronomers who were drawing what they saw through their telescopes. They used an artistic media to explain what they were seeing. On the other hand, the artists were dreaming of space flight and going to the moon long before the scientists and engineers got in. In a sense, the artists invented the space program. Pictures of space were drawn as early as in the 15th century. Think of Jules Verne and the illustrations of his books in the 1860s. Artists such as James Nasmyth, Lucien Rudaux and later, Chesley Bonestell were doing illustrations for scientific books, drawing lunar landscapes long before we had an idea how it really looked like on the moon. Since the space program got started artists have continuously worked very closely with scientists and engineers, helping them visualize their ideas. Also, science fiction films like "2001: a Space Odyssey", "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", "Star Trek", or "Star Wars" have done a lot to popularize the idea of humanity one day going to space and this influences the public's support the national space programs. Many space engineers and scientists even started their careers by reading science fiction novels or going to the cinema.

    SD: You are working on a project to intensify this relation between science fiction and real science?

    WOODS: Yes, the idea originated at the European Space Agency (ESA). Many ideas found in science fiction have a very solid understanding of technology and science and, some of these might have some practical use, if they were developed further. So ESA contacted two Swiss organizations, my OURS Foundation and the Maison d'Ailleurs in Yverdon-les-Bains, which has one of the largest science fiction collections in the world, and gave us the job for researching science fiction for innovative technologies that may have potential space applications. We have been working for more than a year and a half right now, contacting experts, debating ideas. ESA published a brochure with some of our initial findings and just went online with a newly renovated website , which will become a kind of permanent research place where people can submit information from books they've read or images about innovative ideas for space. ESA has already identified two or three technologies that they are considering giving to a university to study deeper.

    SD: Space exploration and space travel are perceived mostly as technological and scientific activities that may have some cultural dimensions, too. But one might as well regard it mainly as a cultural activity being realized by technological means. Which point of view would you prefer?

    WOODS: It's hard to draw the line. I think trying to leave this planet is a culturally significant event in the history of our species. For quite a long time, people have this vision that space is part of our future. Considering the population growth and the accompanying exploitation of finite resources, I personally see space development and the use of space resources, i.e. energy, minerals, metals, etc. as the only optimistic means to meet the future needs of humanity on Earth.

    Without this development we might see the end of our civilization sometime this century.

    SD: Would you say humanity has to diverge itself, like a colony of honey-bees that has grown to large?

    WOODS: In my opinion, if humanity is going to survive as a thriving species it has to go into space. There is no way it's going to make it on this planet unless 90 per cent of humanity disappears which would most likely happen in a very ugly way. But if we want to remain a thriving, creative, prosperous and adventurous species, I think human expansion beyond its home planet is its only optimistic option. However, there might be another point at work here - where humanity is just a part of a larger evolutionary picture: it is the idea that Earth might have reached the point where it needs to spread life throughout the cosmos in order to insure the survival of Life as we know it. Life is too fragile to stay in one place forever. So maybe that's our real role in the evolutionary scheme of life on Earth to help plant the seeds of life somewhere else.

    Dr. Hans-Arthur Marsiske is a freelance journalist based in Germany he can be contacted via his website at

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