Sculptures in Space

Humanity Star, the geodesic sphere satellite launched by Rocket Lab at Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand, 21 January 2018

Published in:
Art News New Zealand Magazine
Winter 2018


There once lived a man who built a star brighter than any other. Summoning up all his strength, he then threw it into the dark night and there it hung in the sky for everyone to see. But the man’s bright star soon woke the sleeping sky, which bumped the star with the tip of its finger and struck it back to earth in a ball of flame.

This cautionary tale of the pride and mortality of humankind is not an ancient myth, but a true story. Well, more accurately, it’s my abridged account of the Humanity Star – a gleaming geodesic sphere that, on 21 January, 2018, was blasted from the erosion-scarred cliffs of the Mahia Peninsula into a low Earth orbit, only to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere on 23 March, seven months earlier than expected. The star’s creator, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck, proclaimed it to be “a bright symbol and reminder to all on Earth about our fragile place in the universe”. His humanitarian gesture grabbed international news media attention and, in many ways, was not unlike a poetic conceptual artwork or public sculpture.

Yet the Humanity Star also received scorn on social media and in news reports, which dismissed the wee satellite as an egotistical commercial stunt, a disco ball, as orbital pollution and space graffiti. Such opponents were probably aghast when, only three weeks later, on February 6, SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced that he had launched his personal Tesla Roadster into deep space. This red electric sports car worth $200,000 was sent on a heliocentric orbit that will circle the Sun and Mars for a billion years. An archaeologist described the car as a sarcophagus symbolising masculine midlife crisis, and another cultural commentator as an example of Jeff Koons-esque pop art or Duchampian readymade. Such cultural references made me wonder – is space the ultimate symbolic context?

Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster, launched into orbit in the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, February 2018

For a few thousand years space was considered a sacred realm that distinguished the mortal from the immortal. Neil Armstrong shattered this idea 50 years ago. His famous words “a giant leap for mankind” carried us across an irrevocable threshold in which the mysticism of space yielded to a mentality of weaponisation, colonisation and commercialisation. 

The significance of the Moon in particular changed during the Cold War years of the Space Race. For instance, United States President John F. Kennedy made it very clear that the star-spangled banner was the only flag that would be raised on the Moon and other NASA missions: “we have vowed that we shall not see it [space] governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.” Aside from symbols of government propaganda, the earliest space art object was the Moon Museum – a collection of works by artists such as Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and Robert Rauschenberg, which were etched into a minuscule ceramic tile, surreptitiously attached to the Apollo 12 spacecraft, and left on the Moon in 1968. Warhol drew a penis. Oldenburg doodled his signature Mickey Mouse. Rauschenberg scribed a straight line. What might these artists have done with Musk’s technology and budget?

Details of one of four chambers that comprise the MoonArk geometric capsule. From top: Biodiversity disk designed by Mark Baskinger with Steve Tonor, Matt Zywica, Christie Chong, Deniz Sokullu, Maggie Banks, Natalie Harmon, Bettina Chou, Deborah Lee, Carolyn Zhou; an open chamber showing components.
Photos: Mark Baskinger

A more serious Moon museum, called the MoonArk, is destined for the lunar surface in 2019. This elaborately- designed geometric capsule contains hundreds of images, poems, music, nano-objects and mechanisms. Created by an expert team assembled by Carnegie Mellon University, this futuristic reliquary follows in the lofty tradition of Carl Sagan et al.’s Golden Records attached to the Voyager I and II spacecrafts launched in 1977.

Placing a time capsule on the Moon is a beautiful notion – at least if the Moon stays in its relatively untouched state. Lunar dust is rich in minerals, and contains a rare mixture of silica and iron, and also the elusive Helium-3, thought to be the answer for producing a fusion power reactor. This might explain the reticence of many nations to sign the 1979 United Nations Moon Treaty that would ban extra-terrestrial ownership. Only 18 countries have signed New Zealand is not among them and nor are any of the more major space-faring nations.

Perhaps the criticism of RocketLab and SpaceX is less of a reaction to their symbolic payloads and more of an underlying distrust of the governmental and corporate motivations at play on or about the Moon. But do we have a right to be sceptical? After all, 6.8 billion of us have space technology in our pocket that depends on the thousands of manmade stars in orbit.

Since GPS technology was declassified by the US Department of Defense in 1992, there has been an exponential upsurge in commercial space traffic. In turn, this led to space ports being built around the world to access less busy orbits. RocketLab’s space port is located at Mahia for this very reason and has secured high-profile clients such as NASA.

Increased orbital traffic has also escalated the amount of space debris. Almost all space flights deposit some mechanical residue in what is known as the graveyard orbit. This is where satellites boost to when they are ready to die and where rocket capsules are abandoned. If left undisturbed, this cosmic trash heap will remain there for all eternity. On occasion objects do escape mission control, however, like the Chinese 8.5-tonne Tiangong-1 space station that accidentally re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere in April, coming down somewhere “above the South Pacific”, as officials vaguely described.

The US Department of Defense is tracking 21,000 orbiting objects, but there are literally millions of small to large pieces of circling debris. Hurtling at great speeds, even a paint fragment can be disastrous to a satellite and there is growing fear that a chain reaction of collisions could be set in motion, creating apocalyptic results. Imagine future space-travelling aliens cursing our species as they precariously dodge human space junk, like a certain Tesla Roadster.

If not the Roadster, they might be educated about our failures if they discover the time capsule project, The Last Pictures (2012), made by artist Trevor Paglen. Inspired by the fate of the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island, Paglen meditated on the thought: “How is it that we knew exactly how we were going to kill ourselves and went ahead with it anyway?” This melancholic sentiment led him to create a type of memorial dedicated to the Anthropocene which was then attached to the communications satellite EchoStar XVI, and sent into stationary orbit in 2012. Engraved on the surface of the capsule’s circular shell are the words “Leave me for the depths of time”. Inside is a gold disk, said to last billions of years, containing one hundred photographs depicting a number of subjects, including the construction of the Hoover Dam, a battery-hen farm in South Auckland and a night-vision image taken by a Predator Drone of migrants crossing the US-Mexico Border.

Trevor Paglen and Creative Time, The Last Pictures, 2012, silicon disk affixed to the exterior of EchoStar XVI satellite. Copyright Trevor Paglen. Courtesy of the artist, Creative Time.

Paglen’s disk is the antithesis of Carl Sagan et al.’s Golden Records and Carnegie Mellon’s MoonArk. The latter projects assume a positive perspective of humankind, its beauty, creativity and altruism. Whereas The Last Pictures is a pictorial eulogy for a species whose intelligence was ultimately rendered frail due to their exploitation of each other, of fellow animals and their terrestrial environment.

Paglen’s most recent attention has shifted from laments bound in time capsules to the more sanguine pursuit of star building. His star, named the Orbital Reflector, will be a 30-metre diamond-shaped reflective form – much larger than Peter Beck’s one-metre diameter Humanity Star.Orbital Reflector is planned to launch this winter as we, in New Zealand, will be observing the constellation of Matariki.

Paglen’s website describes Orbital Reflector as a sculpture constructed from mylar, a lightweight material, housed in a small box-like infrastructure known as a CubeSat that will be launched into space aboard a SpaceX rocket. “Once in low Earth orbit at a distance of about 350 miles (575 kilometres) from Earth, the CubeSat opens and releases the sculpture, which self-inflates like a balloon. Sunlight reflects onto the sculpture, making it visible from Earth with the naked eye – like a slowly moving artificial star as bright as a star in the Big Dipper.” It will, hopes Paglen, encourage “all of us to look up at the night sky with a renewed sense of wonder, to consider our place in the universe, and to reimagine how we live together on this planet.”

In person, Paglen reveals a more pessimistic view of the project. “I wanted the driest title for this work as possible” he said in a presentation at the Nevada Museum of Art. “I am so ambivalent towards spaceflight, almost to the degree that I think ‘let’s not do it’...[the reason for] space flight, as it exists, can only be nuclear war”. By this he is referring to the fact that the history of space flight has largely been driven by military motivations, from Russia’s Sputnik 1 launched by a rocket made to carry a nuclear warhead, to the many covert spy satellites and drone space shuttles that circle above us today.

Considering the Orbital Reflector from this perspective, Paglen hopes that his bright star might encourage us to consider not just lofty ideals but make as pay attention to the interests that govern the satellite traffic above us. To question, that is, the promotion of space travel as a noble enterprise, to draw attention to the self-destructive tendency that lingers behind our romantic imagination of space.

Trevor Paglen’s Orbital Reflector launch is planned to coincide with a major mid-career retrospective Sites Unseen, 21 June 2018 to 6 January 2019, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC.

Trevor Paglen,  Orbital Reflector , 2018, digital rendering. Copyright of the artist and Nevada Museum of Art

Trevor Paglen, Orbital Reflector, 2018, digital rendering. Copyright of the artist and Nevada Museum of Art