Art, Clips, Culture, Science, Space

NASA Sells An Off-Earth Future, One Planet At A Time

Earth

Red Fez, October 13, 2016.

I

In “The Brick Moon,” published in 1869, Bostonian Edward Everett Hales told the story of how humans migrated to space. It came about as a clumsy accident. When a giant brick sphere—built to be a “star” to help maritime explorers chart the oceans—is catapulted into Earth’s orbit, with workers still inside, a floating colony is set up. Fortunately, those men in hard hats had enough to eat, even a few hens. There, they decided to live forever, staying in touch with Earth, only by Morse code, signaled by skipping and jumping on their Spalding ball of an abode.

Such 19th century science-fiction fueled the American public dream of human outposts in space. Fiction was a prologue to the spate of space explorations to come nearly 100 years later, kicking off with the Mercury program in 1958. Man walked on the Moon on July 20, 1969. The Skylab, the first U.S. space station, was put in orbit in 1973. Human exploration, be that of far-flung continents by sailing ships or of cosmic realms by robotic rovers, have, typically, been preceded by spell-binding yarns.

Today, NASA, the aeronautical and space agency, too, is engaging in a kind of storytelling. Since January of last year, its Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has brought out a set of attractive posters that paint beguiling vignettes of life off-Earth. The creative output of an art team at the J.P.L.—called “The Studio”—their goal is to publicize recent astronomical discoveries made by NASA. Each celebrates an “exoplanet”—a foreign planet circling a foreign star—an area of research the J.P.L. focuses on.

II

Exoplanet 1

On a mauve desert, stands a person in space gear. The horizon is near, so near, in fact, that it appears curved. It’s ringed by a range of knife-edged blue mountains. Two Suns hang in the sky: one persimmon-orange; another, shining white. That’s “the land of two Suns,” where one’s shadow will “always have company,” just like Tatooine, the home planet of Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars.”

That’s the poster that announces the online office of NASA’s “Exoplanet Travel Bureau,” a faux travel agency for promoting tourism to exotic locales in the near and far reaches of space.

Exoplanet 3

Exoplanet 4

Exoplanet 2

In another, a skydiver hurtles through the atmosphere of a “super-Earth,” a planet with eight times the mass of Earth, where the “gravitational pull is much, much stronger.” It strikes one as a place thrill-seekers will make a beeline for. The next proclaims: “Visit the planet with no star, where the nightlife never ends.” A man in a tuxedo and a woman in a ball gown, both wearing helmets, pose against a “rogue planet,” a gothic, orphan and nocturnal world without a star. In the shadows, an orchestra plays.

This past February, NASA released nine more posters. These showcased getaways within our own solar system.

Jupiter

A little paragraph at the bottom of each poster spells out the creative rationale behind each. But chances are it’ll stump anyone who hasn’t taken astronomy 101 in college. One needn’t read it, though. And even if one did and came away confused, the accompanying illustration would surely, offset that effect, for they beam one to alien worlds as magical and enchanting as “Oz.” Oddly, they’re both unfamiliar and familiar, at the same time, because some of them evoke American monuments.

Enceladus

Enceladus, Saturn’s icy moon, is touted as the home of the “Cold Faithful” in a nod to the “Old Faithful” in Wyoming’s Yellow Stone National Park. Only, the 100 geysers (“cryovolcanoes”) in its south polar region belch plumes of cold steam and salt; not jets of molten rocks as do terrestrial volcanoes.

Ceres

Ceres, explored by NASA’s Dawn probe, last year, is a boulder amid a vast moor of rocks and stones, which float about in a region between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, known as the “asteroid belt.” It’s depicted by a flashy gateway, prompted by the Reno Arch in downtown Reno, Nevada, which upholds the town’s motto: “The Biggest Little City in the World.” Ceres, likewise, is a dwarf-planet, fairly awarded the epithet: “Queen of the asteroid belt.” A couple of hitchhikers, each holding a canteen, like tourists in Times Square, stand beside a tube well. Above them is the banner: “Last chance for water until Jupiter.”

Venus

Venus, the second rock from the Sun, is “voted” the “best place in the solar system to watch the Mercury transit.” The poster invites one to make a trip to its “Cloud 9 Observatory,” a Venusian landmark reminiscent of “Cloud City,” the top-shaped mining colony, hovering over the cloudscape of Bespin in “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980).

The edifice looks like a round diamond, its dome, resembling the gemstone’s crown; its base, the pavilion. The Morse code for the number “9” (- – – – ·) is etched on its façade. It levitates over a bank of fluffy pink clouds. Inside, people mill about, likely peering through a telescope at the Sun, taking in a rare celestial event called a “transit”—the crossing of Venus (or any other planet) across the Sun’s face—represented pictorially, by a series of dots on the Sun.

In August 1768, a party of four men, led by the British navigator James Cook, set sail for the Pacific island of Tahiti in the British naval research ship H.M.S. Endeavour. They’d been hired by the Royal Society of London to record this very phenomenon. It’s to this daring journey that the poster harks back to. It also makes clear that spaceships in that age allow observers on Earth the luxury of studying these “cosmic crossings” at times of their choosing and from many perches across the solar system.

Titan

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, which is larger than Pluto, larger than Mercury, has a claim to fame: it’s the only moon with a thick atmosphere. Much like the worlds in the outer solar system, it too, is frigid, but it conceals an underground ocean of liquid water beneath its frozen shell.

Its ground, however, is broken by depressions, filled with something oily. At minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit, Titan is exceedingly cold for water to exist in its native state. But methane and ethane—ordinarily, gases on Earth—can. Titan’s equivalent of water, these hydrocarbons form lakes and seas on it.

The most massive of these, Kracken Mare—named after the legendary sea monster Kraken—is bigger than the biggest lake on Earth, the Caspian Sea. Its poster depicts a dark, choppy, unctuous water body, shimmering with yellow, brown and chocolate ripples. A small crowd of boaters, in four rowboats, rows across it as if it were the Thames on a Victorian afternoon. Saturn, with its majestic edge-on rings, arches over them. “Ride the tides through the throat of Kraken,” the tagline reads.

The Grand Tour

“The Grand Tour” lets one retrace the route taken by the twin Voyager probes, launched in 1977—a flight plan only possible every 175 years, when the outer planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) are all in an opportune configuration.

It also lets one experience the “charm” of a technology, which from tomorrow’s perspective would seem “quaint.” Voyager II had hitched a ride on the gravity of planets on its itinerary to gain speed and to propel itself outward in the solar system—a maneuver called “gravity assist.” It flew by Jupiter for reconnaissance as well as to get a boost to Saturn. It then latched onto Saturn’s gravity to get to Uranus. Next, it rode the latter to “climb” all the way to Neptune and beyond.

That set the stage for later flyby missions. Galileo took one kick from Venus and two from Earth en route to its destination, Jupiter. Cassini took two shoves from Venus, one from Earth and another from Jupiter to gain enough momentum to reach Saturn. Both the Voyager vessels have left our solar system, but they continue to radio back knowledge about what lies beyond the Sun’s domain.

III

For as long as men have gazed at the night sky, sitting on a grassy knoll, warming their hands around a crackling fire, they’ve wondered if there were other celestial bodies like ours in the black, velveteen expanse. Giordano Bruno, a 16th century Italian friar—a contemporary of Shakespeare—not only championed the Copernican model, but proposed a notion even more radical: that there were countless Earths—a.k.a. exoplanets—revolving around countless other Suns. He was burnt at the stake for heresy in 1600.

He was correct, though. However, those exoplanets have remained hidden for long. One: unlike stars, they don’t twinkle as they have no luminescence of their own. Two: their presence is all the more dimmer in the dazzling glare of their own star, making them appear no brighter than a firefly, flitting about in the cone of a floodlight. Three: they’re too remote to be seen from an interstellar ravine away.

IV

So, it wasn’t until the very late 20th century that a spectrograph—an instrument for recording starlight—at the Haute-Provence Observatory in southern France was able to discern a planet outside our solar system. On October 6, 1995, Swiss astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz reported in Nature that they’d stumbled upon a world, whizzing around a star, just like our own, 50 light-years away.

There was nothing pedestrian about it. Dimidium—as it was later named—was a gaseous whopper that wheeled so tightly around its star that it nearly grazed it. It also spun swiftly, twirling around it once every four days. Astronomers hadn’t seen anything quite like it before.

In theory, it couldn’t exist. It was a doozy and it ushered a new class of planets called “hot Jupiters,” which are similar in make-up and size to our local Jupiter (diameter: 86,000 miles), but because they circle their star at a distance closer than Mercury, they’re infernal.

With that momentous discovery, there arrived the age of planets. Exoplanetary exploration had become a hot field in astronomy. In June 2003, Canada sent off MOST, a very small, Samsonite luggage-size space telescope. Two months later, NASA rolled out Spitzer, a space-based observatory. CoRoT, the French probe, launched in December 2006. On the night of March 6, 2009, a Delta II rocket, carrying the Kepler space telescope, lifted off from Cape Canaveral.

A Cyclopean eye, in essence—15 feet long and nine feet across—its task was to gaze at a rich sidereal field in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra, searching for other Earth-like planets. For four years, it monitored stars within a range of 3,000 light-years, measuring dips in their brightness, which occurs when a planet passes in front of it. (For an Earth-size planet, crossing a Sun-like star, the drop in stellar wattage is 0.01 percent.)

Kepler has sent back a deep mine of valuable data, which continue to be analyzed. At this writing, a little over 1,960 exoplanets have been detected over the past two decades, the bulk of them its catches. They’re wide-ranging, varying in size, composition and the size of their orbit around their parent star.

There are some that dwarf our own planetary giants; some look like obese Earths. Some are gas balls; some have solid cores. Some go around their star in the time it takes to go to work and return home in a nine-to-five job; some wander around for 250 long years.

There are some that stand out even in this heterogeneous collection. WASP-17B moves in a direction counter to the rotation of its star. Another has been bent into the shape of an egg by the gravity of its own star. Kepler-7B has the consistency of Styrofoam, such that if a swimming pool could be found, massive enough to fit the planet, it’d bob like a buoy. Kepler-22B could be an “ocean world.” Kepler 10-B is a blazingly hot globe that’s as compressed as a dumbbell.

V

It’s these bizarre orbs that the J.P.L. posters commemorate. While they offer a window into the far-future, in their art, they look to the past, to the mid-20th century zeitgeist: the Beatles, L.S.D., neon signs, nixie tubes, Tupperware, ponytails, pompadours—and the Jet Age. They call to mind the airline posters from the Fifties and Sixties, believed to be the Golden Age of air travel.

Back then, Pan Am, T.W.A. and United Airlines created visually arresting promotional material: lithographs, photographs and silkscreens, inspired by Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Modernist styles. The brains behind them were notable names, such as Saul Bass, Massimo Vignelli, Ivan Chermayeff, Otl Aicher, Mary Wells Lawrence, Stan Gali, David Klein, and Manfred Bingler.

To be sure, flying in the days of the Caravelle and the DC-8 wasn’t as easy as it is nowadays—neither on the neck, nor on the wallet. An advertisement from T.W.A., which appeared in the May 27, 1955 issue of Collier’s magzine gave a peek into air fares of the times. A one-way trip from Chicago to New York would set one back by $33. Sounds like a steal? That’s $290 when adjusted for inflation. Today, the same ride can be made in about $100.

Mechanical failures and crashes occurred more often. In-flight entertainment was sorely missing. No music. No television. No Wi-Fi. To kill the tedium and monotony of long-haul flights, one wrote postcards, printed with a picture of the aircraft or the meal one was going to be served. Else, they smoked a cigar. Worse, they knocked back tumblers of scotch. The flights were bumpy, smoky, and raucous.

Still, there was something flamboyant and decadent about flying in those days. Airplanes were not a mere mode of transport. They were portals to an opulent aerial adventure. People dressed up to fly. Travelers weren’t burdened by invasive security checks. There were no conga lines of passengers, waiting their turn to be frisked or their bags to be put under the X-ray. They could stroll leisurely through the concourse without fear of drawing attention.

One could catch a flight even if they showed up half an hour before the call to board. Once on board, even in economy class, seats were not cramped. There was plenty of legroom. Ornery flight attendants didn’t disburse packets of pretzels. Moreover, everything from cabin upholstery to the uniforms of the stewardesses to the tableware had élan.

So, the posters encapsulated everything that was world-class about flying. There was a promise of an extraordinary experience in them, a sense of discovery and wonder.

VI

The rumble of jet engines heralded the roar of the rockets. When the Soviet Union beat the U.S. twice—once, by sending Sputnik in orbit in October 1957; next, by sending a man in space in April 1961—it sparked off a “space race” between the two Cold War rivals, each bent on outshining the other in spaceflight. That fervor went viral. It percolated into its people, and spun off in a cultural trajectory.

Suddenly, the “future” could be seen in the upswept roofs of buildings; tailfins of heavy, metal cars; in a song like the “Age of Aquarius” (1969). The Theme Building at L.A.X., which looks like a white flying saucer parked on four legs, is a true Space Age emblem, built to toast its forward-looking ethos. It rose in 1961. The Golden Arches, one of the most recognizable corporate logos in the world is also a product of Googie architecture: a yellow parabola, trimmed with neon, conveying boundless energy. Originally, these metal curves would soar over a McDonald’s restaurant.

The intense aerospace competition, fueled by a collective anxiety about a technological gap between America and Russia, spawned a string of pioneering enterprises by NASA, the most memorable of which is the landing of the Eagle on lunar soil, by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. But with the “tearing down” of the Berlin Wall and the old enmity gone, the level of enthusiasm for space endeavors too, appeared to crumble.

VII

Of late, Hollywood has been churning out an impressive line-up of science-fiction movies like “Gravity” (2013)—which bagged seven Oscars—and “Interstellar” (2014)—which won one Oscar—which are far more solidly grounded in science than, say, “The Thing from Another World,” released in 1951.

But the appetite for extraterrestrial drama and adventure, in reel, hasn’t translated into a desire for space exploration, in reality. The average person on the street doesn’t care to remember the names of the astronauts up on the International Space Station, unless they regale those down on Earth, by playing the guitar, bouncing about in low gravity. Or, they return home from 340 days in an orbital exile. Or, they sip espresso from a baby boot-shaped cup in space.

VII

Presently, NASA is preparing to send a batch of crew to Mars in the 2030s, a target that’s about 600 times more distant and daunting than the Moon. Do people care?

One: they aren’t interested in ventures they feel have nothing in it for them. Yes, a trek to the Red Planet is a thrilling prospect, but there are no sensual pleasures or recreations that await weary voyagers when they get there. There will be no Vegas-like hotels to luxuriate in or shopping malls to splurge on or water parks to ride on.

Two: the apathy also stems for a poor understanding of cutting-edge developments. The esoteric nature of inventions and breakthroughs too, makes it more and more difficult to break them down to lucid nuggets that can be easily understood by anyone and everyone.

Three: soaked in a culture, where cravings are fulfilled in a jiffy, one has come to expect that speed even in the sphere of space science. But there’s no app for altering the pace of reality. Too bad, it doesn’t take place at “warp speed.”

Popular culture is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it sells abstruse concepts, packaged as fun. On the other, the very need to present them as such robs them of their core. Guillaume de Syon, a professor at Pennsylvania’s Albright College, had, as part of a course on the space program, asked his students to watch a rocket launch on NASA TV. In an e-mail interview, he wrote that most found it “boring.”

As they were accustomed to watching only its climactic moment on network or cable television—and not the entire event, peppered with jargon-laden commentary from the officialdom—they were, in effect, being forced to wade through Marcel Proust’ “In Search of Lost Time,” when all they wanted was to read it in a graphic novel format. In the same vein, they’d take more delight in watching Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) in “The Martian” (2015), getting tossed about by a Martian sandstorm than to follow the logs of a pod winging its way to Mars.

VIII

A little igloo on Mars.
A little igloo on Mars.

While J.P.L. had been busy working on the posters, another NASA department, headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama, concerned with developing bold space technologies, was organizing a campaign to develop Martian real estate. It was perhaps its way of relaying the message in “Field of Dreams” (1989), in which an Iowa corn farmer hears a voice telling him, “If you build it, he will come.”

Last summer, it hosted a design contest—the “3D-Printed Habitat Challenge”—which asked contestants to harness 3D printing technology and indigenous materials to build homes for Mars. The competition, hosted jointly by NASA and America Makes (or the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute) received more than 165 submissions.

The winners were announced in September 2015 at the Maker Faire, held at the New York Hall of Science. Prize money of $25,000 went to a concept presented by a team of two New York-based firms, SEArch (short for Space Exploration Architecture) and CloudsAO (short for Clouds Architecture Office): a high-tech igloo. It’s distinctive in that it allows a dwelling to be placed on a planet—not in—while, at the same time, offering shelter from its cold, bleak, and toxic terrain.

Because it forged from ice, it had to be placed in a location, where there was enough water (beneath the regolith) and the temperature stayed below freezing. Such a track is the Alba Mons, an immense, low-slung volcano in Mars’ northern hemisphere, with a span so wide—comparable to that of the U.S.—that it looks like a welt on the dusty, red landscape. It’d sit on a plot of land on the gentle slopes of its northern flank.

A piscine form, it sticks out of Mars’ jagged landscape as if it were the fin of a monstrous subterranean fish. Its “walls” are pellucid, constructed of a two-layered shell of ice. Sandwiched between them is a “courtyard,” an interstitial zone, neither interior, nor exterior, which would enable occupants to take in the terra cognita that the Martian wilderness is, in nothing, but leisurewear and an oxygen mask. In there, they can chill, meditate, or play Scrabble.

Its base, like that of a pyramid, is broad. But it’s more than a foundation. It’s what’s anchors it to the ground, lest Mars’ soft gravitational grip let go of it and it began to drift away like Dorothy Gale’s farmhouse in Kansas. Beneath the frozen perimeter is a belt of vertical greenery, where plants and produce will grow in liquid soil. Part kitchen garden, part recreational park, it’ll be a sweet reminder of Earth’s lush foliage.

The living quarters are at its core, well insulated. Small enough to fit inside a Space X shuttle, the complex will arrive on Mars in a lander and stay within it. That space is divided into several compartments: an airlock, a library, a kitchenette, a laboratory, a restroom, a gym, a clinic, and bunks, all of it stacked across four levels, squeezed into a space, no wider than 12 feet. A series of curvaceous “rooms” have been hollowed out in the inner atrium, offering a cyclorama of Mars.

To seal itself against the raging billows of fines and dust devils, the whole habitat is covered in a transparent hide of ethylene-tetrafluoroethylene (or ETFE), a plastic of many virtues. It’s a sturdy material, capable of holding steady under a wide range of temperatures from minus 300 degrees to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Plus, its Teflon-like texture keeps it clean.

One of the blueprints of this project, like the posters, depicted an alluring vista of what a little house on Mars could one day look like: a glowing beacon, setting the Martian night aglow.

IX

By marrying the otherworldliness of science-fiction and the vintage aura of the airline industry and the Work Projects Administration—a New Deal federal agency, which produced 2,000 posters between 1936 and 1943—all that the posters hope to do is to make people want to dream—again.

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