David Raitt – Cultural and Artistic Events in Space: ESA’s Perspectives – 2005

Senior Technology Transfer Officer, Technology Transfer & Promotion Office,
European Space Agency – ESTEC, Noordwijk, The Netherlands

First publication workshop The Impact of Space on Society: Cultural Aspects, in
collaboration with IAA and Millenaris, Budapest, 2005

Increasingly, the European Space Agency is being asked to support or participate in artistic and cultural events. This paper provides an overview of its involvement in some of the activities in this domain including the organization of space art exhibitions and conferences, creation of a space arts database, and setting up a space arts programme. The paper also discusses an ESA funded study into how the confined environment of manned space stations could be transformed into a broader, more open arena which would become the subject, canvas or theatre for a wide range of cultural and artistic activities reaching out to the public at large and enabling them to share the human experience of space missions and interact with the sights and sounds of space.


Ever since humans started scanning the skies, many wonderful and fascinating images have been made available of atmospheric and cosmic phenomena such as rainbows, auroras, nebulae and galaxies, constellations and planetary landscapes. And not only images, but sounds too – including more recently sounds of black holes and solar flares. With the advent of spaceflight, footage has been shown of not only launch vehicles, satellites and spacecraft, but also of humans themselves in space. Such sights and sounds have provided inspiration for artists and musicians, architects and designers and many others to create new ways of interacting with space and its human inhabitants.

Increasingly, the European Space Agency (ESA) is being asked to support or participate in artistic and cultural events and this paper will provide an overview of some of its activities in this domain. In particular, the paper will discuss how the confined environment of manned space stations could be transformed into a broader, more open arena which would become the subject, canvas or theatre for a wide range of cultural and artistic activities. Such activities would reach out to the public at large, thus enabling them to share the human experience of space missions and interact with the sights and sounds of space.

Unlike NASA, the European Space Agency has never had a formal arts and culture programme. However, largely as a result of the Innovative Technologies from Science Fiction for Space Applications study carried out by ESA’s Technology Transfer and Promotion Office (TTPO), there has been a continuous and growing demand for greater ESA involvement in projects relating to art and culture – particularly as it relates to technology.

For instance, EURISY asked ESA’s TTPO to assist in organizing, together with the Austrian Space Agency, a one day symposium on Space Literature and Art in Vienna in 2003. The TTPO had already assisted in the organization of the Long Night of Science Fiction Movies, with expert discussion of the space technologies and science concepts employed in the films, in Vienna last year. The TTPO was also requested to provide some funding for a special space opera to be held in Vienna and asked to support an art exhibition on the history of the cosmos at the Natural History Museum in Paris. Various competitions have also been organized by the TTPO. The influence of space on design competition looked for ways of embodying the space technologies or the characteristics of space into new design forms (1). Another, the first Clarke-Bradbury Science Fiction Essay competition (2) attracted over 100 entries from around the world and was a way of encouraging young people to become more interested in space science and technology. A second Clarke-Bradbury competition focusing on the Space Elevator and also inviting artworks as well as essays is currently being judged. In addition, the British Design and Art Direction asked the TTPO to provide a design brief for compact interior storage design for a national competition. The TTPO also participated in a fashion show in Paris at which designer clothing, incorporating space technologies, was modelled. Some more recent activities are described below.

Overview of recent art-related activities

Rediscovering lost art

Science fiction literature, artwork and films, are full of descriptions of space technologies and systems – often just pure imagination, sometimes based on some semblance of fact. Early science fiction authors, artists, and illustrators described space concepts and spacecraft based on and extrapolating the limited scientific knowledge available at the time, whereas more modern writers generally portray the same basic systems as used in real life space flight in their literature and art, even though artistic licence is often employed. It gives them the opportunity to promote their ideas which may not otherwise be possible through more formal scientific evaluation processes.

Many of these concepts, technologies and devices have been illustrated by artists over the years. Their artwork has played an influential and central role in science fiction literature – it has partly defined the scope of the genre and has brought the startling and imaginative visions of outer space, exploration of other worlds, interplanetary spaceflight, extraterrestrial beings into the minds and consciousness of the general public. In magazines and books, films and television, advertising and video, the artist’s vision has transformed mere words into dazzling and compelling images which still today lift the spirits and brighten the soul.

The Maison d’Ailleurs (MdA) in Switzerland has one of the world’s largest collections of science fiction books and magazines and the European Space Agency TTPO funded the photographing of the book and magazine covers from part of its core collection. These covers are essentially lost art – seen only by a few researchers – and together with ESA, MdA organized an exhibition, with accompanying book (3), of some of these remarkable science fiction book and magazine covers from its collection alongside images from ESA’s own photograph archive. The idea was to show how close or how far apart was an early artist’s conception from what has been subsequently built and launched and at the same time to demonstrate that spaceflight – probably more than any other technical discipline – is stimulating human aspiration and imagination.

In many instances we are not yet at the stage that science fiction authors and artists were – whilst we have successfully constructed a couple of space stations (in a far different form to that imagined by most SF art covers), we have not yet established settlements on planets (or indeed in space), nor have we yet achieved human interplanetary spaceflight. On the other hand, renderings of space suits or planetary landers or rovers in pictures from old book and magazine covers are similar in design to what is employed today. Advances in technologies and techniques such as miniaturization, robotics or propulsion systems provide modern SF writers and illustrators with the benefit of existing and proven technologies which they can just adapt. However, anything much before the first satellite, Sputnik, was launched in 1957 is going to be more a product of real artistic inventiveness. But independent from the “technical seriousness” of these artworks, they should be considered belonging to a special sector of fine arts which deserves to be recognised and cultivated.

Space Arts Database

The TTPO has also provided funding for the Space Arts Database, an initiative of Leonardo/Olats, the French branch of Leonardo/ISAST (the International Society for the Arts, Science and Technology), and the OURS Foundation, a non-profit cultural and astronautical organization based in Switzerland. Together they have embarked on an ambitious project to comprehensively document the vast and new genre of space art. To date, no comprehensive reference exists which can be used by artists, curators, art historians, critics, journalists and students, amongst others. The European Space Agency has provided these two organizations with a grant to set up a functional, accessible multi-lingual online tool.

Artists have been at the forefront of space exploration since its very beginning. Their works of imagination have stimulated and catalyzed a new human endeavour. Works of art and literature about space have both anticipated and stimulated space development while exploring destinations and technological concepts that were often too dangerous, too distant or too advanced for the science and technology of the moment. Artists have worked closely with space scientists and engineers to help them to visualize and develop their scientific and technological concepts making the dream of space exploration a reality. Science Fiction literature with a space theme combined with cinematography has since become one of the most popular and financially successful art forms of all time. As such it stimulates the public’s fascination with space exploration and likewise has a positive influence on maintaining the public’s support for further space development. Today, a new breed of contemporary artists have initiated projects to explore outer space on their own terms by realizing their art beyond Earth or with their own bodies in weightlessness. The goal of “Spacearts – the Space Arts Database” is to document this important and exciting art form and make it publicly accessible on a Web site located at http://www.spacearts.info.

Spacearts is an online database providing information about the arts related to outer space from the middle of the 19th century until the present. It is a comprehensive reference that focuses on the artists engaged with the themes of outer space exploration and space development and documents their significant contributions. The database is international in scope and multilingual in practice with English, French and German language versions developed simultaneously. Furthermore, the content of Spacearts is being curated and it is open to public submission and each record is evaluated and edited before being added to the publicly accessible database

One aim of Spacearts is to show that after over 45 years of space activities space art in many cases has anticipated, through the visions and ideas it incorporates, many technological and space developments. In addition, space art is considered to be part of popular culture and of contemporary art, containing a diverse, complex and variety of art forms. As such it is believed that the database thus plays an essential role in preserving the human fascination for space activities.

Space Synapse System

The Space Synapse System, Phase 1 of which has recently been completed, is a cultural space project conceived by Dublin-based artist Anna Hill which aims to provide a unique view of global community and environment, transcending national, political boundaries from the perspective of space, as well as the existing boundaries between art, science and innovation. The concept of the project is to engage the public through inspiration and imagination with an artwork that is an interactive ‘nerve centre’ onboard the International Space Station (ISS). The idea is that interactive artwork will orbit with the European Module and/or other modules of the Space Station and will interpret scientific data collected via or onboard ISS to interact with virtual and terrestrial art and design projects, interactive websites, as well as space education and outreach networks.

The intention is to place an interactive sculpture, the Symbiotic Sphere, in orbit with the European Module of the International Space Station. Using communications links to connect the Symbiotic Sphere with other information synapses located on Earth, a Space Synapse System will be created through which and with which life, both on Earth and in space, will be able to interact. The proposed interactive artwork has three key elements: the Symbiotic Sphere actually onboard the ISS, Virtual Synapses using information and communications technology to create a global digital community, and Terrestrial Synapses that will be gallery, museum and architectural interventions on Earth. Funded under ESA’s General Studies Programme, but managed by the TTPO, the project will essentially be not only an entertainment activity or plaything for astronauts, but also a means of bringing space closer to home. It is anticipated that Phase II, funded through the Irish contribution to ESA’s General Support Technology Programme, will soon get underway.

Associated with this is the Auroral Synapse project, which TTPO is also supporting. The idea here is to create music based on the frequencies of auroras and also convert the frequencies, sounds or motion of auroras into lights embedded in a special intelligent garment. The prototype suit will interact with upper atmosphere data flows (co-ordinated with Sodankyla Geophysical Observatory) and is an example of how ubiquitous terrestrial synapses may interact within the space synapse system.

Space, arts and culture initiative

Because ESA’s Technology Transfer and Promotion Office has sponsored, and is continuing to support, a number of activities in the broad areas of the arts, it is believed both necessary and useful to establish a Space, Arts and Culture Initiative which would cover a wide range of artistic possibilities. Under this Initiative, the TTPO was involved in organizing the 7th Space: Science, Technology and the Arts workshop in May 2004 at ESTEC in Noordwijk, The Netherlands. Over 100 abstracts for the workshop were submitted by artists all over the world working in many different fields related to space and some 38 were selected for presentation and discussion. This was the first time that such a large group of space artists had come together specifically to show their work and discuss their concepts and ideas with their peers. Topics included flying sculptures in space, choreographing ballet dances in microgravity, drift painting during parabolic flights, simulating the overview effect on Earth, performing East Asian ancient flying deities dances in zero gravity, and creating artworks based on radio astronomy or atmospheric phenomena.

As another element of the Initiative, since ESA does commission artwork from time to time to give impressions of its projects, then it is worth building on this practice to institute a proper ESA Space Arts Programme as an official and important part of ESA activities. Artists are fascinated by the thrills and dangers inherent in space exploration and their work can make a vivid impact on the public at large. NASA has had a space art programme since 1963 to which over 250 artists have contributed. This year the budget is $50.000. Other US agencies with art budgets include the Army, Air Force, State and Interior Departments, and the Federal Reserve Bank. Many companies in the USA, Japan and Europe also buy artworks to grace their offices.

Under the ESA scheme various European artists would be invited from time to time to be eye-witnesses for selected ESA space exploration events (this could include, for example, being present at Ariane launches of satellites or satellites undergoing tests at ESTEC, participating in parabolic flights, visiting ESA exhibitions at event such as the Le Bourget airshow, being at the ESOC control centre during a mission operation and the like).

One basic task for the artists would be to document, through their artworks, the story and achievements of the European space programme over the years. Their paintings (or sculptures or other artworks) could hang in the ESA conference rooms and corridors and could be loaned out to museums which might be doing a special exhibition on space. Eventually, it might be worthwhile to establish a special art gallery to house the art – and it would certainly be foreseen to publish a book of the collection at some point. It is important to note that the artwork should not simply be paintings, but also other creative works – sculpture, films or videos, music etc.

ESA could either provide small stipends to artists for pieces that emphasize different aspects of Europe’s space journey, or it could simply commission artists to depict specific aspects on request, such as renditions of Mars habitats or landers, music simulating the Smart 1 spacecraft’s spirals to the Moon, portraits of ESA astronauts and so on. This programme could eventually include the possibility of an ESA Artist in Residence. This is a growing phenomena which is finding its place also in the space community. JPL recently appointed Daniel Goods as an Artist in Residence and gave him six months to come up with some unconventional ways of communicating their mission. NASA has also given a classically trained violinist, Laurie Anderson, a two-year commission to produce a piece of work completely at her creative freedom.

One way to launch the Space Arts Programme would be to organize a competition whereby artists are invited to paint a picture or create an artwork depicting some aspect of ESA’s space activities (especially past achievements to obtain a better historical record). This would have a number of advantages: it would enable ESA to have a ready supply of both known and unknown artists whom the Agency could use to depict its important events; it would yield an immediate supply of paintings or other artworks for the ESA Space Art collection; and it would bring greater attention to ESA’s space activities to the general public.

An important element would be to allow artistic freedom. General paintings or 3D images of spacecraft in different locations have been around for ages and they all start to look the same to the general public. Although some of these may be relevant, something different, something special is needed to push the boundaries of concepts and media and let the public explore the meanings of space missions, (which may answer some of the most profound questions of humanity and its existence) in their own way. Artworks, more so than the printed word, have the potential to present space in ways people have never seen or even thought about, and allow them to share it more fully. This was evidenced with the Beagle 2 Mars lander where, to help with public relations, the pop group Blur wrote the Beagle 2 signature tune, a call sign to be beamed back from Mars to announce the arrival of the lander. In addition, the well-known artist Damien Hirst produced a trademark spot painting with different colours and textures to act as the calibration target for Beagle 2’s cameras and spectrometers

Another specific idea regards art – namely graffiti – and the ISS. It can be argued whether graffiti constitutes art: some graffiti is just a mess, just a scrawl of tags, but other forms are really visual and attractive. Moreover graffiti can be seen as an artistic expression of sentiments and emotions. So the question arose what about graffiti in space – someone is bound to do it sooner or later – so why not ESA? Maybe an ESA astronaut could create an attractive tag on the outside of the Columbus module of ISS on a space walk! Or perhaps well-known graffiti artists could decorate the outside of Columbus or the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) while they are still on the ground.

That led to another idea – why not run a competition to paint a nice picture on the outside of Columbus? Artists could be asked to submit sketches and then the winning design would be duly painted on the module amid much publicity and public interest. Some guidelines – for instance, it must relate to Columbus in some way – eg his ship depicted on a stormy sea. In the same way, artists could paint the outside of every ATV. The fact that the ATV would burn-up during re-entry, so the art work would be lost forever, should add a poignant dimension. In fact, 2005 is the 100th anniversary of the death of Jules Verne and the Maison d’Ailleurs in Switzerland has recently bought the important Jules Verne collection of books and artworks. Since the ATV is named Jules Verne and will be launched for the first time next year, the suggestion has been made to send a first edition of one of Jules Verne’s books up in the ATV which would subsequently be brought down an ISS crew member.

One further example, which the TTPO is supporting and trying to facilitate, is leaving an artwork on the surface of Mars. The brainchild of English artist Lyn Hagan the idea is to perhaps have a painting on the ExoMars rover protective shell which would become visible as the rover leaves it to venture out into the real red world.

Cultural events on the ISS

What would the creative minds of Michelangelo, Johann Sebastian Bach or Shakespeare have made out of the International Space Station, if it already existed at that time? Would Michelangelo have liked to paint frescos on the walls of the Station? Johann Sebastian Bach inspired by the unique environment onboard of the Station might have composed a Fugue and Shakespeare could have used it as a location in his plays. So far the question of cultural utilisation of the ISS is purely an academic one as the Station is used for scientific and application purpose only. However, this may now change. Japan has plans for several cultural activities in their ISS module and ESA is about to launch a study to explore the cultural potential of the ISS. The aim is to raise public attention and interest in the ISS and to emphasize the European participation in this global endeavour.

The ISS offers a unique environment. With the demise of MIR, it is now the only human outpost in space, circling the earth every 90 minutes, and providing a shirtsleeve environment for astronauts in weightlessness with an amazing view on the earth and the universe. On a clear night the ISS shines brighter than all the other stars in the sky and can often be seen speeding overhead with the naked eye. Known as a platform for science, research and applications the ISS always had a intercultural meaning. It is the world’s largest and most spectacular international cooperative project for peaceful purposes and is a symbol for East-West partnership after the Cold War.

The International Space Station is a cooperative programme between the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada for the joint development, operation and utilisation of a permanently inhabited Space Station in low Earth orbit (average 400 km altitude). Europe joined the programme in 1988 with the objectives of fostering global cooperation for peaceful purposes; reinforcing European political and industrial cohesion; developing European capabilities and knowledge with respect to human spaceflight and operation of a complex outpost in space serving as a platform for future space exploration missions; enabling science, research, development and applications in space as well as demonstration of new technologies (including commercial activities); and enhancing the use of space for supporting education programmes on Earth.

The ISS has reached about 50% of its final assembly status that is expected to be achieved in 2010. The ISS will then permanently host six or seven astronauts in its different laboratory and habitation modules. With a final mass of 450 tons, the pressurized volume of the ISS will be roughly equivalent to the interior of a 747 Jumbo jet. Europe is contributing inter alia a multipurpose laboratory (Columbus) and an unmanned logistics vehicle, the ATV, that will regularly supply cargo to the ISS.

The cultural dimension of the International Space Station is not yet sufficiently recognised as potential for ISS utilisation. Such cultural dimension rests in the capacity and potential of the ISS to provide a platform and environment, which offers unique conditions, impressions and inspirations for creative minds in the cultural scene. It is time to identify and explore opportunities for stimulating and living out such creativity to the benefit of the general public. While this issue is being intensively studied in Japan, and to a lesser extent by NASA, it has not yet been sufficiently studied in Europe.

Cultural utilisation of the ISS means looking at all possible forms of utilising the ISS – in particular Columbus and the ATV for exploiting this cultural dimension, i.e. utilising the ISS as both the subject or platform for cultural activities and entertainment events or artistic performances/expressions; using their unique capabilities, environment and position relative to Earth for educative formats and non-scientific purposes; and using Columbus or the ATV in particular as a tool for expressing European cultures.

Such cultural utilisation of the ISS should lead to a significantly increased visibility of the ISS (in particular of Columbus and ATV) in the eyes of the general public since it will give them the possibility to “experience” the ISS/Columbus/ATV themselves – something that the prime utilisation (science, research, applications) can achieve only to a limited degree. The strengthened public perception of the ISS will see it as the only human outpost in space at present; a symbol of international cooperation for peaceful purposes; and a unique facility primarily for the purpose of science, research and applications.

It is with this background that the European Space Agency recently initiated a study to come up with ideas and concepts of how to bring cultural events to the ISS and how to include the ISS in cultural activities. The study will also test the feasibility of these concepts and find ways to implement the chosen ideas. The study should in effect show how the confined space of the ISS, specifically the European contributions Columbus and ATV, can be transformed into a broader, more open arena which will become the subject, canvas or theatre for a wide range of cultural activities which reach out to the hearts and souls of the general public. The study will include such activities as:

– Surveying existing and creating new ideas and concepts for cultural utilisation by involving the artistic, cultural, media and entertainment sector in a creative brainstorming process
– Assessing such ideas and concepts in terms of technical/economical feasibility and their potential to raise public interest
– Development of implementation concepts for the most promising ideas, including a strategy to get the relevant cultural scene/community (the cultural users) interested and involved in the proposed cultural utilisation
The study is expected to identify the features and factors which make ISS/Columbus/ATV attractive for cultural utilisation, as well as the cultural sectors which, being potentially attracted by the notion of art and culture in space, are interested in using ISS/Columbus/ATV for cultural purposes. In addition, not only will the kind of cultural events that might take place within the ISS or associated with it on the ground be assessed, but the likely audiences for cultural utilization events will also be ascertained. Of course, any such use of the ISS modules for cultural activities will first necessitate that certain requirements (technical, safety, crew, other) to implement the selected cultural activities are identified and addressed. The study will be carried out by the Arts Catalyst in the UK which narrowly won the tender action.


There is a cultural and artistic dimension in space activities that is being increasingly recognized and in which the European Space Agency is increasingly being asked to participate. This is manifested in a plenitude of art works and initiatives, some of which are described in this paper. But there is even more to exploit. In particular the ISS, which represents a new era of human presence in space, offers new opportunities and stimulation for cultural and artistic expressions. Just as the first spectacular view of Earth from space opened our eyes to the vulnerability of our planet and presented a perspective of a world without borders (as well as having, incidentally, a strong cultural connotation), so the permanent human presence in space and future space exploration will create an outward looking experience, which should be accompanied and interpreted by artistic means. This paper is a contribution to a necessary discussion on the objectives and direction of an ESA Space Arts Programme, which will stimulate and motivate artists in translating the experiences of space into artwork and by so doing will broaden our perspective, consciousness and imagination towards space as a new and significant dimension for mankind.


1. Raitt, D. (2002). The influence of space on design. Presented at the World Space Congress, 53rd IAC, 10-19 October 2002, Houston, Texas, USA. AIAA, 2002. IAC-02-P.4.04

2. Raitt, D. at al (2003). The Clarke-Bradbury international science fiction competition. Presented at 54th IAC, 29 September-3 October 2003, Bremen, Germany. AIAA, 2003. IAC-03-IAA.8.2.04

3. Raitt, D. (2004). Science Fiction, Technology Fact. European Space Agency, 2004. ESA-BR-205.

© Dr David RAITT & Leonardo/Olats, mars 2005 / republished 2023