Art

The Flea: Where Speculative Art and Rocket Science Meet

April 26, 2016 in Hieroglyph

The Flea (courtesy of Rik Allen)

The Flea (courtesy of Rik Allen)

Rik Allen is an artist and sculptor who works in glass and metal. We previously talked to Rik in this interview about creating a retrofuturist sculpture, and were thrilled to hear about his recent work at NASA’s Langley Research Center.

I caught up with Rik via phone to talk about his visit to NASA, the sculpture he created there, and his ideas about the intersection of art and engineering.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bob Beard, Project Hieroglyph: Welcome back. Was this your first time visiting NASA?

Rik Allen: It was! I was invited by the Chrysler Museum of Art to be visiting artist at their glass studio. While I was there, some friends in the aerospace industry got wind of my visit and suggested I go over to NASA for a tour. The Langley Research Center is about 40 minutes away from the Chrysler Museum; I visited the Advanced Concepts Lab, which was exciting as hell.

BB: Tell me about that.

RA: I met several researchers and engineers who are in charge of planning missions in space, including Pat Troutman, the Human Strategic Analysis Lead. What I like about talking with those guys is that it’s a lot like talking with other artists. They’re just fantastically interested and curious people with a desire to create. They’ll brainstorm a problem over coffee, sketch out their plans on a napkin, and eventually some of these designs end up becoming these incredible, functioning spacefaring vehicles.

BB: While you were there, you were shown a lot of space vehicle concepts – including the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle, which you translated into an original sculpture.

Concept Art for NASA's Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MM-SEV)

Concept Art for NASA’s Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MM-SEV)

RA: Yeah, it’s a weird looking vehicle on six legs, planned for a mission to Phobos. Phobos has a rocky terrain with very little gravity, so the idea is that it will land and move across the surface by leaping from place to place. I called it The Flea – you know, if Phobos was a dog, then this vehicle would be the flea on its back.

BB: Of all the concepts you saw at Langley, what was it about that vehicle that inspired you?

RA: It was just so strange looking, really unlike anything else I’d seen, with these six truss-like legs. I’ve been incorporating those types of structures into my own work lately, so I was excited to see it proposed as a functional craft. It’s a pretty difficult structure to realize technically, but definitely worth the challenge.

BB: It’s interesting to see art and engineering in dialogue with one another – especially as we imagine the machines that will venture deeper into space on our behalf. This vehicle, and especially your take on it, seems a little more organic, whereas spacecraft are typically these hermetically sealed and dispassionate machines. What do you make of that?

RA: I’m a guy who dreams up fake rockets and space ships with no responsibility to the laws of physics or aeronautics – I can just dream up whatever I want and not worry about materials science. If it looks cool and I’m interested in making it, it gets made.

While I was there talking to the engineers, I noticed little Star Wars vehicles around their desks. We’re all about the same age and we all have that same interest in fantasy vehicles. It’s just that their responsibility is different. They render their concepts as organically as they can get away with, then scale it back to make it practical. But I feel like we’re coming from the same place of making something exciting and inspiring.

The Flea (courtesy of Rik Allen)

The Flea (courtesy of Rik Allen)

BB: I think there’s something similar happening with Space X’s commitments to vertical takeoff and landing craft. Part of the reason that these particular functionalities and designs are being pursued is that those are the visions these engineers grew up with, and it’s an exciting challenge to make those a reality.

RA: Yeah, totally. I tend to put a lot of portholes into my pieces – I added a porthole that wasn’t in the original design to The Flea – and the engineers said, “Oh that’s great, the astronauts would love that. They’re always trying to get us to put portholes in, but we can’t because of structural concerns.”

People raised on these images definitely have the desire to make cool looking, beautiful spacecraft that are also functional. As designers and engineers they need to merge the two as much as they can.

The Flea (courtesy of Rik Allen)

The Flea (courtesy of Rik Allen)

BB: You’ve done work for Blue Origin, an actual rocket factory where smart people go to work each day to create real spacecraft. What do you think is your role in contributing to that collective imagination?

RA: A lot of my work, including the piece at Blue Origin, has this underlying theme of looking outward and being curious as to what lies ahead. The engineers are buried under tons of technical considerations to get a vehicle into space and back down again safely, and I think my work is a reminder of what we’re all excited about.

Going to NASA, I was obviously super thrilled to be there, but also nervous, because I didn’t want to be in their way. What I found though, with the people that I was talking to, is that they were equally excited about what I was doing. Some of the engineers came out with their families and sat for six and a half hours, asking questions and watching me put the sculpture together. When you make this stuff all the time, you can lose sight of what it means to people – and it was exciting to hear that it was important to them.

There seems to be more and more crossover between science and art, which I think is important in addressing the challenge of increasing scientific awareness in the general public. The more people out there telling these stories, the better. So hopefully that’s part of the role I play: getting people to feel excited and curious about science and exploration.

 

 

Author

Bob Beard is a fan of fandom. From Browncoats to Bronies, SCA members, Trekkers, Steampunks and more, Bob is passionate about understanding the performance and identity practices within various fandoms as well as creation of experiences for members of these groups to publicly advocate for themselves and their ideas. Bob is a Marine Corps veteran and double alumnus of Arizona State University, with a master’s degree in Communication Studies and a bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a humanities emphasis.

Imagining An Alternate History Space Program

March 3, 2016 in Hieroglyph

tumblr_nec2h2L3ff1u0vd4co1_1280“Imagine a world where the Space Race has not ended. Where space agencies were funded a lot better than military. Where private space companies emerged and accelerated development of space industry. Where people never stopped dreaming big and aiming high.”

-The Space That Never Was

Mac Rebisz is a Polish concept designer and illustrator working in the gaming and film industries for studios all over the world. In 2014 he embarked on a personal project, The Space That Never Was, combining his training as an architectural engineer with his lifelong enthusiasm for space. His work, like the Kronos Project, which envisions a manned trip to outer planets, is a unique alternate history with research-based visions for spacecraft that are both speculative and scientifically grounded. I chatted with Mac about this work, his universe, and the importance of getting the science right.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bob Beard, Project Hieroglyph: Tell me about your process for creating these images.

Mac Rebisz: First, I always try to capture the scientific data of the project – to get the details technically correct. I visit the NASA archives to get technical documents, and I use astronautix.com for basic information about space hardware. Reading through these sites, I’ll make some initial inferences, and from there I usually correct myself after studying books on the topic – but I do research everywhere I can.

BB: How long do you spend on this part of the work?

MR: For one picture, I spend a week doing research and then a day or two just doing the image. Some of my images are hand painted in Photoshop and some are made in 3D. After doing  my research, I’ll make a detailed 3D model, then render it in Photoshop and overpaint the details, establish the mood and background…all of the artistic considerations.

BB: How much of what you do is a careful reproduction of the designs in the NASA archives, and how much is speculative?

tumblr_nkan0llr0h1u0vd4co1_1280

MR: It depends on my mood – but when I find an interesting idea from reality, I think of how I’d like to depict it, then I do the study and research. When I had the idea for the Kronos spacecraft, I started reading NASA studies and documents about large, interplanetary expeditions and it just evolved from there.

BB: The Kronos Project is interesting too – because you’ve taken it a step further. This isn’t just another cool looking spaceship on the Internet: it’s designed to house a crew and a laboratory in an alternate history. Do your drawings also fulfill the technical requirements of these imaginary missions?


MR:
I first started thinking about Kronos in 2014 as a large interplanetary ship for exploration, conducting science research around Jupiter and Saturn. My first design wasn’t as big as it is now, because it started from the feasibility studies done by NASA back in the 60s and 70s, when they were actively planning missions like this. That’s why it looks like an Apollo spacecraft attached to a habitat module.  But since then I’ve plotted what I wanted my spacecraft to do, and have sketched and planned and added for what’s actually possible.20151231_kronos_3months_comp_by_macrebisz-d9m39z9

BB: It’s an interesting mash-up of speculation and real science. In your day job working on video games and movies, I imagine you get to take some artistic liberties. How important is it for you to pursue concepts like these and still get the science right?

MR: For this project it’s very important – maybe more so for me than for the audience – because I want to know how things work, and I’m gratified to know that these creations, as I imagine them, could work.

BB: Do you plan to eventually unite these images into a narrative?

MR: Yes, I’d like to make an art book from all the pictures with some background and a narrative throughout. Maybe with technical papers and some incredible cross-sections – to show how the modules would work and how people would live in them.

I’m also in pre-production for a short movie set in the Space That Never Was universe, about a Polish astronaut who goes on a mission to Phobos.

BB: How would you describe your vision for space – both The Space That Never Was as well how you’d like to see humans actually interact with space in the future?

MR: Space has always been very political, but I hope that it will be more humanistic and focused on international collaboration. The Space That Never Was is primarily scientific, of course – but I think it’s also optimistic. I want people to see that space exploration is cool and worthwhile. As an artist though, I just hope that people like my art.

Author

Bob Beard is a fan of fandom. From Browncoats to Bronies, SCA members, Trekkers, Steampunks and more, Bob is passionate about understanding the performance and identity practices within various fandoms as well as creation of experiences for members of these groups to publicly advocate for themselves and their ideas. Bob is a Marine Corps veteran and double alumnus of Arizona State University, with a master’s degree in Communication Studies and a bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a humanities emphasis.