The Flea: Where Speculative Art and Rocket Science Meet

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.