Science Fiction

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.



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.

Announcing The Tomorrow Project’s Journeys through Time and Space anthology

October 8, 2015 in Hieroglyph

“Your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it.”
-Doctor Emmett L. Brown, Back to the Future Part III

Cover of the Tomorrow Project's Journeys through Time and Space anthology, featuring an artist's rendering of a black hole.I was nearing my thirteenth birthday when I heard that line — a call to action from a character that embodied scientific curiosity, exploration, and DIY. Unfortunately for me, the year was 1989, so rather than take to the Internet to find a community of thinkers and makers to help workshop my ideas, I contented myself by reading about other people’s imagined futures. Thankfully, for those of us who pined for access to a hackerspace or the fellowship of like-minded enthusiasts, these dreams are realized for a new generation courtesy of The Tomorrow Project.

For the past five years, The Tomorrow Project has empowered today’s youth to visualize and collaborate on the future they want to live in through both storytelling and prototyping. Using grounded science as a starting point, Tomorrow Project participants are encouraged to tease out ideas, designs, implications, and worst-case scenarios to envision the world that they’ll soon inherit. Hundreds of these exercises from fifteen countries and thirty-six U.S. states were submitted as short stories to the project’s The Future – Powered By Fiction contest and have been published in quarterly anthologies throughout the past year.

As a partner in this effort, we are excited to announce the publication of the fourth and final collection of tales from the competition, Journeys through Time and Space.

In this volume, eleven young people from Nepal, Singapore, and the U.S. share their dispatches from the future, expressing the primal human desire for exploration powered by the technologies of tomorrow. Their stories are fresh, exciting, and brimming with possibility. We invite you to read them all here and share the Tomorrow Project with the students and educators in your life. The anthology is free to read, download, and share.

Visit the Tomorrow Project website to read and share Journeys through Time and Space and the other three “Future – Powered by Fiction” anthologies, along with a bunch of other volumes of science fiction and fact.

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.

The Future: Powered by Fiction, a SF anthology from ASU and Intel

September 12, 2014 in Hieroglyph

The Future Powered by Fiction Front CoverIt turns out that Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future wasn’t the only science fiction anthology published by ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination this month! On Friday, September 5 we published The Future: Powered by Fiction in partnership with Intel’s Tomorrow Project and the Society for Science & the Public.

The anthology, which is free to read and share, features ten compelling visions of the future crafted by winners of a short story competition open to young adults ages 13-25 from all over the world. The short stories featured in the anthology were written by authors from eight different U.S. states, as well as Canada and Hong Kong.

The Future: Powered by Fiction was co-edited by Project Hieroglyph’s Ed Finn and G. Pascal Zachary, a Professor of Practice at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes, and features contributions from Intel Futurist Brian David Johnson and Bryan Walsh, a senior editor and environmental writer for TIME magazine.

You can download the anthology here, or learn more at the Tomorrow Project website. And stay tuned: Intel and the Center for Science and the Imagination will partner on three more anthologies to be released throughout 2014 and 2015, showcasing other outstanding science fiction futures from around the world!

Joey Eschrich is the editor and program manager at the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. He earned his bachelor's degree in Film and Media Studies in 2008 and his master's degree in Gender Studies in 2011, both from ASU.

Featured Contributor: Elizabeth Bear

October 21, 2013 in Authors, Featured Contributors, Hieroglyph

Elizabeth Bear has accomplished quite a lot during her science fiction career. The awards alone are almost endless: a John W. Campbell Award in 2005 for Best New Writer, an Audie Award in 2012 for Best Original Work, a Sturgeon Award, a Locus Award, three Hugo Awards…the list goes on and on.

Author Elizabeth Bear

After working across the spectrum of disciplines – from stable hand to typesetter and layout editor – Elizabeth now spends most of her time writing speculative fiction, although she is a frequent traveler between genre boundaries. She is infamous for her ability to jump around a variety of time periods, realms and styles with fearless agility and exceptional consistency. Breaking down this particular quality, she explained in an interview with, “I’m one of those writers who has a hard time repeating herself, so all of my work is quite different.”

Elizabeth is also noted for her diverse approach to creating characters. Although frequently asked to elaborate on her goals for introducing such a diverse range of gender, race, identity and sexual preference into her work, Bear’s response is simple: “What I write reflects the world I know. My friends and family are not exclusively white and straight, so it would seem peculiar to me for the world I wrote in to be.”

Elizabeth lives in Massachusetts. She is a regular instructor at the Viable Paradise writers’ workshop in Martha’s Vineyard, and has also taught at Clarion, Clarion West, the WisCon Writer’s Respite and Odyssey.

Photo courtesy of Kyle Cassidy, source Thank you Kyle Cassidy!

Lauren Pedersen was born and raised in Tempe, Arizona to a writer and a helicopter pilot. She is currently pursuing her two passions of art and design at Arizona State University, where she continues to work towards a bachelor's degree in Design Studies with a focus in Design History, and a minor in Art History.