HOUSTON — When people think of the equipment astronauts take to space, clean white spacesuits, technical checklists and science apparatus may come to mind.
But what they probably don't think of are bagpipes, quilting kits and colorful space garments hand-painted by pediatric cancer patients. All of those however, were launched into space and are now the focus of a museum exhibit aqwazcurated by a former NASA astronaut-turned-artist.
"Space for Art," which debuted Tuesday (Jan. 25) at Space Center Houston, the visitor center for the Johnson Space Center in Texas, highlights the connection between artistry and spaceflight, and how those two disciplines blend within one community. [In Photos: Space Center Houston and NASA]
"The exhibit is really about bringing together a local space community to present both the science and the art of that community — and I think in a unique way," said astronaut Nicole Stott, who not only organized "Space for Art," but is also exhibiting some of her own pieces, including the first-ever watercolor to be painted in space. "We're going to the people who we we normally consider to be our scientists, our engineers, our astronauts, and presenting their artistic side as well."
The temporary exhibit pulls from the largely-unknown art talents of the Johnson Space Center workforce. In addition to the art pieces flown, or in a few cases, created in space, there are also paintings, photographs, sculptures and even handcrafted longboards created by those who contribute to the space program from the ground.
"I am hoping people who come to Space Center Houston see that the artistic side of the astronauts, scientists and engineers is a really good thing," Stott told collectSPACE. "It can help us communicate about our space program and about the space station that is on orbit that I honestly think is a piece of art itself."
Stott lived for 90 days on the International Space Station in 2009 on the first of her two space missions. While on orbit, she became the first person to paint while in space using a small watercolor kit she brought and left aboard the space station. In 2015, after 27 years with the program, Stott left NASA to pursue a career as a professional artist.
Among the artworks on display as part of "Space for Art" is a painting by cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, the first person to walk in space in 1965; star trail photos by NASA astronaut Don Pettit; a toy dinosaur that Karen Nyberg created using fabric scraps she found on the International Space Station; and a flute played by Johnson Space Center director Ellen Ochoa while aboard the space shuttle.
Alongside those pieces, are paintings by space artists Ron Woods and Pat Rawlings; sketches by the late Paul Calle, one of the first eight artists chosen by NASA to document the program; intricate styrofoam coffee cups decorated by engineer Jennifer Grassman; a fondant cake sculpted by Ginger Kerrick, the first woman to lead Mission Control as a flight director; and skateboards handcrafted by astronaut countermeasures trainer Bob Tweedy, among others.
"I think the public will be surprised by the biographies and statements we had the artists provide that speaks to their personal stories of how science and art comes together for them," said Stott.
Also featured in "Space for Art" are two spacesuits like no others on Earth — and the image of a third that is now on board the space station.
"Hope" and "Unity," created as part of The Space Suit Art Project, were painted by pediatric patients at the University of Texas MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital and by children from around the world. The third suit, "Courage," debuted on board the space station in September and was originally planned to make its post-flight premiere as part of the exhibit — were it not for a launch delay.
"'Courage' is still on the station," said Stott. "It scheduled to come back on SpaceX's next Dragon return vehicle, which is probably, sadly, just after we close out this exhibit — but we might have to do something special after it returns."
"Space for Art" will be on exhibit at Space Center Houston through March 19.
See more photos of the "Space for Art" exhibit at Space Center Houston at collectSPACE.
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Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.