When Elon Musk announced the first passenger to buy a trip around the moon on his yet-to-be-built rocket on Monday (Sept. 17), there was a plot twist: That passenger, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, wanted to bring half a dozen artists on the journey with him.
"I did not want to have such a fantastic experience by myself," Maezawa said during the news conference held with Musk to announce the journey. "That would be a little lonely. I don't like being alone, so I want to share these experiences and things with as many people as possible, so that is why I choose to go to the moon with artists!"
Maezawa is a serious art collector who spoke during the press conference about being inspired by figures like Jean-Michel Basquiat, John Lennon and Coco Chanel. Although all of those artists have died, he expressed a desire to bring their successors with him to space in order for all of humanity to see and hear the journey through their eyes and ears. [How SpaceX's Passenger Flight Around the Moon with Yusaku Maezawa Will Work]
That idea has been pretty enthusiastically welcomed. "The thing that makes me happiest about this is it's bringing together space and art, which I think are just two naturally complimentary things," former NASA astronaut Nicole Stott told Space.com.
She may be a little biased; she was an artist before she went to space, painted a watercolor aboard the space station and retired from NASA to focus on sharing the experience of space travel through artwork. She pushed back against the idea that there is no tradition of art in space. "This community is also a very artistic one, and so when we think about sending artists to the moon or around it, I love it, I really love it, but I think built into our astronaut, our technical community is a really wonderful group of artists," she said.
And she points to a long tradition of images from human and robotic missions alike touching us here on Earth. "We're always really impressed with the imagery that comes back of that destination that we were traveling to, but in the end, the most impressive image is always the one that includes us in it," Stott said.
Others also saw the project as a major step forward for connecting science and art. "Symbolically, I think it's thrilling to start a dialogue that science is kind of included in the humanities for the continuing exploration of our moon," Lia Halloran, an artist and professor at Chapman University, told Space.com. "The stars are for everyone and whether [the expedition] really happens or not, I'm just happy to hear the announcement and see what comes of it."
But from outside, the space-faring community can sometimes seem awfully hostile to professional artists. "There's been historical, systemic bias against non-[science and engineering] fields and [toward] the military in the development of space," Justin Walsh, a classical archaeologist and art historian at Chapman University who runs a project dedicated to archaeology on the International Space Station, told Space.com.
Walsh has gathered astronaut recruiting notices that explicitly rule out applications from people with academic backgrounds in the arts and humanities and cited former *NSYNC singer Lance Bass' failed space-tourism foray: "That might be the closest that somebody related to an artistic profession has come to becoming a space crew," he said. And if Bass could so compellingly perform "Bye Bye Bye" before leaving Earth, just imagine what he could do after visiting the moon. [Astronaut Alan Bean Remembered: A Moonwalker-Turned-Artist]
The information released during Monday's news conference was limited, so many questions remain about precisely how the #dearMoon project will unfold — particularly about who will actually be given the opportunity to make the incredible journey. (Coincidentally, Twitter users have been comparing those invitations to the golden tickets of Roald Dahl's novel "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"; Maezawa did not specify whether novelists would be among the categories of artists he was considering bringing.)
Walsh pointed out that Maezawa and Musk are both extremely optimistic about exploration and wondered whether the chosen artists would reflect that viewpoint or represent a broader range of hopes and concerns about space exploration and its consequences on Earth. Given Maezawa's taste in art, Walsh also worries the #dearMoon project may end up including only well-established, mainstream European or American artists who haven't necessarily engaged with the topic much, he said.
The tone of the announcement also raised some eyebrows. "As an artist, it makes me a little bit uncomfortable," Heidi Neilson, an independent artist whose work tackles issues around space exploration, told Space.com. "I take from [caricatured depictions of artists in the presentation] and the tone of 'sending artists' that it's thinking about artists in a marketing sense as opposed to what artists are actually doing."
Walsh agreed, objecting to people who called the initiative whimsical and artists soft. "I don't know if you know any professional artists; they are totally serious about what they are doing and what they are doing is really hard," he said, adding that they grapple with deep philosophical issues "that most of us actually are scared by and do so in a way that brings some new aspect of it to life."
That said, Neilson wasn't sure putting artists into space was the best way for the rest of us to understand the role that space plays in our lives. Despite the grand words of Musk and his fellow space evangelists, most of us will only ever experience space from our vantage point here on Earth. That means we need to deal with its importance and its challenges from a terrestrial standpoint, she said, adding that it "skews the point" to rely on the rare astronaut — artist or not — to shape our perceptions about what space means for humanity. [NASA's Best Earth-from-Space Photos by Astronauts]
But perhaps artists in space can provide a compelling, additional perspective to doing that work here on Earth. "I find this idea very appealing and probably something quite necessary to happen," Alice Gorman, a space archaeologist at Flinders University in Australia, told Space.com. "To have a fully developed space culture, you need to start drawing in other sectors of society, other expertise."
Of course, all this depends on one key technical component, astronaut Stott said: safety. "2023 is not that far away," she said, adding that there remain safety risks even with routine trips to and from the International Space Station, and that a lunar loop with passengers lacking deep technical training will be still riskier.
"We're talking about rocket science here, and we're talking about something that hasn't been done in a really long time and we're talking about doing it in an entirely new way," Stott said. That means taking a serious look at the consequences of potential failure, she said — "not just the loss of life but the longer-term implications of continuing to venture into space."