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MTV reveals vine-covered 'Moon Person' at NASA rocket garden

A life-size statue of artist Kehinde Wiley's reimagined MTV "Moon Person" trophy was revealed in the rocket garden at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida on Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021.
A life-size statue of artist Kehinde Wiley's reimagined MTV "Moon Person" trophy was revealed in the rocket garden at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida on Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021. (Image credit: Gerardo Mora/Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex)

What happens when you plant a moon person in a rocket garden? It grows vines.

MTV on Sunday (Aug. 1) celebrated its 40th year on the air by revealing a new look for its iconic Video Music Awards (VMA) trophy (opens in new tab) at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. The special edition Moon Person was designed by artist Kehinde Wiley, who is known for his for his naturalistic portraiture.

Moogega Cooper, the lead planetary protection engineer for NASA's Mars 2020 mission, unveiled a life-size version of Wiley's Moon Person at Kennedy's rocket garden (opens in new tab) — an outdoor display of historic launch vehicles — on Sunday.

Related: The best space music videos ever

"I see a huge connection between what MTV has done in storytelling and breaking boundaries and what is done in space exploration," Cooper said in a video statement released by the visitor complex. "Because you have to translate those important messages to the world, and to be able to do that you have to put together a good story, a compelling story, so everybody understands why it is relevant to them."

Wiley intended his Moon Person to represent inclusivity and diversity, "as marked by the historical, environmental and nature relevance of the botanicals," MTV said in a statement to Rolling Stone magazine (opens in new tab). "The design features botanical vines seamlessly flowing up and around the figure's legs, body and arms as a commentary on the ethnic histories that surround America. Each intertwined vine or leaf has a different historical relevance, such as the seeds from African slaves, that are woven into the American tapestry."

Moogega Cooper, NASA's lead planetary protection engineer for the Mars 2020 mission, poses with a life-size version of MTV's "Moon Person" at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. (Image credit: Gerardo Mora/Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex)

The message behind Wiley's work resonates within the space program, too, said Cooper. NASA's Artemis program is working to return astronauts to the moon, including landing the first woman and the first person of color (opens in new tab) on the lunar surface.

"It is so important to have representation in everything that you do," she said. "In the space world, we'd like to have representation among other scientists and engineers, because all of those perspectives is what makes us who we are, they are the fabric of our identify."

The connection between MTV and NASA dates back to the channel's very first moments on the air. At 12:01 a.m. on Aug. 1, 1981, MTV launched with footage from NASA's first space shuttle launch four months earlier and from the Apollo 11 mission, which landed the first astronauts on the moon in 1969. The imagery of astronauts saluting and facing the flag was altered to replace the stars and stripes with the logo of the new music television network as a voiceover delivered its new mission, "Ladies and gentleman, rock and roll."

That opening providing the inspiration for the original VMA Moon Man trophy introduced in 1984. MTV officially changed "Moon Man" to "Moon Person" in 2017 to represent all genders as a part of its commitment to inclusion.

Wiley, who is perhaps best known as the first Black American to paint an official portrait of a U.S. president, Barack Obama, is the third person to be invited to reimagine the VMA trophy. Multimedia artist KAWS and fashion designer Jeremy Scott previously put their own spins on the chrome astronaut in 2013 and 2015, respectively.

Wiley's Moon Person trophies will be awarded during the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards to be held Aug. 12 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

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Robert Z. Pearlman
Robert Z. Pearlman

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of, 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 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.