Finally, a good reason to travel to space

FILE PHOTO: Tourists take pictures of a NASA sign at the Kennedy Space Center visitors complex in Cape Canaveral, Florida April 14, 2010. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Most of the impulses people have to leave Earth for the cosmos hold little appeal. Flee a beautiful planet we’ve wrecked to live underground on Mars, where there are no forests or oceans? No, thank you. Sleep in a tin can in low orbit for a day job mining asteroids so that people can power their smartphones? That’s a space-age oddity I’d skip.

But what if it were possible to go to space to experience something transcendent, something that helps us better understand ourselves as humans and earthlings? And what if living in, or at least traveling to, space could yield incomparable beauty in the form of art and music? These questions came to mind recently as I watched Glenn Kotche of Wilco, one of my favorite drummers, in concert. At moments, his hands looked like trapeze artists back-flipping over the cymbals. The heartbeat of the kick drum came from a foot firmly anchored to the ground. Ricocheting off the snares and toms, his drumsticks appeared at times in free fall – like paint dripping down a canvas. Gravity was the invisible conductor, as it is of our everyday lives.

It got me daydreaming about what it might be like to one day watch a live musical performance in space. Not in the void, where sound waves cannot travel, but within built habitats in near-Earth orbit – such as the International Space Station (ISS). Forget U2 in the Las Vegas Sphere. Take me to a real concert in the round, where I can float 360 degrees around the stage, watching a guitarist shred from the perspective of a fly and inventing dance moves that Earth’s gravity would forbid.

Before you dismiss this as a hallucination, consider that we’re on the cusp of a new era of space travel. Engineer and space architect Ariel Ekblaw, founder of MIT’s Space Exploration Initiative, says that within a decade, a trip off the planet could become as accessible as a first-class airline ticket – and that, in 15 or 20 years, we can expect space hotels in near-Earth orbit. She’s betting on it, having founded a nonprofit to design spherical, modular habitats that can assemble themselves in space so as to be lightweight and compact at launch, much like the James Webb Space Telescope that NASA vaulted into deep space two years ago. “The first era of space travel was about survival,” she told me as I recently toured her lab. “We’re transitioning now to build spaces that are friendlier and more welcoming so that people can thrive in space as opposed to just survive.” There’s no reason, Ekblaw said, that a concert hall can’t be one of those structures.

The music performed in space, however, would almost certainly be different. Astronauts with musical talent have, of course, played songs during stays at the ISS; most notably, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded a music video in 2013 covering David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” during which he chased his guitar as it floated through the laboratories and sang out to Ground Control as Major Tom while gazing at the blue planet. But this was all lip-syncing and theatrics; Hadfield had to record the guitar and vocals from his cramped sleeping booth to ensure decent sound quality and to keep his guitar from floating away as he played it. There’s a light-year between that and a live concert by professional musicians in front of space-based audiences. Unless all space musicians take the easy way out by using electronic instruments, a lot has to be figured out.

I sat down with Kotche this month, when Wilco was performing a series of concerts in Mexico, to ask what he thought might change if he tried to play in zero gravity or microgravity. “When you teach beginners drumming, it’s all about getting them to keep it natural and just use the weight of the stick – to not overstroke it or over-muscle it,” he said. “Without gravity, that’s all out the window.” He mused that keeping time (with acoustic, not electronic instruments) might be exhausting, and said he would aim to make “event-based” as opposed to metronomic and rhythmic percussion, with long tones such as those made by gong rolls, singing bowls and shakers.

But breaking the conventions of music-making on Earth would also be the allure of zero gravity. “My first thought is I would improvise,” Kotche said. He frequently experiments with placing unusual objects on his drums – kitchen whisks, drink stirrers, plastic chile peppers – to create innovative rhythms and ambient sounds. Throughout history, new art and musical forms have arisen from adding or removing constraints. Consider the slack-key guitar techniques invented by Hawaiians unburdened by conventional tuning, or the abstractions that emerged in Claude Monet’s painting as he went blind. Zero gravity would be an exciting environment for improvisation, Kotche told me, because of the unintentional discoveries that could arise, for instance, from having instruments that push away from you when you strike them, or from having your muscles move in unanticipated ways.

Instruments themselves might also be adapted for space. In recent years, a few people have experimented with bringing music-makers on parabolic flights – where astronauts train for missions and scientists carry out experiments in spurts of zero gravity that last about 20 to 25 seconds. DJ and music producer Marc Marzenit found it tiring to play a keyboard in this environment and said he could imagine wanting a vertical piano for low gravity. Parabolic flight passengers also experience short intervals of hypergravity – almost twice the pull of gravity on Earth. Marzenit said playing drums is easier and faster with the same effort in hypergravity.

Two researchers formerly at the MIT Media Lab, Sands Fish and Nicole L’Huillier, invented an electronic instrument a few years ago they call the Telemetron, which is to be played in zero gravity. They brought variants of the instrument on parabolic flights to see what music they might create. Fish told me the instruments “had their own agency,” floating away from them after a touch and chiming in arpeggios. “We tried to throw out as many of the conventions of musical instruments that have been developed over time as we could because the environment is so different,” Fish said. “It was a conversation between a human and a nonhuman.” The Telemetron chimes based on its orientation in space and, on the flights, moved in response to both the players and the environment.

For my concert dream, the space habitats and vehicles people have built so far are acoustically inadequate. There’s a good reason for this, said Brandon Sobecki, senior vibro-acoustics engineer for an Indiana company called Damping Technologies. The fans used to circulate oxygen in space habitats make a lot of noise, as do the pumps used for no-gravity toilets. Heavy materials that could be used to dampen background noise are hard (and expensive) to get off the planet, and soft materials such as carpet and fiberglass are highly flammable in space environments. This is why the ISS is mostly metal. But it is possible to one day create better spaces for musical performance. Sobecki’s company is creating new materials to improve the acoustics on the Orion spacecraft that NASA aims to send around the moon, so that the four astronauts can better hear alarms and one another. Space concert venues would need to be designed both for optimal crowd movement and acoustics. A perfect sphere probably wouldn’t work, because sounds might bounce off every surface to a common focal point, Sobecki noted. And a rowdy mosh pit that hits the walls might end up shifting the position of a space structure. (This is why exercise bike pedals on the ISS float unmoored to the floors or walls.)

Space living could also bring a revolution in concert-going, by giving new context to existing music and inspiring new ways of performing. Ekblaw envisions one day going to a symphony with crescendos timed to celestial events visible in near-Earth orbit. (From the ISS, astronauts can see 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets each day.) My 10-year-old niece Neela said she’d want to see Coldplay perform “A Sky Full of Stars” in “a transparent room” looking out at the galaxy. I wish we could resurrect Bowie to perform “Ziggy Stardust.” Another beautiful idea came from composer and musician Angélica Negrón, whose pieces have been performed by ensembles ranging from the New York Philharmonic to the Kronos Quartet and self-playing mechanical instruments at the New York Botanical Garden, and who is now composing a piece that will be timed to last for the duration of a sunset, inspired by low-frequency droning sounds emitted by the sun. It will be performed on a beach in Sarasota, Fla., in April by a low-strings orchestra – with violas, cellos and basses but no violins.

Negrón told me she imagines an off-planet performance that never ends, with a rotating cast of musicians as well as robotic and self-playing mechanical instruments inspired by both futuristic dreams and retro player pianos, in a utopian space habitat where “we’ve finally understood the significance of art in maintaining our humanity,” she said. “It’s like a hydration station. You go and nurture yourself anytime with no barriers to access, none of the pretentions that come with going to a musical performance on Earth. You’re just going there because you need music to keep your humanity.”

Most people who have traveled to space have had military or scientific backgrounds – which makes sense, given the way public and private missions have focused on studying properties of space and learning how humans can survive there. But as more and more people go off the planet, it’s urgent to ask bigger questions. Therein lies an impulse for space travel I can get behind: curiosity about who we are and what more we can create when we reach beyond Earth. This is the realm of not just scientists and engineers but of all kinds of dreamers. It’s a rendition of space exploration that can engage anyone to imagine what’s possible. The first step is to send more musicians, artists, poets, dancers, architects and everyday dreamers into zero-gravity environments to experiment. (It might even be worthwhile for Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa to make good on his promise to send eight artists around the moon.)

The serious problems on this planet – war, poverty, democratic backsliding, climate change – should still command most human attention, investment and creativity. And the promise of escaping Earth ought not to be invoked to give up on it. (Heaven forbid people re-create the same ills in future space settlements.) But beauty, curiosity and the yearning to explore the void matter, now more than ever, as their pursuit can remind us why humanity is worth saving. The payoff from taking our creative longings to the stars could be new forms of art and music that bring joy – and perhaps even moments of peace – on Earth.



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