‘A Space Program’ Documents a DIY Journey to Mars
These days, NASA isn’t the only space program in town. Entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Richard Branson have jumped into the commercial space race with their own ventures. But why should billionaires have all the fun? Since 2007, New York-based sculptor Tom Sachs has been building his own space program from scratch. It’s 100 percent handmade, cobbled together from steel, plywood, and Tyvek wrap. In 2012, Sachs and his studio team took over Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory—installing their own mission control, flight crew, landers, and rovers—and staged a journey to Mars and back in front of a live audience of art fans. Tom Sachs joins Ira in the studio to talk about A Space Program, a new movie documenting that Mars journey.
Tom Sachs is a sculptor and is the creator of “A Space Program,” (Zeitgeist Films, 2016). He’s based in New York, New York.
Kevin Hand is deputy chief scientist for solar system exploration at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday, I’m Ira Flatow.
If you’re a fan of space flicks– you know, and who isn’t– the plot of the new movie A Space Program is going to make you feel pretty familiar. As the movie theater’s lights the go down, two astronauts suit up for the grueling trip to Mars. There’s a tense landing scene, as the commander pilots a craft onto the Martian surface.
The astronauts collect rock samples. They suffer equipment failures. They even discover life.
But there’s something different about this movie, this space movie. Everything in it, from the Mars landing to the space suits to mission control, they’re all handmade. Do it yourself.
Those slick astronaut suits? They’re made out of Tyvek, the stuff you wrap houses in. The Martian red surface is red painted plywood. And the piloting interface on that Mars lander, it’s an old Atari video game, you know with the little hand controller?
That’s because A Space Program really isn’t a big budget Hollywood space movie, like The Martian. It’s a video of a live performance by the do it yourself sculptor Tom Sachs.
In 2012, Sachs and his team of studio assistants took over Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory. They brought in their own astronauts, their own mission control, their own rockets, even their own scientists. And in front of a live audience of art fans, in a giant, old, red brick building, Tom Sachs and his team went to Mars .
The movie A Space Program documents their performance, and it opens today in New York. Sculptor Tom Sachs joins me to talk about it, right here in our studios. And welcome to Science Friday, Tom.
TOM SACHS: Thanks, Ira. Thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: I feel such a kinship with fellow geeky person.
TOM SACHS: Yeah, we’re bricoleurs.
IRA FLATOW: So you built your own space program from scratch. Does that make you Elon Musk, or Jeff Bezos, or Richard Branson, or?
TOM SACHS: I think it makes me a little bit more successful than those guys.
IRA FLATOW: Because?
TOM SACHS: Well, I’ve been to Mars. Elon will probably get there. And not all of those guys will. And we all have the same problems of engineering, life support, fundraising, and public relations.
IRA FLATOW: So you never let any of that stuff get in your way?
TOM SACHS: No.
IRA FLATOW: You just went out and did it.
TOM SACHS: Absolutely. I’ve always wanted to make perfect things, and I realized at one point I could never make anything as good as an iPhone, but Apple could never make anything AS crappy is one of my sculptures.
IRA FLATOW: I’m gonna let that sink in for a second. Well, what is it that attracted you? You just sat down one day and say, I want to go to Mars, that’s my next project?
TOM SACHS: I’ve always been interested in the space program and the things that define us as human beings. Landing on the moon was kind of the greatest art project of all time. Military scaled operation, done for public relations. So in a way it’s a lot like, all right, it doesn’t have a real function other than winning hearts and minds.
But in the process we got micro computers and cellphones. So for me, I’ve always admired that, and and I’ve made sculptures and things that I haven’t been able to buy, my own space program, or they don’t exist, or I couldn’t afford my own space program. So I just went ahead and did it.
IRA FLATOW: Hey, That’s just the right– that’s just terrific. There’s a moment in the movie, A Space Program, where your astronaut is attempting a very difficult landing on Mars, using this Atari video game. And it’s a very tense moment. Were you surprised about how real that felt?
TOM SACHS: Well, that’s–
IRA FLATOW: Because what happens if she doesn’t land it?
TOM SACHS: That was one of the most terrifying moments of my life, because we had a live audience, and Commander Mary Ennarino had been practicing for weeks and it was very difficult. The controls were reversed. It was a nightmare. Everything was breaking. And she had practiced, but not enough.
So our stakes were real. If she had crashed, we would have stopped the mission and prepared and performed our funeral pageant, which was a nightmare miserable thing, and luckily we never had to do it live.
Where we hired a Nixon impersonator to read the speech that William Safire had written in the event that the ascent rocket would not ignite and Aldrin and Armstrong were marooned on the moon. And he read it, and our Nixon impersonator was not great. And luckily, we do not ever have to air this video. So no one will ever see it, we hope.
IRA FLATOW: So she landed, in all the performances she was successful, in all the landings.
TOM SACHS: Every time.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. That’s the right stuff.
TOM SACHS: Exactly. Grace under pressure.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. In the movie, you introduce us to your astronauts, but you also introduce us to your favorite building materials. Like plywood.
PAT MANOCCHIA: Plywood is the queen of all building materials. The bulk of Space Program is made of 3/4 inch, seven ply AC Fir plywood. Plywood is a sandwich. A delicious, wood sandwich. Plywood is more flexible, and generally stronger than lumber of the same species and dimension.
IRA FLATOW: I love plywood like you do. You have to be a wood person to understand, and you obviously understand plywood.
TOM SACHS: Well, true, that’s the voice of Pat Manocchia, the great Pat Manocchia. We all appreciate plywood and what it can do. It’s the democratic wood. It’s stronger and lighter and easier to work with than any other material.
IRA FLATOW: And the space suits were made out of?
TOM SACHS: There were made out of FedEx envelopes. Tyvek, which is a flash spun, non-woven fabric, and super strong stuff. But it’s important, just like plywood, that it’s a familiar material. Nothing that we use is exotic, everything is from Home Depot.
IRA FLATOW: And you even had a working spaceship internal cooling system.
TOM SACHS: That’s right. We had a thermal cooling layer, because the astronauts would tend to overheat. And when the cooling layer failed, and it does fail in the movie, our astronauts would get very cranky. And that was always something we were trying to avoid, keep them cool.
IRA FLATOW: Absolutely. And you got some response from NASA people who’d seen your Space Program. Did they get it?
TOM SACHS: NASA’s a gigantic organism. My NASA guys totally got it. They said to me, they knocked on the door.
Greg Vane, whose title is something amazing like Chief Explorer of Solar System. He’s a big guy at JPL, and a friend, and how I met Kevin Hand. And he said, we think you shouldn’t go back to the moon, but you should go to Mars.
And I said, well, sure, how are we going to do that? And he said, well, for example, your lunar space program is– your moon is a ball gray duct tape. If you take red duct tape and cover that gray ball, now you have Mars. And we will help you, philosophically, figure out the details.
And we wound up having a fantastic exchange program, a residency, where they came to my studio. Tomasso Rivellini, and Adam Stelzner, and Kevin Hand. And then I would go to Pasadena, back and forth.
IRA FLATOW: With that introduction, let me bring Kevin Hand on. Kevin isn’t just an astrobiologist in your movie, he is an astrobiologist at NASA. And he’s Deputy Chief Scientist for Solar System Exploration at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He joins us from JPL today. Welcome back to Science Friday, Kevin.
KEVIN HAND: Hi, Ira. Hi, Tom.
TOM SACHS: Hey Kevin!
KEVIN HAND: How’s it going?
IRA FLATOW: Just to get warmed up, let me play for you a scene from a movie that your team actually discovers life on Mars. And here’s Kevin Hand announcing the discovery.
KEVIN HAND: Mission control. This is Biolab. Please confirm that you see a clear image of what we think is a second sample of life in our universe.
MISSION CONTROL: We have confirmation of life detection.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. So there is life on Mars. Kevin, how did you get roped into Tom’s Space Program?
KEVIN HAND: Through my friend and colleague, Greg, as Tom mentioned. And then I just find a lot of inspiration, scientifically, in art. Tom and I discovered we were kind of kindred spirits. And he’s sort of like my artistic alter ego, I’d say.
TOM SACHS: And so what attracted you to Tom’s art in particular?
KEVIN HAND: You know, it’s interesting. When I first met Tom and was introduced to his art, I was like, what is going on here? And then I sort of got to understand that really, it’s about process.
You played a little bit of the plywood video. I love that video. Tom is all about process, and the discipline of process and craft. So everything he does is so meticulous. But there is this incredible balloon of creativity on top of that.
And so I really like his emphasis on process, and I think that’s part what attracted him to NASA in general is that at JPL, at NASA, everything is about process and being very meticulous. But out of that comes these amazing achievements.
IRA FLATOW: And Tom, you did spend a lot of time out there at JPL. What did you take away from that experience?
TOM SACHS: So many things, including the material known as vectran. But specifically, or philosophically, I was a D- student who did ninth grade twice, unlike Kevin, who got to go to the best schools in the known universe.
But I learned that scientists ad artists have kind of the same job. They have a gut feeling about something, then they have to go out and prove it and bring it to the world. So I thought that Kevin and Tomaso and Greg and Adam all worked hard to develop a constant flow of information to prove their ideas, and make sure that they’d work in real life.
And it starts with a gut feeling, an idea, a flash of inspiration, and the rest is hard work. So when we say in the studio creativity is the enemy, what we really mean is you just need a little bit of chili pepper to flavor the whole stew. The rest is hard work and stirring it.
IRA FLATOW: Kevin, are there are similarities between what Tom is doing is a sculptor and what you’re doing as a scientist?
KEVIN HAND: Absolutely. The common denominator is, of course, creativity. As a scientist, you’re really only as good as the questions you can come up with, and that’s rooted in your own creativity.
But then with that, chili peppers as Tom says, you got to know the process, and science is a process. And creativity, whether in science or art, is useless without a discipline of process and craft.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow, this is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with Tom Sachs and Kevin Hand. And Tom is a sculptor, and the movie Space Program documents of performance that he did here in New York. It’s opening today in New York.
TOM SACHS: At the Metrograph Theater. The new theater on Ludlow and Canal.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. You’ve gotta go see this. I think NASA has two great achievements these days. One is the Hubble Space Telescope, but the other is the rovers that are all over Mars. But they’re not people on Mars. Were you thinking, Tom, that this is a way to get people away from just thinking about robots on Mars, and what people would be doing on Mars?
TOM SACHS: Of course, I had a meeting at NASA headquarters where they had turned down funding this mission, my space program.
And I did my best Don Draper, and I thought I had them for a second, when I said that robots aren’t sexy, because they can’t reproduce, they’re just robots. But you get people on the planet, then you can imagine yourself in their eyes. And that’s why we love Hollywood actors, because they are us.
And that’s why it was important to bring people to Mars. Still, it’s hearts and minds.
Kevin said a minute ago that you’re only as good as the questions that you ask. And I think that’s 100% true in art. You can have the best craft in the world. But if it doesn’t mean anything, no one cares.
And the big questions and the difference between a rocket scientist and engineer, is that a rocket scientist uses the tools and hardware to answer these big questions. Are we alone? Where did we come from? These are the questions that science and religion on a parallel course to trying to understand.
IRA FLATOW: So Tom, where is your space program going next? You’ve conquered Mars, where is the next stop?
TOM SACHS: Well, the end of the movie, the astronauts resolve their differences in the tea house. And then they perform a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, so, opening Tuesday night at the Isamu Noguchi museum, we have Tom Sachs The Tea Ceremony. And you’ll see the astronauts’ equipment, mixed with a tea ceremony, tea garden, sculptures, and 500 hand made tea bowls. As a continuation of the mission.
IRA FLATOW: But in space, where you want to go next?
TOM SACHS: Well, I think Kevin can answer that.
IRA FLATOW: Kevin, you got a favorite spot?
KEVIN HAND: Absolutely. The ocean worlds of the outer solar system, where it’s like Europa, and Enceladus and Titan. And Europa, in particular, is in my opinion, one of the prime places to search for living life. And so, Tom and I have been brainstorming on all off the possibilities there. I should mention this is all on my personal time.
IRA FLATOW: So Tom, you’re taking your plywood and your tyvek to Europa next?
TOM SACHS: Well, we have a landing– or a launch, scheduled for September 15 in San Francisco at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where we’ll be landing two astronauts on the surface of Europa. We’ll be drilling through the icy crust, fishing for life that lives or swims beneath the icy crust in the ocean of Europa. We’ll be extracting, killing, and eating these– I should say, abducting, killing, and eating these local residents.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. I can’t wait. I wish you both great luck, great success. And we’ll have you back after, OK? When you’re done on Europa, you’ll come back and visit?
TOM SACHS: Look forward to it, thanks.
IRA FLATOW: Tom Sachs.
KEVIN HAND: Thanks, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Tom Sachs, sculptor and creator of A Space Program. The movie is Space Program, opens today in New York, again?
TOM SACHS: At the Metrograph Theater.
IRA FLATOW: In Brooklyn.
TOM SACHS: No, in Manhattan. On Ludlow and Canal, new theatre. It’s a great place.
IRA FLATOW: Great. Kevin Hand, Deputy Chief Scientist for Solar System Exploration at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Thank you, Kevin.
KEVIN HAND: Thanks, Ira. See you, Tom.
IRA FLATOW: Good luck with Europa, too. And you can see pictures of some of Tom Sachs’ Space Program on our website, it’s sciencefriday.com/spaceprogram.
Annie Minoff is a producer for The Journal from Gimlet Media and the Wall Street Journal, and a former co-host and producer of Undiscovered. She also plays the banjo.