The question ‘what is art?’ is like a particularly frustrating family argument, annoying beyond belief, cyclical, but impossible to dismiss. For years I used the line ‘anything in an art gallery is art’, a singularly useless phrase, but at least it was better than my previous effort, ‘anything that artists make is art’. Now I just say ‘towels’, which is nonsense, but at least it sounds postmodern. One day I hope to be able to say ‘I just don’t know’, or ‘Good question!’.

I mention this only because the question ‘what is space art’ keeps coming up and is even more difficult to handle. The earliest ‘space artists’ were either the ancient Egyptian builders of the pyramids in 2500 BC or the indigenous peoples who created the Nazca Line sculptures on the planes of the Andes. We may never know the purpose of these monuments, but they have an astronomical resonance that is undeniable. Their scale and organization is such that they appear to be designed to be looked at from far above the Earth, from the vantage point of the stars. Few human structures have achieved this; cathedrals, temples, and skyscrapers ground the viewer with an upward gaze to the stars rather than demanding to be seen from the heavens. Could it be that this change in viewpoint is the key to defining space art? If so, the next pivotal moment came 4500 years later, after Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. All the theory in the world could not do what the first pictures of the Earth did in the 1960s. It transformed our view of ourselves overnight: the celestial mirror showed us spinning alone in space on an almost impossibly beautiful blue globe.

Since then, artists haven’t exactly woken up to the possibility of space art, instead there has been more of a galactic yawn and rolling over to the other side of the conceptual bed. Whereas the coming of the mechanical age in the early 20<+z7>th century was inextricably linked to major movements in art such as futurism and cubism, the space age has had surprisingly little impact on the art world given the significance of its achievements. In 1990, the OURS Foundation was set up by Arthur Woods to add a cultural dimension to the astronomical endeavor. But the contributions have been controversial, from protests at the phallic nature of rockets to Joe Davis’ Poetica Vaginal broadcast, where he recorded the vaginal contractions of ballerinas and beamed this interpretation of ‘human conception’ to the Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti star systems using Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Millstone radar. In 1995, the organization ars astronautica held the first art exhibition in space onboard the MIR space station. It had no visitors. Orbiting space sculptures have since been banned by the International Astronomical Union as contributing to the proliferation of space junk.

But maybe Mars’ startling visibility through the orange haze of the city night sky is finally changing things. As you read this, a spacecraft hurtling towards Mars and onboard is a work of art. It is a painting by the British artist Damien Hirst commissioned by Colin Pillinger, head scientist of the Mars probe Beagle 2. The piece is bolted to the lander and will be used to calibrate the probe’s technical equipment. The colors in the painting will be used to calibrate the camera after landing, while the minerals in the paint pigments will be used to correct the X-ray sensor probing the planet’s soil chemistry. In other words, this piece of BritArt is a slightly improbably part of the search for life on Mars. Or is it so improbable?

At a Royal Society meeting last year, David Scott, one of the last men to walk on the moon, was asked what he would recommend for future manned missions to space. “Send artists,” he said, explaining that what he had seen was awesome, but he did not have the language to express this to those back on Earth. He argued that since most people won’t ever go into space, those that do should be poets, writers, and visual artists, capable of expressing the awesome ‘something’ that he could not. His words struck the audience dumb, with a mental image of a space-suited astronaut, not collecting rock samples, not making measurements, but with easel and paintbrush in hand. It is an absurd image, but he’s right. We can send robots to collect rocks and to make measurements, but the only reason to send people is so that they can experience space from a human perspective. Will their poems, pictures, and performances be space art? All I can say at this point is ‘towels’.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(03)01115-5