For many decades, a medical myth persisted that people were either “right brained” or “left brained.” The theory went that we are naturally predisposed to either being more creative (right-hemisphere dominant) or more mathematical (left-hemisphere dominant). But that phenomenon has now been thoroughly debunked, and its stereotypes along with it.
I and so many of my NASA colleagues are examples of how there is no reason to believe that scientists can’t be artists—or vice versa. Photography and music have always been a part of human spaceflight, and in early missions, cosmonaut Alexey Leonov did colored pencil sketches of orbital sunrise and charcoal portraits of his Apollo-Soyuz crew mates. As we’ve spent more time as humans not just working but living in space, the number of astronauts creating something artistic during their missions has continued to grow. Just recently, my friend Cady brought her flute and played it in space, and my friend Don created some really beautiful star trail photos using time-lapse photography.
My first spaceflight was in late 2009. I traveled to the International Space Station (ISS) on the Space Shuttle Discovery, and spent a little over three months living and working on the ISS. Every day in space was surprising—a different mix of science and maintenance and outreach activities. Some of the more exciting days might have included a spacewalk or flying the robotic arm to grab a cargo vehicle as it approached; other days included everything from fixing the toilet to testing our water to harvesting plants and mixing fuels in the combustion chamber.
As it turned out, there’s not a whole lot of free time during a space mission. But with what little spare time I did have, I liked to do the same thing as I loved back on Earth: I painted.
What it’s like to paint in space
I grew up doing artsy crafty things, and as an adult—if I could find spare time—I would paint, do some woodworking, or tinker in the garden. Thankfully, before my first spaceflight, my crew support representative and friend Maryjane Anderson encouraged me to think about how I might spend some of my spare time while living for months in space. Thanks to her, I packed a small watercolor kit, and became the first person to paint a watercolor in space.
When people hear I’ve painted in space, they often comment about how it must have been fun to float in front of a window and paint whatever part of Earth I was looking at. And I agree, that would be great—if we weren’t for the fact that we’re passing over the planet at five miles a second. You literally wouldn’t get the brush to the paper before the thing you’re trying to paint would be out of sight. There’s no plein air painting in space.
As everything outside was moving too fast to paint, I printed a picture (yes, we have printers on board the ISS) of one of the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen: this little tiny chain of islands on the northern coast of Venezuela called Los Roques. I remember seeing them through the window of the space station, taking a photo, and thinking that someone had already taken a brush and painted the shape of a wave on the ocean. It was just gorgeous.
Every night just before going to bed, I would paint a little bit of those islands. I took up a watercolor paint set because I needed my paint to be non-toxic and in a solid form. But unlike normal watercolors, you can’t dip your brush in a cup of water—because there are no cups of water! The water would just float right out of the cup. Instead, you have drink bags—which are like big CapriSun bags—with a straw on the top.
Without a cup of water for my watercolors, painting was therefore a real process. To start, I would squirt out a tiny little ball of water from the drink bag and watch it float in front of me in zero gravity. Then I would put the brush toward it to touch it. What was extra cool was that even before I got the brush to the water, right before it made contact, the bubble of water seemed to move over to the brush, like it was attracted to the bristles in some way. I’m still not really sure what caused this—maybe something to do with surface tension or some weak static charge on the water or brush—but this vacuum effect was really interesting to watch.
Then the ball of water would be floating around the end of the brush; it didn’t mix with the bristles like it does here on Earth. I would then mush this water droplet around in the paint. But just like when I tried to “dip” the end of the brush into the ball of water, when I moved the ball of water toward the solid paint, it was like the paint was pulling the ball of water toward it. The same would then happen when I pulled the colored water back toward the brush. It was so weird to watch this whole dance of water and paint and brush take place.
Now, finally, I would be ready to actually paint. But I had to be really careful as I was putting the brush to the paper, because if I got too close and actually touched the ball of water or the brush to the paper, it would just suck it up all at once. In the end, it was like I was just dragging this colored ball of water along the paper, just above the surface. It was so neat.
I may have been the first person to paint with watercolors in space—if you can call smooshing a colored ball of water around a piece of paper painting—but there are many others who have brought their creative Earthly talents with them to space, too. For example, my friend Karen brought some little pieces of fabric and her sewing kit with her and quilted in space, and my friend Richard went a little Jackson Pollock when he used acrylic paints and paper floating in a glove box to demonstrate what happens to paint in zero gravity.
You don’t suddenly become less human in space, less passionate about the things that bring you joy. In fact, while you’re hurtling around the planet’s orbit being suspended in zero gravity, being able to connect with the hobbies you love is a way to stay grounded. We’re just being humans—but in space.
The opportunity to paint in space was an inspiration for me. I brought that experience back to Earth with me in a way that has inspired all of the work I’ve done since.
Mixing science with art
Before I retired from NASA three years ago, I was thinking about how I could share my experience in space with the rest of the world. I think that astronauts feel obligated to communicate what they learned about the universe, and themselves, to the public. As scientists, we can’t get away with just publishing papers and not actually doing anything to help the Earth. If we’re not making a difference, then what was the point in the first place?
I decided I wanted to raise the awareness of the beautiful intersection between art and science. I wanted to encourage more young people to not be led down a path that pigeonholes them as only artistic or scientific. Whether it’s the way art has always been used to better communicate scientific data, science fiction that’s led to science fact, or simply that our planet and our spacecraft are beautiful pieces of art in their own right, art and science are more connected than what we give them credit for.
Shortly after retiring, I had the opportunity to curate an art exhibit at the visitor complex at the Johnson Space Center. I had been working on an endeavor called the Spacesuit Art Project with kids around the world where our team, including spacesuit company ILC Dover, designed artistic space suits. We put them in the center of the room, and we showcased beautiful examples around them of how science and art can come together. We wanted to show that you can be both creative and scientific at the same time.
I reached out to all my friends in the technical community who I had discovered had something artsy going on and asked them to bring their creations over. Everybody got involved, from our NASA exercise physiology folks to scientists and researchers and astronauts and engineers and Mission Control people. We had hand-crafted wooden longboard skateboards, paintings, drawings, Karen’s quilt, musical instruments, sculptural cakes, stained glass—everything artistic that you can imagine on display, all by people who would normally only be thought of as techy.
Each of these folks also provided a short, personal statement about how art and science had impacted their lives. It was wonderful, and it was really well received by the public. I heard a kid say to his mom, “I didn’t know you could do art and science.” I was like, “Yes kid! Yes!”
It was equally cool—if not more—to see people who had worked together for over 20 years discover something new about each other. They spent every day working together at the Space Center, yet they had no clue about the artistic stuff that was going on outside of their work. They’d come in—Bob with his skateboards, Ginger with her cakes—and look at each other like, “What are you doing here?” It’s like they got reintroduced to each other. And I believe that because of that, they probably work better together on the techy stuff, too. They’re more creative in the way they consider solutions to whatever problems they’re having to deal with.
Whether through my own artwork, curating the artwork of technical communities, or through the work we’re doing with space-themed art therapy programs with the Space for Art Foundation, I now dedicate my time back on Earth to creatively sharing my spaceflight experience. As both an artist and an astronaut, I’m an example of what can happen when you keep your mind open, rather than subscribing to hair-brained left-brain/right-brain myths.
I’m on a mission now to creatively combine the awe and wonder of my spaceflight experience with my artwork to help inspire everyone’s appreciation of our role as crewmates together here on spaceship Earth. As I’ve experienced through my co-workers with the space program, we’re all better off using our whole brains. We should all mix a little art and science in our own lives and in support of whatever mission of greater good we’re on.