Chopin: The Latest Polish Astronaut
What does it feel like to take a space walk? Can you explain that feeling to somebody who will never get a chance to do it? In a unique story that brought art and emotion to a scientific project costing billions of dollars, a small group found that perhaps Chopin’s music was capable of explaining the inexplicable.
The crew of the STS-130 mission embarked on the Space Shuttle Endeavour on 8th February 2010 and headed towards the ISS, otherwise known as the International Space Station. Amongst the vessel’s usual load of equipment, there was a small curious object, a thing rarely seen in these circumstances – a CD with Chopin's music. The reason why makes for a quirky story…
After taking part in the STS-120 mission in 2007, two NASA astronauts of Polish ancestry, Dr Scott E. Parazynski and Col. George D. Zamka, met with Adam Ustynowicz. A very curious character, Ustynowicz is a business man, a trained pilot and a graduate of the prestigious Faculty of Power and Aeronautical Engineering at the Warsaw University of Technology, but most pertinently a film producer and director.
How to express the inexpressible?
As they talked, their discussion started deviating from scientific and technological subjects to more universal questions about the essence of going into space. They discussed how watching the Earth from space, especially during EVA (Extra-vehicular activity - work done by an astronaut outside of a spacecraft), feels like touching the absolute. They found it a mind-boggling moment that changes your perspective forever and an experience hardly translatable to non-astronauts. George Zamka wrote of it:
The world from the orbit is experienced, not just seen, like a favourite piece of music.
I had the sense that this was the view that poets and artists had imagined for centuries.
They came to the conclusion that even though technology allows us to take high quality pictures and shoot high definition films, it fails to describe how it truly feels to be there, how spiritual the experience is. They reasoned that this was because these things miss out a huge part of the experience: emotions. Thus, Zamka, Parazynski and Ustynowicz decided that if either of the two astronauts ever flew into space again, they would think of an artistic project that might try to somehow reflect on it.
An unlikely gift
In 2010, George D. Zamka was chosen to be the commander of the STS-130 mission, the objective of which was to head to the ISS and install a unique 7-window observatory module named Cupola. Unfortunately, Scott E. Parazynski wouldn’t be joining him - a few months earlier, he had had an accident during a climb on Mount Everest’s summit, injuring his back severely enough to never be eligible for another space mission.
After hearing the news of Zamka’s appointment as commander, Ustynowicz approached him and suggested he fly into space with an album of Chopin music recorded specifically for the occasion. He asked the astronaut to listen to it during his daily duties, to note his emotions and thoughts, and to bring it back to Earth. At first, the commander wasn’t sure about this choice:
I was doubtful. I didn’t know Chopin music very well and I didn’t see how space and classical piano went together. I was offered a gift, however, and trusted that the music would be a way to celebrate the friendship and heritage between two great countries, the United States and Poland.
But eventually, it turned out to be a great match:
After I returned the music (…), Adam began to put video of our mission together with the various Chopin pieces.
I saw and heard, as I think you will see, that the emotions that gave life to our mission are the same that people have sensed forever. They are the emotions that Chopin related with his music. Excitement, friendship, separation and wonder came and went in flashes throughout our time in space.
The final frontier for Chopin
The result of this scientific-artistic-philosophical experiment is the film Chopin: The Space Concert. It consists of mesmerising photographs and video footage of Earth seen from the ISS, taken by the mission’s photographer Soichi Noguchi.
These visuals are complemented by Chopin’s music, recorded by one of Poland’s best Chopin performers Karol Radziwonowicz accompanied by the Sinfonia Viva Orchestra. Chopin’s music and the sparse but emotional comments from George Zamka and Soichi Noguchi combine to give us a peek behind the space mission curtains in a deeper way than ever before. One of Noguchi’s mini-poems titled Home, Sweet Home reflects his EVA experience:
When I go outside the space station, I see Earth face-to-face.
Earth and I, both floating in space.
Everything about me belongs to Earth. No doubt, I am just a tiny piece of the Earth.
I was born there, and will die there.
My past and my future are all there on the Earth.
At this particular moment, however, Earth and I are equal partners in the universe.
Significantly, the movie is also a very rare example of a grass-roots artistic project that was added to an immense scientific enterprise. NASA not only agreed for their astronauts to take part in it but also granted the film’s creators rights to all the photo and video material shot by Soichi Noguchi. Ustynowicz often jokes that NASA’s help has made it the most expensive film ever produced, as the STS-130 budget was approximately half a billion dollars. Either way, the outcome proves that such experiments can be hugely engaging and add a very personal human perspective to matters that might seem purely scientific or incomprehensible to the average person.
The film’s director, Adam Ustynowicz explained best why he thinks infusing emotions into the world of unimaginably expensive robots and machines is important:
The spectre of artificial intelligence in no longer unreal, since the moment a machine passed the Turing’s test*. Thus, the very last borderline between machines and us are emotions.
*The Turing test is a test, developed by Alan Turing in 1950, of a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.
Author: Wojciech Oleksiak, 14 October 2016