College of Lake County dean, Italian astronaut collaborate on space station art
Every day since November 2000, six men and women have been living and working aboard the International Space Station. The astronauts' 12-hour days are spent studying and conducting scientific research.
On a recent voyage, Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli carved out personal time to make 150 photographs of the space station. Nespoli worked off detailed instructions sent to him from Earth by Roland Miller, a dean at the College of Lake County and noted space program photographer.
Miller has had his photos of abandoned space program facilities and the space shuttle program on exhibit at art museums and space science centers across the country. He said documenting the space station, or ISS, was the logical next step.
"The ISS is one of the most advanced structures that humans ever have built, but it will not last forever," Miller said. "We need to photograph what the ISS looked like, and that includes the interior as well as the exterior."
The resulting photos are a hybrid of fine art and documentary.
One photo shows the entrance to the Cupola module, a section of the ISS that has large windows facing Earth that bear a resemblance to the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon from "Star Wars." Outside the windows, a curious cloud pattern snakes its way across Earth.
Another photo shows the detail of an astronaut's workstation, complete with a bag filled with an assortment of tools labeled "Land of Misfit Toys."
The project is one of just a few times such an artistic feat was accomplished in space.
Among those who appreciate Miller's work is former astronaut Catherine "Cady" Coleman, who said his work is celebrated by many in the space program.
"I really want to thank Roland for making the space station home for more than just the people who get to go there," Coleman said of Miller's ISS project.
Coleman spent six months on the ISS starting in December 2010. While there, she played a flute duet with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull in the first Earth-space art collaboration.
Miller said he thought their music project was a great model that he could adopt into the visual arts. Miller has long photographed space equipment and structures on Earth. His 2016 book, "Abandoned in Place: Preserving America's Space History," collected 113 images of facilities across the nation that once played a crucial role in the space race.
"There is something very compelling about his photographs that capture the spirit of those places," Coleman said.
Miller was lucky that Nespoli, who learned photography while in the Italian Army, was scheduled to go back to space. Coleman worked with Nespoli on the ISS, so when Miller told her about his project idea, she knew Nespoli would be the perfect collaborator and reached out to him on Miller's behalf.
"There's not always going to be someone who is going to be the eyes and ears for another photographer," Coleman said. "Paolo has the eyes and ears and the soul to do that for someone else."
During their first phone call, Nespoli told Miller how important he felt it was to connect the humanities with the sciences and preserve the ISS. Miller said he knew he'd gotten the right person for the project.
Miller spent hundreds of hours taking pictures on Earth to send to the space station for Nespoli to replicate in microgravity. First Miller took photographs of the full-scale ISS mock-up at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Later he would use Google's 360-degree view of the space station and send along screenshots.
Even with Miller's reference photos, capturing the view on the actual space station wasn't as easy as pointing and shooting.
The space station is traveling through space at around 17,500 mph and slightly vibrates, so stabilizing the camera was an issue. Thanks to the microgravity, traditional photography tripods were rendered useless.
So Nespoli improvised and mashed together two support arms -- designed to keep small objects from floating around the station -- to achieve the necessary stability.
Miller said during the six months Nespoli was aboard the ISS the astronaut probably spent four to six hours on the project, time Miller greatly appreciates.
"It was an enormous amount of time," Miller said. "It might be his last trip in space and he spent part of it working on this project."
After he returned to Earth, Nespoli met Miller in Washington, D.C., to do a series of videos on the project. Their conversation touched on the future of art in space.
"I'm thinking while I'm up there, my pictures were good, but what would happen if there would be a photographer like you that for six months would concentrate on taking pictures," Nespoli said to Miller. "I can only imagine what could come out of there."
Coleman shared Nespoli's desire to open up space to artists.
"Doing things like music and art and poetry up there is just bringing humanity to space," Coleman said. "Not just getting work done but being humans up there."
The two men are working to put their photos into a book and to exhibit their work in the U.S. and in Italy, but Miller said there is no timetable for either project.