While living in the International Space Station 220 miles away from the Earth’s surface, NASA astronaut Don Petitt experimented with whether it’s possible to grow a zucchini in space. His friend made a Twitter account for the burgeoning vegetable, which, to Petitt’s dismay, garnered more followers than his personal account.
Pettit’s “Zucchini Diary” was one of many stories the oldest, active NASA astronaut shared with an audience of 40 attendees at the Yale Center for Collaborative Arts and Media on Wednesday. In his discussion, he discussed the intersection between artistic discovery and scientific inquiry — a subject he became familiar with while taking photos from and living aboard the ISS. The event is part of the Wednesday Wisdom visiting art series, open to the entire Yale community.
“Space is my frontier,” Pettit said. “Go to your frontier and do whatever observations you want … and transfer what you learn to the rest of humanity.”
Selected by NASA in 1996, Pettit is a three-time veteran of space travel. He has been to the ISS for stints in 2002, 2008 and 2011. In total, he has spent more than 370 days in space and has completed over 13 spacewalk hours. He is known for spreading his love of science in his accessible experiment videos called Saturday Morning Science, which showcase small-level science experiments.
Pettit augmented his talk with images he took from space, placing each image in its context and explaining the artistic process involved in capturing each moment. The images ranged from colorful shots of auroras to breathtaking pictures of city nights.
In his talk, Pettit explained that human photographers offered a new perspective of space that could not be captured by satellite imagery. Satellites are programmed to avoid taking pictures of sunlight, which occurs when the sun’s rays reflect off the surface of the ocean at the same angle as the satellite. The intensity of the glare can damage the satellites’ camera lenses. Still, astronauts in space have managed to capture the phenomenon with a telephoto lens. The resulting pictures reveal grand seascapes in extreme detail — surface topography differences down to the level of centimeters. In addition to their beauty, the pictures are key to a better scientific understanding of tidal movements.
Paul Noel, an instructional specialist from the physics department who attended the event, praised Pettit’s ability to combine art with science.
“Showing the turbulent flows and what you could analyze from their patterns is artistically beautiful but also so important for science,” Noel said.
Photographers in space are also able to record thunderstorms, hurricanes and comets all from the window of a space station. Pettit says that he uses multiple cameras at once to capture moments that can change very quickly.
According to Pettit, the rewards gained by taking photos from space are not without challenges. At night, Earth’s orbital motion caused long exposure shots to become blurry and beautiful city lights to change into streaks of yellow. To counteract this effect, Pettit came up with his own solution — the Barn Door Tracker. Usually used by photographers on Earth hoping to counter Earth’s rotation when taking pictures of the night sky, the Barn Door Tracker allows a camera to manually counteract Earth’s rotation through carefully calculated counter-movement. Pettit used the limited resources he could find aboard the Space station to build his makeshift tool. With only a drill and a screw fashioned onto the camera, Pettit’s innovation allowed photographers in space to take up to three or four high-resolution photos at a time at night. Today, improved camera technology makes the Barn Door Tracker obsolete.
In addition to the blurriness of the photos, astronomers must deal with damage to the cameras caused by cosmic radiation.
“Cosmic rays in space do more damage to camera equipment than they do to you,” Pettit said.
NASA must replace camera bodies entirely every 10 to 12 years because of radiation, Pettit said. But for him, taking the photos was only part of the artistic process.
“Being a photographer is more than just clicking the button or taking the picture, it’s what you do with the pictures afterward,” he said.
In addition to photography, Pettit began to explore his creative side in other ways during his many mornings in ISS. He wanted to be able to celebrate accomplishments on board the Station in the traditional manner, made more complicated by space’s lack of gravity — toasting with a glass. The lack of gravity requires astronauts to sip their liquids with straws out of bags, a decidedly less satisfying celebration.
Remembering a lesson from school about surface tension, Pettit attempted to replicate the effects of gravity with fluid dynamics. It took him only one try to create the first space cup — a teardrop shaped plastic container held together with only a few pieces of special nonflammable tape. The unique shape of the cup and the zero-gravity environment allow for the liquid to flow through the crevice of the acute angle of the teardrop, no matter which angle the cup is being held.
“The cup he designed … looked like it came from the mind of an artist more than [from] a mathematical equation, even though it is from an equation,” Noel said.
Working with Portland State University, Pettit formalized his make-shift design to develop the zero-g cup. The cups were featured in the May 2009 National Geographic issue.
At the end of the lecture, Pettit noted that his time as a photographer in space allowed him a greater appreciation for the beauty of Earth. He said that experiences on the ISS taught him to always search for new ways to innovate.
“It’s probably one of the ten most amazing events that I have attended here at Yale,” Cynthia Parker, a resident of New Haven, said. “He’s wonderfully adept at relating with the audience.”
Center for Collaborative Arts and Media is located on 149 York Street.
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