free your mind from gravity

The exciting future of art in space

Miki Sode | Image by TOPIA

Why do we need art in space? Gravity-obsessed innovator Miki Sode (whose art really has been into space) is shooting for the moon on a mission to create a better world

In TOPIA series My World of Good, revolutionaries imagine better

ふわっと fuwatto
Japanese (noun)
– the state of floating in the air or weightlessness

Miki Sode was 15-years-old when she got the “space bug”. It was 1992 and Dr Mamoru ‘Mark’ Mohri (毛利 衛) was about to become the first Japanese astronaut to go into space. The live broadcast was a national event, with Japanese children watching in awe as he taught them about fuwatto (floating) aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour.

At this point, of course, the Tokyo schoolgirl had no idea that she would become the Commercial Innovation Manager for the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory – or the significant pull that gravity itself would later have on her interests. I asked Sode, who is now based in the San Francisco Bay Area, about the day that launched her own trajectory.

“The Space Shuttle Endeavour was a big deal for Japanese people and there were many festivities. One was an art contest, and I entered a drawing and won. The prize was the winning drawings being sent to space with Dr Mohri,” she explains. “Ever since I was seven, I would look at the sky full of stars and feel so insignificant compared to the cosmos out there. I haven’t been into space – but my art has!”

As a result, Miki Sode’s name was added to the database of the Japanese Space Agency, which meant she was inadvertently invited to attend the Asia Pacific International Space Year summit. Standing out for being the youngest attendee – in a school uniform amongst a sea of suits and ties – she got to meet the astronaut in person, and asked him whether she should study “science or art?” in college. Ah, the timeless quandary that pits these two disciplines as an age-old binary.

“And that was the second my life changed. He replied: ‘Why don’t you do both? Because there will be a day that anybody, including artists, will get to go to space and create things that couldn’t have been created without that experience.’ So I decided to study science and went on to got my Masters and PhD.”

“I studied astrophysics, aerospace engineering and medical imaging, which may seem different but all involve collecting data, analysing and seeing patterns, to ultimately to get key insights for actions – whether its understanding the characteristics of distant stars, using satellites to assess the status of deforestation, or using MRI and CT scans to understand what is going on inside of your body”.

Also inspired by the rise of the ‘NewSpace movement’ spearheaded by the bickering titans of SpaceX (Elon Musk) and Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos), it was really after the birth of her son that Sode knew she wanted her work to be important for future generations. And that art, creativity and an appreciation of beauty in nature would play a role.

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In space, pretty much everything is hyper-utilitarian, rather than meant for aesthetic purposes only. Yet one of the earliest pieces of space art was not actually brought into space, it was brought back from space by one of the early Apollo missions. Yes, I’m referring to the full photograph of the Earth – an image that combines art and science.

The Blue Marble from 1972 is profound because it’s both very scientific and maybe the most breathtaking aesthetic image any human has ever seen. It was the first time anybody had ever seen the Earth like that, and it evoked these feelings, this visceral sense that we were all one on this pale blue dot,” Sode says. “It wasn’t meant to be an art piece, but it changed the way people saw themselves in the universe and the world. It started the Earth Day movement and catalysed environmental consciousness everywhere.”

Removing a dominant force like gravity and seeing the Earth from space (the Overview Effect) gives us new insights for science discovery and technology development – and provides profound inspiration for arts and culture.

Miki Sode

It was later, during Sode’s five-year stint at the ISS National Laboratory – helping companies test new materials and medicines towards manufacturing in microgravity – that she discovered just how resistant the aerospace community is towards art experiments.

Today the Silicon Valley-based innovation strategist is the Space Lead at Futurity Systems, a Barcelona-based research and design venture studio that focuses on science-based innovation. She also teaches at Stanford’s prestigious d.school, encouraging undergraduates to shoot for the moon by melding human centred design in frontier tech – from habitats to food to spacecrafts, while understanding that this too is just a chapter in their mission-driven journey.

Long term, Sode is also shooting for the moon. She is on a mission to create an annual art and space conference and workshop where everybody – from artists to investors to museum curators to commercial space station operators to rocket companies – can be inspired to make space more accessible and inclusive. It will kick off in 2024.

In TOPIA series My World of Good, we ask a constellation of visionaries to craft a more positive universe. Guided by this mission, I had the stellar pleasure of inviting Miki Sode to embark on an orbit around the Earth, harnessing her inspirations, tips and hacks to shape her ideal world.

Miki Sode: In My World of Good…

1. Everyone has watched Powers of Ten

The 1977 film Powers of Ten, by Charles and Ray Eames puts everything – from atoms to universe – in the correct perspective in terms of scale. It also cleverly demonstrates there’s a universe at an atomic level as well as in a celestial level.

I have always liked to reflect on the bigger picture. For example, looking at distant stars using radio telescopes, observing Earth’s CO2 distribution using satellites and assessing what is happening inside your body using medical imaging modalities may appear to have nothing in common on a surface. But a systems level perspective will serve you well when you least expect it: they are all about teasing out meaningful insights from data towards action.

2. People respect nature

It’s when I can truly connect with nature, and my (empty) mind and body that I can truly be care-free, and just “be”. I love how the air suddenly changes when you step into the threshold of a sacred place that’s been carefully treasured and admired for ages, like a shrine. There’s nothing that compares to the Saihoji moss temple in Kyoto, Japan. The garden (woods, really) is covered in beautiful moss and delicately cared for centuries. The experience is so grounding and fundamental – it directly speaks to your soul. No technology can replace this experience.

3. Everyone has read The Beast Player

Recently my family listened to the audiobook of The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi, a Japanese Professor of Ethnology at Kawamura Gakuen Women’s University. One of Japan’s best fantasy writers, she completed a PhD focusing on the Yamatji, an Indigenous Australian people.

This story illustrates a relationship between human and nature (as in, other animals). It’s about the beauty of living harmoniously together but shows an ugliness complicated by the ego of humans in attempting to control nature for their benefits. Everyone should read it to understand the delicacy of our relationship with nature – to not only raise awareness that we are a part of nature, but also appreciation and respect for what we have.

4. We open our ears to stories

I once met a mentor and she told me this: “Being an outsider is your unfair advantage. Embrace it.” I love to hear about real stories of people from all walks of life.

I’m not a reader but I’m a lifetime learner – my hack is listening to consume information via audiobooks and podcasts. The Moth is my all time favorite. Many stories made me laugh out loud, shed my tears and chill to the bones.

5. We are mindful of time

My favourite advice is by Chris Bennett, the Nike Running Global Head coach, who has been described as the real life Tad Lasso! He says…

You can’t save time.
But you can waste it.

You can’t win time.
But you can lose it.

You can’t earn time.
But you can spend it.

And you can’t buy back time.
But you can own the time you’ve got.

6. Optimism rules

I like Simon Sinek‘s books, especially the Infinite Game and often listen to his podcast, A Bit of Optimism. I like that his insights and messages are authentic, thoughtful, human and well thought out to a point of ‘wisdom’.

7. We collaborate to innovate solutions

In the last year of my time at the ISS National Lab, I led a project with the World Design Organization about creative brainstorming and design thinking about space. I was shocked to see how big the divide is between the world of art and design, and science and technology. People in both domains think, experiment and implement – but as if they are speaking in different languages. If only we can all master a common language, we can bridge the divide, deepen appreciation for the other domain, and collaborate better towards innovative solutions.

If I could collaborate with any innovators to do something truly impactful, I’d go for Astro Teller, the Captain of Moonshots at X, the Moonshot Factory; the very wise and kind Jacyl Shaw as I feel we have a strong synergy; and Rabih Ibrahim, my kindred spirit.

8. Capitalism would be abolished

We are all enslaved by it.

As the ISS was built using taxpayers money, there’s a mandate to show the return on investment. While we all know that art has an immense impact on humanity, it is not as easy to assign dollars for its value – unlike technology. If money is the mainstream way to measure and communicate success and impact, let’s talk about that and lay it all out, to bring it to the level playing field set by capitalism. But also, we need better ways to measure impact so people can truly appreciate impact in its entirety.

9. People think critically

If I could change one thing it would be for everybody to practice taking a moment, trusting one’s intelligence – and really thinking critically.

With technological advancement, our life has been getting efficient and “easier”, but we are becoming overly dependent and lazy about using our innate abilities. That, I believe, is an invisible epidemic, and causing many issues we are facing now, from war to global warming to… you name it.

10. I’d have cat power!

I’d actually love to be half-(house) cat, half-human because I love how cats behave and live – essentially, as they please. I am also envious of their tail, ears and whiskers! But I’d like to hold on to my human-level intelligence. And if I could possess any superpower, I would want to have telekinesis! I have a lot of thoughts in my head but if we need to move our body to make things happen, that’s inefficient.

My very real superpowers are the ability to reset my brain via power napping (like a cat!), having a keen memory and seeing patterns in the big picture.

11. I get to do craft daily

I love knitting, sewing, drawing and baking because these are the quickest way to get into a state of flow and creativity. I also love to make extravagant cakes for my son’s birthdays.

12. I would eat figs every day!

I just love figs… and have good memories to go with them. My grandparents had fig trees in their backyard. When I visit them, my grandfather will go climb up those trees (he had old skis across branches as a scaffold to stand on) to get them for me. Because they had so many figs, my grandma would turn them into fig jam. We froze it and ate on my toast every day throughout the year growing up. I like the health benefits of figs (good source of potassium, calcium and fiber) and their mysterious biology. The flowers are inside the fruit and need small wasps to get inside to pollinate!

13. Culture is preserved

I like the concepts of museums as spaces where people gather to get inspired, get new perspectives, and interact with the sense of awe about nature and humanity and within each other. They house and treasures many cool things that are important and valuable, that are worth sharing and preserving.

14. We dream together

I love playfulness and wish everybody could get to enjoy life with friends and families. We had a Fender Rhodes growing up, and I remember my dad learning how to play ‘Wave’ by Antonio Carlos Jobim. It suggests impermanence in a lovely, delightful, and positive way: “So close your eyes. For that’s a lovely way to be. Aware of things your heart alone was meant to see. The fundamental loneliness goes whenever two can dream a dream together”.

15. We free our minds from gravity

I would like to be remembered as a person who bridged a gap between art and science, freed our minds from gravity, and enabled more people to play in space! Similarly, depending on what lens you use, what you see differs. This NASA page has comparisons of how celestial bodies (like a nebula) look different, whether in the visible light of the Hubble Space Telescope vs infrared of the James Webb Space Telescope. This applies to many things in life, beyond astronomy.

Removing what’s given can reveal hidden features of life and physical processes. I always wonder: what novel insights and expressions might result by removing a hidden and dominant force, like gravity – for humanity?

Miki Sode’s tips of Good people to follow

1. Cedric Grolet – His pastries are fine art! That engineering, design, creativity, attention to details that go into creating something that tickles all senses in a delicious way.
2. Danielle Wood – A very thoughtful researcher who is passionate about making space-enabled data and technology available to more people, especially those who benefit the most.
3. Coach Bennett – I love running to his coaching. It’s about running, but it’s not about running.
4. Simon Sinek – All his optimistic work inspires me regardless of the format.
5. Jacyl Shaw – we have a strong synergy and I have a lot to learn from her.

What’s so good about this?

Today, the need for art to come together with science is more urgent than ever. Check out Futurity Systems‘ lush new speculative lifestyle magazine, inTENSE, which offers a dress rehearsal of the future by exploring how deep tech will shape the world around us in 2030.

This story is part of a future-focused series with TOPIA and Futurity Systems that allows us to imagine better. Read all the features.

Meet the writer

Lisa Goldapple is the creative brain behind the world of TOPIA. The magazine’s Editor-in-chief has been creating shows for MTV, BBC, Vice, TVNZ, National Geographic and more since the noughties. Then created social good platform, Atlas of the Future. Today her desk faces the trippy side of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which might explain a few things. To understand how TOPIA came out of this rare brain, read ‘Mind Blown’. As she puts it: “If life splinters and you hallucinate triangles, make a kaleidoscope.”

Follow @lisagoldapple on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. (Open to freelance collaborations.)

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