By Pel Beyak
In front of a NASA hangar, a small crowd of people watched a remote-controlled steel ball roll past an electric sports car, while electronic music thumped in the background. An abstract, winged sculpture spurted fire. A trio of dancing girls twisted and contorted themselves up 30-foot white ribbons. Will Wright, computer-game designer of SimCity and speaker for the event, described the night as “Burning Man meets NASA.”
The event was a tribute to Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who became the first human to enter space. For the past two years, NASA has celebrated the anniversary of this historic event by hosting a party where scientists share their research, artists display their work, entertainers take the stage, and the public can visit them all. For $40 per ticket, “Yuri’s Night” brought a crowd of 8,000 to ponder the future of humanity not just in the final frontier, but on our home planet as well.
This year’s theme, “Radical Technology for a Sustainable Future,” attracted many projects with environmental benefits to the tarmac in front of the massive NASA hangar that housed the event. Tesla Motors wheeled in an all-electric sports car. The zero-emissions vehicle was designed using more than 6,000 laptop batteries and gets 220 miles per charge.
The car manages to go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in four seconds. “It’s just a dream to drive,” said Erik Goossens, a mechanical engineer for Tesla Motors.
Some exhibitions were almost too futuristic to believe. A company called NeuroSky had a video game available that allowed visitors to don a headset and move objects in the game using only their thoughts. The headset senses the difference between brain waves created by passive brain activity and those created through concentration.
Throughout the night the connection between art and science for the sake of environmentalism grew stronger. Artist Zachary Jones displayed a human-sized funnel of water that flowed continuously. After night fell, the funnel was illuminated. The vortex was a method for purifying water as it flowed. Pollutants predictably follow a path through the water, making them easy to extract.
“The arts are ultimately the source of new technologies,” Jones said. “Before semiconductors, there was ceramic science. Before that, we had pottery.”
Jones described the appeal for art projects of the sort that inspire changes in thought.
“I’m very interested in the way that new consciousness is generated out of art,” Jones said. “And the new language that emerges out of that.”
Yuri’s mission was for science, not art, but he succeeded in making people conscious of Earth’s beauty from such a high vantage point. Following his lead, the theme of the night explored ways to live on Earth while respecting the beauty that Yuri saw.
During the event, a video message on a big screen from the commander of the International Space Station (ISS) read, “We are celebrating Yuri’s Night from the ISS, while marveling at how precious our world really is.”