Space sensory immersion

How can we create sensory-rich environments in outer space?

I love living in a snowy city. Not because I particularly enjoy skiing, or the extreme sport of trudging through knee-high banks of salty ice, or even shovelling my way out into civilization on a daily basis. What I love is the complete transformation of the larger environment, as if the space we live in is suddenly the venue for an extreme immersive installation art experience. All our senses are forced to shift. The world appears softer, whiter, and smudgier. Our sense of touch is suddenly colder and crisper. Hot drinks taste richer and we revel in pungent, spicy stews. Sounds are muffled by slow-falling fat, wooly snowflakes and footsteps creak brightly as the temperature drops. The cold air in our nostrils is clear and sharp. Our personal physical, mental and spiritual self shifts in alignment with this fully immersive natural artistic event. We crave, and are satisfied by, the variety of the seasons.

Being so connected to our environment on this level is a clear indication that we are tied to planet earth and its environment not only via gravity or birthright, but through the subtle threads of our sensory experiences. How then, can we hope to exist long-term in an environment of total sensory deprivation – the vacuum of outer space?

On-orbit sensory confusion

In a series of short videos filmed on the International Space Station in 2013, Chris Hadfield touched briefly on the sensory experiences of an astronaut living in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). While space itself is a vacuum, life inside the protection of the ISS means a re-arrangement of the five senses. Everything seems to come with a price. While the views of the earth and stars are astonishing, the eyeballs themselves deteriorate due to fluid shifts from the lack of gravity. Touch is relocated from the bottom of feet to the sensitive skin on the top, as astronauts attempt to ground themselves by hooking their limbs into straps, forming calluses in unusual places. Taste buds are dulled, blocked by cold-like symptoms that develop from swollen sinuses. As a result, stronger, spicier foods are desired. The total silence of space is drowned out by constant internal mechanical din from the spaceship, a necessity for life support. Smells must be kept to a minimum in this recycled environment, as there is no escape from potentially unpleasant or hazardous odours. The one smell that is pervasive, trapped inside the airlock by astronauts returning from spacewalks, is a faintly gunpowder-like scent. It is the perfume of outer space, burnt and metallic.

Humans thrive in natural environments with a variety of sensory experiences. While shorter term LEO or suborbital adventures provide dazzling views of our planet and a curiously gunrange-scented porch to the universe, longer term missions will have to focus on satisfying the physical, mental and spiritual needs usually provided by our earthly environment, rich in variety. The farther we travel, the smaller the earth will become, until we are left only with the monotonous, barren landscape of Mars, and the hum of our metal ship. A life vessel equipped only to sustain the bare minimum of life, without thought to the range of human senses, will not take us far. We need to get creative in working to bring together engineering, medicine, architecture, culinary sciences, chemistry, biology and art. We need mechanical, space-ready sensory solutions that are healthy, safe, robust, profound, and delightfully soulful.

The music of the spheres

One beautifully simple solution, suggested frequently in the sci-fi television series Star Trek: The Next Generation and practiced in reality by a number of astronauts as far back as 1965, is the playing of musical instruments in space. Whether traditional or new, the filling of the senses with sounds beyond the whirr and hum of the bus is a given. We would never dream of taking a road trip across the country without music, and similarly great care is taken to provide astronauts with musical environments. The expression and experience of harmony, rhythm and melody is not a luxury, but a core human quality. What would the positive outcome be then, if equal importance was given to all five sensory experiences during space travel?

The smell of the moon

Arguably the most often ignored and yet controversial sense – smell – has been an ongoing focus for space artists Sue Corke and Hagen Betzwieser of We Colonized The Moon. Last month at Bargehouse on the South Bank of London, UK, I was fortunate to take part in a comical yet sublime immersive experience described as “The most extreme live moon smelling ever”. Featured in The Arts Catalyst’s Kosmica: Full Moon Party as part of the touring Republic of the Moon exhibit, this olfactory participatory event managed to both delight and no doubt terrify some of the audience members present.

While the fat full moon shone somewhere outside under cover of London rain, inside the crowded gallery space the mishmash of space enthusiasts and art lovers were each handed a floating round white balloon and a toothpick. The balloons were filled with a mixture of helium and a custom designed moondust scent created by perfumer Steve Pearce of Omega Ingredients Ltd. On the count of three, everyone popped their balloon and breathed deeply. In a series of assaulting bangs, the glowing orbs transformed into a comical rain of white rubber as the room became heavy with a strangely sweet yet heavily metallic scent. In this shared sensory experience, the international group became one: no longer located in London but somehow standing on the moon as a motley group of space-time travellers, with flaccid bits of broken, oily, perfumed rubber lying on our heads, shoulders, and at our feet. If such an event can bring us to the moon in a moment, connecting us to the early Apollo astronauts, surely we can find a way to bring lonely space travellers back to Earth when they most need it, with a quick controlled whiff of home.

Touching space and time

Also presenting at the Kosmica Full Moon event was Argentinian-born artist Tomás Saraceno. Saraceno’s architectural installations Cloud Cities and On Space Time Foam also immerse the audience, enveloping them not in smell, but in a full-body touch suspended network. Touch is not just a one-on-one experience where the audience member encounters an object in space, but rather the participatory audience member becomes part of an interconnected network of people in a suspended space. As each person moves, the tension holding or enveloping them slackens or tightens, sending out ripples that require everyone to adjust their position or motion. Once again, the experience is both singular and connected to all others, equally delightful and frightening. It is sensory rich and thoughtful.

Although projects like We Colonized The Moon and On Space Time Foam are currently tethered to Earth and not directly applicable to current spacecraft design, they represent the type of inspiring action and creation needed to point us toward stimulating solutions for dull space environments. Perhaps even more importantly, they remind us that we are interconnected, that fear of engagement and change lives hand-in-hand with delight, and that we thrive when fully engaged on all levels. We are so much more than bare mechanical bones. We are our environment.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to an article on or address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome thoughtful and articulate Letters to the Editor. You can email yours to: justin(at)theindependent(dot)ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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