Michael Benson: “We Were Never Expelled from Eden.”

Michael Benson is a multimedia artist and journalist with a passion for space. His most recent book, Planetfall is his love letter to our Solar System.

On July 20th 1969, the world forgot about its many wars and conflicts and differences—at least for one day— as Neil Armstrong became a living synecdoche for “mankind,” taking “one small step” onto the ancient lunar soil of the Mare Tranquillitatis.

Less than three and a half years later, on December 11th, 1972, Eugene Cernan became the last man to leave a boot print on the Moon. No one born after 1935 has set foot on the Moon.

Forty-two years after Apollo 11, on July 8, 2011, NASA launched the last Space Shuttle, Atlantis, on its final mission. The Shuttle is the only manned craft to have achieved orbit and land, and the only reusable craft to have made multiple flights into space.

Planetfall is Benson’s newest project: a meticulously curated series of “planetscapes,” using images from NASA and the European Space Agency. Benson carefully edits the chosen images, many of which start out as black and white raw frames, and composites them to make color images, which are frequently then tiled with neighboring frames to make panoramic mosaic composites.

The photographs are rich and compelling; sometimes craters appear so cavernous that to look down at the image is to feel a slight whisper of the fear of heights. Images of the sun are fearsome and remind you that sometimes you can love something and also know to keep your distance.

Mars, a major character in Planetfall, is warm and a little romantic, and dare I say, Tataouine-esque, just like we’d always hoped.

The sleek rings of Saturn remind you that you can’t and don’t have everything.

These images of space are remarkable because, as Benson himself writes, “space is the best expression of zero in the realm of the physical.” The carefully chosen images convey great, unfathomable distance and magnitude: truly, space. Although being so small in a vastness we can barely comprehend is quite scary, it is also exciting to try to comprehend, and to search for all the interesting pieces of the puzzle: all the places that exist for humanity to witness.

Benson, whose hunger for space exploration is so infectious that he convinced science fiction luminary Arthur C. Clarke to write an introduction to his previous work, Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes, makes the reader of Planetfall feel simultaneously omniscient and humbled.

Ying Zhu: Could you please describe some of the processes you use to create your artwork?

Michael Benson: Well, it can get a bit arcane, but I’ll try. First there’s the whole process of data mining, in which I go through the quite voluminous data archives of individual planetary missions, or other kinds of deep space missions, looking for extraordinary individual black and white raw frames. (Because they always originate as black and white raw frames.) Then in order to make a color picture, the spacecraft has to have taken images of the same region of the same subject through two or more filters. With luck, these are red, green and blue filters, and then you can make an RGB color composite by assigning each black and white shot its spectral position, and then stacking them and aligning them, creating a composite. So there’s a kind of enjoyable alchemy, if I can put it that way, in which you take sometimes iffy black and white frames, and transmute them into color images.

But frequently only a couple filters are available within the spectral range visible to the naked eye. You know, these missions aren’t designed to produce color landscape photography. They are tools of scientific discovery. And so infrared or ultraviolet filters, or filters in various wavelengths outside the spectral range of human vision, are used quite a bit, as they can help researchers to see various details, say in the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan, which is opaque in visible wavelengths. And in those cases, a more advanced kind of “alchemy” has to be practiced, in order to get a good true-color image, I mean. For example, if you have a good red filter and a good blue filter, a synthetic green one can be produced by mixing those two; green is in between red and blue on the spectral table. And there are lots of variations there, in which for example green and infra-red can be mixed to produce a reasonable synthetic red picture. But this really takes us a bit too far into the nuts and bolts, I’m afraid…

And let me mention another issue: spacecraft speed. Since multiple shots need to be put together, and because a spacecraft can be moving at a high rate of speed, there can be problems aligning those frames, even if they were taken at about the same time. After all, sometimes these spacecraft are flying faster than a rifle bullet. This is obviously not a problem with Mars surface shots, in which the rover is typically stock still when it takes the various images that can be assembled later.

Oh and one more thing. Almost all of the images in Planetfall are also mosaics, meaning they are comprised of multiple composited color frames. So a spacecraft can be ordered to take multiple narrow field shots of, say, Saturn and its moons, which can then be assembled, jigsaw-puzzle style, into panoramic views comprising dozens or even hundreds of individual camera pointings. And this introduces other issues, in particularly because of the time lapse between the beginning and end of such an image collecting campaign.

What makes an interesting shot for you?

Well, I’m always on the lookout for the jaw-droppingly revelatory, be it a single view or a series of shots that when assembled will produce the same sensation. And it’s very subjective, but it’s informed by all the panning for gold in archives I’ve been doing for years. I love the process, but there is inevitably a period of winnowing the images down, editing, “killing your darlings.” And there are a number of pictures that I wish I could have fit into the book. By now Eric Himmel, the editor in chief of Abrams Books, is used to my eleventh-hour appeal for more pages. He always turns me down, in a benevolent way! It’s practically a ritual between us by now. And he’s always right; less is more.

In many ways my whole visual engagement with the Solar System over the last decade and more was a personal effort to use the raw visual data, the results of a mind-boggling 50 years of planetary exploration, to increase that zone within the natural world that I can comfortably say is at least somewhat familiar. That belongs, in other words, to the realm of the provisionally known. And so I’m always looking for the best visual illustration of that enlargement of our visual sphere. And then I’ve been fortunate in being able to partner with Abrams Books, and later the Smithsonian Institution, to try to export that knowledge to a larger public as well. But as with most artistic endeavors, because that’s really what it is, it started as a personal project, as something I wanted to do for myself – something that I could have a chance of looking at and saying, “now that’s cool.”

Is there one planet or moon that you find the most beautiful, or is it more about certain textures, light patterns or colors?

Oh, certainly there is a movable feast out there, and Saturn is utterly awe-inspiring, to say nothing of the immense canyons and volcanoes of Mars. These all figure very much in my published and printed work. But if I would have to choose I would have to say that apart from Earth, the single most astonishing planet in the Solar System is Jupiter, the largest planet, with its raging storm belts and super-fast spin. You know, when The Atlantic recently asked me essentially the same question, I answered that Jupiter proved to be just as awe-inspiring as the Ancients somehow intuited when they named it after the King of the Gods. It even has a baleful red cyclopean eye, which pans endlessly, an eye of Jove casting its sweeping gaze forever across the Solar System. A big red stare. It’s actually a gigantic anti-cyclonic storm system more than three times the diameter of Earth, and it has been raging for at least 348 years, and probably many more.

And apart from awesome Jupiter itself, the planet has an archipelago of its own, including four truly large moons, the Galilean satellites, which were discovered by Galileo on January 7th, 1610. Two of which are either larger in diameter than planet Mercury or about the same size, and two of which are closer in size to our own Moon. And these are also incredibly interesting. So for example the innermost, an extraordinary firecracker named Io, stands out as one of the Solar System’s most idiosyncratic objects. By far the most volcanic place ever observed, Io is subject to a kind of endless stop-and-go squeezing as its sister moons swing by on outer orbits, pulling it in an opposite direction from Jupiter’s powerful gravitational field. The resulting friction has heated Io’s interior into magma, and at least 400 volcanoes can be observed erupting continuously, replacing the moon’s orange-yellow surface with materials from its molten interior. And by the way a similar friction-inducing gravitational flux is thought to be the reason why Io’s closest neighbor moon, Europa, can maintain a vast global subsurface liquid water ocean so far from the Sun.

Do you try to color black-and-white images based on scientific fact or based on your own artistic views? How scientifically accurate would you say your art is?

Oh always scientific fact, at least as a baseline. I’m against artificially colored solar system images when they are presented as photography rather than scientific illustration. When they are in the latter category, of course, anything goes; many of those filters are there to see things our eyes normally can’t, as I’ve already said. But given how remote from actual experience these landscapes are, I always try to hew to what the visible-light filters are saying would be visible to our eyes. And from there, once I have that baseline, I then feel free to produce and print images that benefit from the usual photographer’s bag of tools, meaning tweaking contrast and upping resolution and so forth. But I’d like to think that’s all really art at the service of truth, so to speak. At least with this kind of project.

I tend to recoil when I see super-saturated images of Saturn in false colors, the kind of thing you see all the time. The Solar System is stunning enough without needing to drape it in artificial coloration.

How did Arthur C. Clarke’s writing inspire you? Can you tell us about your meeting with him?

He has been a lifelong inspiration, particularly the early fiction — Childhood’s End, most notably, and of course 2001: A Space Odyssey — and also the far less well-known non-fiction work, which mostly concerns our possibilities as a species to expand within proximate solar system space. He was really a kind of propagandist for the expansion of the human race into the cosmos, and I use that term in its most positive way. Actually I remember joking with him — he was always cracking jokes, by the way; he was the opposite of a solemn person — and I said that if Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Hermann Oberth and Herman Potocnik Noordung were sort of like the Marx, Lenin and Engles of the space age, then Clarke was the Trotsky: the propagandist.

He sort of chuckled and admitted there might be something to that — but then said he would hope to avoid Trotsky’s fate!

But seriously, the reason he was more than that — more than just a propagandist, within this admittedly somewhat ridiculous comparison to the Communist gods — is that Clarke also made a very substantial theoretical contribution. After all, he proposed the geosynchronous communications satellite, in a paper published in the British journal Wireless World in 1945.

Who are some of the other figures that have inspired you?

Certainly Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky; such poets as Czeslaw Milosz and Cesar Vallejo, among others; Stanley Kubrick, particularly because of 2001: A Space Odyssey; French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, author of The Psychoanalysis of Fire and The Poetics of Space; and many others. Of living writers, and long may hat continue, Lawrence Weschler, author of Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, andSeeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. He has always been a big source of encouragement and support.

Have you ever read any of Stanislaw Lem’s writing?

Oh sure, I really love a lot of it. He was as much a chronicler of Central European, and thus universal, human absurdity as Kafka, in his way, even if he is most remembered for his more “straight” sci-fi work, such as Solaris. I’m referring to weirder Earth-centered works such as Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. I haven’t read as much Lem as I should have, but I’d like to think there’s still time!

Do you ever dream of going into space and seeing the objects of your art in person?

Well I’m tempted to shamelessly rip off Bucky Fuller, who when asked towards then end of his life if he regretted never having gone into space, reportedly answered: Well, where the hell do you think we are? But seriously, of course I would love to go, and in particular given that it is technically within the realm of possibility, it had occurred to me to try to raise sufficient support to make a documentary on the ISS. Guess who would shoot it? Given that a ticket on a Soyuz can be had for between 15 and 20 million, which is the budget of a low budget dramatic feature, it isn’t impossible to dream that kind of dream.

I’ve also had the amazing experience, in December 1999, of experiencing zero gravity onboard one of the Russian Space Agency’s Ilyushin-76 cosmonaut training aircraft. So I’ve sampled the ecstasy of weightlessness — and believe me, that’s not too strong a term; it is truly an amazing sensation.

So yes, sign me up.

What is a too-distant or invisible astronomical phenomenon in the universe that you’d like to be able to capture?

Planets around other suns! It would be amazing to be able to see those so-called “hot Jupiters,” for example, gas giant worlds extremely close to their parent star. Not to mention other green worlds… The latter being the holy grail, I don’t need to tell you.

Have you been following NASA’s extrasolar planet search (Kepler)?

Yes, and it’s amazing! I’m truly grateful that we have had the wherewithal to fund and launch that project. At least that; I mean, they killed the Terrestrial Planet Finder, but at least we have Kepler. And when it comes to extrasolar discovery, the revelations are coming thick and fast, with the October 18th announcement by astronomers working with the European Southern Observatory (of the discovery of an Earth-sized planet in a close orbit of one of the three stars that constitute the Alpha Centauri system) being only one of the most recent findings. That’s the closest star system to our own Solar System! This is incredible, and confirms that although by the nature of the way we detect planets around other stars, the giant planets are far easier to detect than smaller ones, we are now getting data that confirms what everyone suspects, namely that smaller worlds of a scale similar to our own are also prevalent. They’re just harder to spot, given the distances involved and our current level of technological achievement.

It’s easy to speculate about a whole cornucopia of planetary forms and features out there. It’s a truism to say that nature just continuously confounds us with the depth and breadth of its innovations and improvisations.

You’ve written extensively about the value of a society that is dedicated to space exploration. Yet it feels like NASA is always fighting a losing battle for government funding and public interest. What do you think we should be doing as a society to make sure that we don’t give up on space exploration?

Well, while a society specifically dedicated to that pursuit is hopelessly utopian, and probably not even desirable, I remember Arthur Clarke pointing me towards a quote by his predecessor, early sci-fi master H. G. Wells, author of The War of the Worlds. Wells wrote, “The choice is the Universe, or nothing.” And I agree. And to be specific, as you allude to, I have argued in various Op-Eds that NASA should be devoting much more of its resources to trying to explicate what might be going on in the vast global ocean under the ice surface of Jupiter’s satellite Europa. Certainly if we discovered life elsewhere, there would be a lot of public support for space science, and specifically a serious research effort focused on discovering what we can about it. For me Europa is the single most enigmatic and fascinating extraterrestrial world within the Solar System. Europa is so visually strange that it matches or exceeds most science fictional speculations of the 20th century – for example even Solaris, which after all is also about a global ocean. The Europan surface is a stunningly weird amalgamation of cracks on cracks, fault-lines spanning ridges bordering refrozen melt-through zones, with the latter filled with rotated and refrozen icebergs. But Europa is utterly tantalizing for another reason: all the available evidence points to it having possessed a subsurface liquid water ocean for millennia, for eons; an ocean that appears to have all the preconditions necessary to have developed life. So the multi-billion dollar question is of course, has it developed life? Is something alive in all that liquid water? If so, what might it look like? If not, why not? One estimate has it that Europa may have several times as much liquid water as all the oceans of Earth combined.

So yes, of course NASA should be better funded; it gets less than half a penny of each federal tax dollar! And although there’s no doubt that a mission to Europa is far more expensive and tricky than one to Mars, unfortunately a misplaced assumption has taken hold that discovering whether life has evolved in the Europan ocean must necessarily require landing on its surface, then somehow melting an automated submarine through what by all accounts is an ice crust that’s many miles thick in most places. And needless to say, that’s a very, very tricky and expensive proposition indeed.

But in fact that’s erroneous. The Europan surface provides clear evidence that subsurface water has welled up from the ocean below, and been deposited on either side of that fault before it froze. So Rick Greenberg of the Lunar and Planetary Lab at the University of Arizona has proposed that a lander alone could be all we really need, one that can set down at the edge of one of those cracks, and then lower a sample collection device that would only need to melt down a few meters, to get below a surface layer irradiated into sterility by Jupiter’s fierce radiation. And then with some luck, onboard microscopes could take a look at water that we assume was once in the ocean below.

As somebody once said, either there is life out there, or there isn’t, and either way the answer is equally astonishing.

What do you think about privately-funded space exploration? What are your feelings about Mars One, which aims to establish a human settlement on Mars by the year 2023?

I think Elon Musk is doing astonishing work, and I’m all for it. But I would note that true frontier-opening explorations have always been state funded, including in US history, because the returns are unclear. That’s simply because of the nature of such endeavors. So if the goal is to make money, and keep share-holders happy, there is a kind of glass ceiling, I would say, on privately funded exploration. Which is not to say that billionaire visionaries can’t have a decisive impact. But in the current scenario the privately-funded missions are mostly focused on providing a safe taxi to the International Space Station. Still, Musk has proclaimed the goal of sending humans to Mars, and more power to him. He has shown that he’s not a guy to be underestimated.

Can you please tell us about your new book “Planetfall”?

Planetfall is a survey of 21st century planetary images. It essentially picks up where my first book, Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes, which came out in 2003, left off. The first image in Planetfall was taken in 2000, and the last image early this year. And that was a revelatory period of truly intense activity, really a latter-day high-point in planetary exploration. So there was a lot of great material.

As for the term “Planetfall,” it has a specific set of meanings, and in fact a definition is the first thing you see when you open the book:

1. The act or an instance of sighting a planet after a space voyage.

2. The reaching of a planet (as by a traveler, spacecraft, celestial object, or solar storm).

3. The decline or end of habitability of a planet’s biosphere, whether due to actions by indigenous species or other causes

When it comes to the last definition above, that really refers to a series of disturbing views of the Earth, all taken within the last decade or so, in which you can clearly see the damage we are doing to our own world. One ultimate recognition and realization I’ve come to, having spent all this time looking at images of the other worlds of the solar system, is that for all the visual splendor, nothing comes close to the beauty and livability of Earth. So we’d better take care of our only habitable island. As I’ve said elsewhere, we were never expelled from Eden, however effective the concept may work as a metaphor for what happens when one becomes self-aware. We were never expelled, but the story’s not over yet, and we may yet use our so-called intelligence to bring about our own expulsion. And of course there’s nowhere to go. And in one case in Planetfall you can see, in an image taken from a distance of about 64,000 miles, dense smoke from Amazon jungle burn-off filling the atmosphere over most of South America. This is of course horrendous. Such pictures, I would submit, say more, and more directly, than a thousand words in articles written about such deforestation.

What other projects are on the (event) horizon?

Well, my next project is called Nanocosmos, and it will involve use of a scanning electron microscope. To give you a sense of where I’m going on the size scale. Of course, this is also space travel!

That’s in the works… Plus I will have a new show based on Planetfall at Hasted Kraeutler Gallery on 24th Street in Chelsea. It opens in January, with the exact date yet to be determined. And I will also have a Planetfall show at the art gallery of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Washington, DC, starting in February. Plus I’m gearing up to produce a truly large show for the Museum of Natural History in Berlin.

You can purchase Planetfall at Abrams Books

For more information on Michael Benson’s work, Please visit michael-benson.com

You can also see Michael Benson’s upcoming Planetfall exhibition at Hasted Kraeutler gallery, 537 West 24th Street, which will run from Thursday, January 24 to Saturday, March 9, 2013.

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