There’s a four-week mission to Mars taking place right now, complete with a Mars landing module known as the LEM, a full-size Mars rover, a mobile quarantine unit, a bio lab and an interplanetary excavation unit. Only the “mission” is not actually taking place on Mars, it’s taking place on Manhattan’s Upper East Side inside the 55,000-foot Park Avenue Armory. Space Program Mars is a wildly inventive art experiment from Tom Sachs that is equal parts art installation, science project and "space nerd amusement park." The installation is a creative exploration of what it would be like to explore the Red Planet, along with a non-stop display of clever wit (yes, the LEM dispenses whiskey). Oh, and did I mention that all of the Mars crew members (ahem, cast members) also wear the Nike Mars Yard Shoe?
Apparently, they do wear Nike on Mars – only these Nike shoes take “high performance” to a whole new level. As part of a broader NIKECraft initiative that has been in the works for more than five years, artist Tom Sachs has created an “artisanal collection” of fine Nike products, made with materials from previous NASA space missions and crafted with the athletic astronaut in mind. For example, the Mars Yard Shoe has outsoles from the Nike Special Forces Boot, vectran fabric that was used to make earlier Mars Explorer Rover airbags and detailing from the Apollo Lunar overshoe. At $385, the shoe is not for everyone – but is certainly enticing enough for anyone who cares about the future of manned space exploration. There's also the $475 Marsfly jacket that's made from space age materials (e.g. kevlar stitching around elasticized cuffs) that would make it fashionable enough to wear in the outer suburbs, if not outer space. Or the $500 Airbag bag, which looks like something a stylish astronaut would carry home after a long day in the Mars Yard.
If the cost of getting America back to Mars is a deluge of $385 Nike shoes and other high-priced artisanal products from consumer-facing corporations, then count me in. Nike's collaboration with Tom Sachs may sound commercial – but you’ve got to see the show to understand why it's so clever. Nike seems to be in on the joke -- the Lightweight Tote has a small plastic case described as perfect for "AAA batteries or drugs." LOL.
Watching people act out a Mars exploration scene on one side of the Park Avenue Armory and then watching Mission Control on the other side of the Park Avenue Armory from a set of bleachers and NASA chairs is actually more exciting than it sounds – especially when Mars crew members are scooting around the floor on skateboards and there's the static calls of crew members sounding very serious and authoritative while making nonsensical commands. During the installation, a Mars crater will be probed for "signs of life" by Sachs and his astronauts - so there's drama, too.
As a DIY artist with a reputation for eccentricity, Tom Sachs brings a unique aesthetic to the whole Space Program Mars installation. It’s a wink-wink acknowledgement of where we are as a society, but also playful and, yes, fun enough that you want to get in on the action. We live in an overly commercial society, where even the term “artisanal” has been co-opted by the big corporation. But we also live in a wildly inventive, tech-driven, DIY society where even something as radical as coordinating a mission to Mars seems within the range of possibility. In an era where NASA has thrown in the towel on exploration, it will be companies like Nike that will need to take up the baton for the next leg in the space race.
Coming as it does on on the heels of the successful SpaceX mission, Space Program Mars seems especially meaningful. The show even includes a series of "breakfasts with Mars scientists," where the line between art and science finally blurs altogether (i.e. Tom Sachs in conversation with rocket scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab). This is the future of commercial space exploration, and it’s hard not to like. The future of space exploration combines cutting-edge tech, space age materials, the marketing muscle of huge corporations, the egos of entrepreneurs and a DIY mindset that does not cringe at putting together patchwork missions. It’s inventive, it’s fun and it's inspiring. Even if it’s just a four-week show, Space Program Mars is a wonderful window on the future of space exploration. SpaceX was just the beginning, Mars is next. Lace up your Nike shoes and Just Do It.
image: Mars Yard Shoe via NIKECraft