Blue Sky to Red Skies

Torso area of a space suit

By Sterling Hundley

The low ceilings and narrow halls of NASA Langley stood in stark contrast to the cavernous rocket facilities I’d seen at Kennedy Space Center. If Kennedy’s vertical constructs were designed to launch rockets, these walls were built to hold secrets. And I had seen them both.

In March 2019, I was at Kennedy Space Center to document the launch of SpaceX’s Unmanned Crew Dragon rocket, with support for my research coming from the School of the Arts Dean’s Office. At that time, there were no expectations of collaboration between VCUarts and NASA; no opportunities to work with NASA on an agency-wide autonomous drone project; no plans to build a pilot program to pair VCUarts students with NASA inventors; no expectations that they would go on to present their final projects to leadership from NASA headquarters; and no concerns that all of this would be framed against the backdrop of a global pandemic. 

All of those things would unfold in the coming year, but as I arrived in Cape Canaveral and stood in the shadow of the massive spacecraft in the rocket garden, I started where I always do: with a pencil and paper, and I began to draw. Through drawing, I hope to understand. If I can understand, I can explain. If I can explain, I can teach. 

Over the past 10 years, my role as an artist has evolved from being a commercial illustrator who tells other people’s stories, to seeking out experiences that shape my own. As an embedded artist, both time and context play a critical role in the work that I make, and allow me to do more than simply observe and document; they allow me to participate. While the SpaceX launch was the highlight of the weekend—and led to this spring’s NASA/SpaceX launch of American astronauts from U.S. soil into space for the first time in nine years—my job was to explore, to connect, and to bring something back. 

Over the course of that weekend, I drew, photographed, took notes and shared drawings with those who expressed an interest. I reached out to all of my contacts in an attempt to gather information with the hope of getting greater access to the launch. I introduced myself to NASA employees and spoke to other guests. Amidst all of the hustle and effort, I made a fortuitous connection with Jennifer Viudez, the sister of a former student, that would set into motion an extraordinary series of events. I returned home inspired, with a sketchbook full of words, pictures and ideas. 

In the weeks that followed, I received a phone call. NASA was building an autonomous drone challenge course and they thought that I could help them.

I rallied my colleagues from within Communication Arts—TyRuben Ellingson and Jason Bennett—and we organized a response. By our second call, we had been invited to take part in a blue sky conversation on-site at NASA Langley, where Jason and I found ourselves as the only artists in a room full of NASA scientists, engineers, pilots and administrators. A short time later, we were in front of the group, drawing on whiteboards, understanding, explaining. By the end of the day, we had secured a contract and I proposed the potential of developing a new course that would partner VCUarts students with NASA inventors. 

A year later, I traveled with students in my pilot Blue Sky to Red Skies course to Hampton, Virginia. We met Jennifer, now our sponsor, at the badging office. As the students were badged in, I realized that these passes were more than our proof of entry; they were proof that somehow I had been able to convince someone that this group of artists offered significant value to our country’s most storied agency. 

Sterling Hundley’s class at NASA Langley Research Center

As we were led through a series of patchworked and repurposed buildings, past compression tanks, schematic sheets, and engraved signs that read “authorized personnel only,” we found our way to a conference room where we engaged with a trio of NASA inventors. Our assignment: to make NASA patents and technology accessible beyond these walls. I asked the students to take written notes, photograph objects, interview the inventors, and hold the inventions in their hands. I encouraged them to draw, to understand, to explain. 

After returning to campus, students formed four teams—Saturn, Earth, Mars and Moon—each focused on a particular problem and patent. They used their field notes, drawings, designs, illustrations, user interface concepts and animations to clarify scientific complexities and amplify NASA’s message for soliciting commercial applications. 

On Monday, May 11, they presented their final discoveries to leaders from NASA headquarters and Langley. Their presentation generated so much excitement that several students were recruited to intern with NASA and continue their work. 

They also confirmed my most ardent convictions. That, as artists, we are more than entertainment and emotion. That drawing and design are universal languages that have the capacity to give solidity to thought, and structure to abstraction. That we belong at the table with the scientists, engineers, policymakers, politicians, doctors and thought leaders. 

Sterling Hundley is a professor in the Department of Communication Arts and artist-in-residence with the Department of Surgery at VCU Health.