Friday, February 23, 2024

The Odysseus lunar lander carried an artwork to the Moon. What does this mean?

Josephine Baker being fabulous, 1927.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Nova-C lander, which touched down on the Moon on the 23rd of February 2024, is  carrying a very interesting object – 125 silver mini-moons a couple of centimetres in diameter, stacked in a transparent box and bolted to the side of the spacecraft. Each mini-moon represents a famous person who made a difference in the world. They include the people you’d expect, like Mother Theresa, but some unconventional choices too, like Josephine Baker, the French-American dancer of the Jazz Age who was also a civil rights activist, and the Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova who gave her name to the famous Aussie dessert. 

Artist Andy Warhol is also in there, and it’s the second time he’s been to the Moon. In 1969, the Apollo 12 mission carried a tiny ceramic plaque called Moon Museum with the works of six artists inscribed on it. Warhol contributed a crude drawing. 

This artwork was conceived by the US artist Jeff Koons. It has three components: the miniature moons going to the real Moon, much larger versions which remain on Earth, and digital moons in the form of NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens). Like the mission itself, the artwork is a partnership between the artist and various other organisations. 

Jeff Koons' Moon Phases installed on the Odysseus lander.
Source: Jeff Koons/Instagram

I find it intriguing, but it also raises some concerns. Recently the Peregrine Mission One lander was launched towards the Moon. It had numerous private payloads, including a lot of digital art and 13 time capsules. Sadly the spacecraft didn’t make it, and burned up on re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. 

As more private missions go to the Moon, we’re likely to see more inclusions of symbolic and digital objects. But there’s no oversight of what they are, or obligation for private companies to inform the public. 

For now it’s all been positive objects aimed at commemoration or inspiration. But what if, for example, conspiracy theorists or extremists bought payload space on a private mission and send things most people would find offensive or disturbing to the Moon? There’s nothing to stop that. 

According to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, the Moon and all outer space is meant to be the common province of humanity: it belongs to all of us, including those we don’t like. But I’d hate to see the Moon become a dumping ground of symbols, or continue its Cold War role in a battle of ideologies. The Outer Space Treaty proclaims that space is to be used for peaceful purposes only. Peace isn’t just about the absence of weapons, and not all weapons are material.