An Artist Imagines the Future of Humans in Space

Through manipulated photographs and video, Michael Najjar tackles the meaning of space travel

golden eye II, 2012. A view of one of the golden mirror segments of the James Webb Space Telelscope, destined to be the replacement for the aging Hubble Space Telescope. The primary mirror is comprised of 18 such hexagonal segments and will enable the telescope to see the first stars and galaxies that formed after the Big Bang. Michael Najjar/Courtesy of Benrubi Gallery, NYC
europa, 2015. Jupiter’s moon Europa is thought to be one of the most likely places to find life beyond Earth in the solar system. Scientists have found that the world is covered by a thick shell of ice, below which lies an ocean where researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, discovered flowing salt water that might provide the right environment for life. “Scientists made this discovery in a region known as a ‘chaos terrain’,” Najjar writes. “This is a weird looking area scattered with huge mountains of ice at some points of which the subterranean ocean under the ice seems to have found its way to the surface. As there is no atmosphere to Europa, the water turns directly to ice and steam when it hits the vacuum on the surface.” Michael Najjar/Courtesy of Benrubi Gallery, NYC
gravitational rotator, 2013. The world’s largest centrifuge has a radius of nearly 60 feet and lives at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia. The centrifuge, in use since 1980 “effectively simulates the bad factors of space flight such as longitudinal g-load, physiological micro-gravity, low cabin pressure, and the different temperatures, humidity, and gas composition of the cabin air,” Najjar writes. Michael Najjar/Courtesy of Benrubi Gallery, NYC
kinetic drift, 2014. Microgravity induces disorientation, a feeling Najjar tries to capture here after taking a zero-g flight in October 2013. “The artist himself is performing the kinetic drift during his parabolic flight in a Russian Ilyushin IL-76,” he writes. Michael Najjar/Courtesy of Benrubi Gallery, NYC
liquid gravity, 2013. A cosmonaut seems to levitate in an industrial environment but the view of Earth through a porthole “dislocates the viewer’s perspective,” Najjar writes in an email. The image comes from Najjar’s experience in the hydrolab, a huge tank of water, at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center. Michael Najjar/Courtesy of Benrubi Gallery, NYC
serious anomaly, 2015. As one of Virgin Galactic Pioneer’s astronauts, Najjar received an email from the company a few minutes after SpaceShipTwo suffered a catastrophic in-flight breakup and crashed in the Mojave Desert. The email explained that “…during the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of the vehicle.” Najjar used several photographs of the wreckage that reporters took to create this composition, “a reinterpretation of Caspar David Friedrich´s iconic painting Das Eismeer (1824), which is considered in art history as the incarnation of the idea of failure,” he writes. Michael Najjar/Courtesy of Benrubi Gallery, NYC
space garden, 2013. Najjar explores the idea of greenhouses in space with this image based on photographs taken at the Eden Project, a “complex of artificial biomes” in Cornwall, England. Plants grown in zero or microgravity won’t be bound by where their roots grow, but will always grow in the direction of the light. Michael Najjar/Courtesy of Benrubi Gallery, NYC
space debris II, 2012. Spent rocket fuel stages, dead satellites and other debris now litter the orbital space around Earth. Each sphere in this image represents a real object in space. Najjar collaborated with the Institute of Aerospace Systems/TU Braunschweig, Germany, a leading authority on the tracking of space debris for this piece. Michael Najjar/Courtesy of Benrubi Gallery, NYC
orbital debris_2020, 2013. Here Najjar shows a full-scale mockup of the Russian module of the International Space Station, currently housed in a giant hydrolab and used by cosmonauts-in-training to prepare for extravehicular activity (EVA) or spacewalks. The station is scheduled for decommissioning in 2020, “at which time it will itself become another piece of orbital debris,” Najjar writes. Michael Najjar/Courtesy of Benrubi Gallery, NYC
final mission, 2011. Najjar captured the very last launch of a U.S. space shuttle, the Atlantis STS-135 on its 135th an final mission. “The artwork combines three phases of the thunderous liftoff and captures the incredible energy needed to boost the vehicle and its crew and cargo beyond Earth’s gravity,” Najjar writes. Michael Najjar/Courtesy of Benrubi Gallery, NYC
gravitational stress at the edge of space, 2013. This artwork evokes the disorientation Najjar felt during his MiG-29 flight to the “edge of space.” The self-portrait also “illustrates how totally dependent the human body is on technology for survival in such an extreme environment,” he writes. Michael Najjar/Courtesy of Benrubi Gallery, NYC
moon mining, 2016. “Our Moon possesses an abundance of a precious isotope – helium-3 – which could be the energy source of the future for fusion reactors,” Najjar writes. Over billions of years, the helium-3 has accumulated in the sand of the Moon, the regolith, where future Moon-based mines may extract it. Here a mine is shown on the left in a vision made up of images from Moon Valley in the Atacama Desert of Chile as well as photographs from the Apollo astronauts. Michael Najjar/Courtesy of Benrubi Gallery, NYC

When visual artist Michael Najjar took a plane to more than 60,000 feet in the upper atmosphere, he knew the trip would be intense. The Russian MiG-29 Fulcrum jet fighter aircraft he rode was originally designed for the Soviet Union's air force during the late 1970s. Now the jet carries passengers high into the stratosphere where the Earth's curvature is visible and the sky turns dark enough to see stars at midday. The flight is advertised as "probably the mightiest experience in the world."

Najjar had some knowledge of the maneuvers planned—flight at supersonic speed, barrel rolls, tail slides and Immelman turns. And yet, he says, "I was not at all mentally prepared for what was going to happen in this flight. I was very overwhelmed." During the 50-minute flight, he nearly lost consciousness, frequently couldn’t tell up from down and experienced acceleration more than seven times the normal pull of gravity on Earth. "After 50 minutes, I was really done," he adds.

Originally from Heidelberg, Germany, the 49-year-old Najjar got his start as an artist at Berlin's Bildo Academy for Media Arts. Now, the Berlin resident regularly seeks out the type of extreme physical and mental challenge he faced on that flight. He is not an adrenaline junkie, rather his work depends on pushing himself. He is interested in "the kind of virgin state of your brain when you have no idea what is going to happen." He draws on that state to create his art. Past works have taken him on a trek up the slopes of Mount Aconcagua in the Andes, the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas, to use the photographs of mountainscapes to provide the basis for visualizations of global stock indices in his high altitude series. It was only the second mountain he had ever climbed. Another series, netropolis, took him to the tops of the tallest buildings in the world where he explored the interconnectedness of urban life and the future of cities.

Najjar will experience the strain of excess g-forces again if all goes as he plans. The stratospheric flight was just one step in his mission to be the first artist in space, a quest he is documenting in his ongoing series outer space.

On March 31, outer space opens at the Benrubi Gallery in New York City. Through photography, digitally manipulated images and video, Najjar explores the technological innovation surrounding the latest developments in space flight. These developments are the reusable rockets, futuristic spaceports and other advances that may someday make space travel a common experience. On his website, Najjar writes: "By leaving our home planet and flying to the moon or other planets, we change our understanding of two of the most fundamental questions confronting humanity—who we are and where we come from."

The series of more than two dozen images (thus far) includes one of a radiantly golden hexagon framed by crisply-lit hardware, a mirror from the under-construction James Webb Space Telescope, with the dark filaments of some galaxy reflected in its face. In another image, a person hangs upside down from the frame's edge, wearing a flight suit, breathing apparatus and violet-tinged goggles. It's a self-portrait Najjar took at nearly 64,000 feet, as the MiG-29 flew 1,118 miles per hour.

The videos complement the still images. One, equilibrium, features a manipulated, duplicated view of Najjar during the flight that makes his twinned helmet-covered heads look like the eyes of a beetle with a shiny carapace caught between two spheres of blue—the curve of the Earth doubled. Voices on the radio crackle over the sound of the jet's engines.

Other images show the constellation of debris from broken satellites and space missions surrounding the Earth, the giant telescope in Chile known as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a fanciful vision of the surface of Europa and an imagining of the Moon under a regime of helium-3 mining. "The series tries to open certain windows, certain frames to make people understand that the Earth is not the limit of human existence,” Najjar explains.

But Najjar doesn't make the mistake of looking at the future through rose-colored glasses. He also includes serious anomaly, an image of the crippled and crumbled Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo after it crashed in the Mojave Desert, killing the co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, and seriously injuring pilot Peter Siebold. The tragedy must have resonated for Najjar: His plan to become the first artist in space relies on transportation by Virgin Galactic itself.

As the series hints, technology can be an undeniable boon, but it also comes with unforeseen consequences and alterations to everyday human life. This theme runs throughout all of Najjar’s experience-based artwork. "We are living in a time where personal and actual experiences are getting less and less everyday," he says. The increasingly digital world can open up new possibilities and connections but the "virtual data flow, virtual perceptions and virtual friendships" that are so common now can sometimes overshadow unique, physical experiences, he says.

Neither utopian or a dystopian, Najjar's work explores both sides of the future. "In general, I'm looking very optimistically into the future and the possibilities of technological progress," he says. "But I also see a lot of problems and dangers that are arising with new technologies."

The series, started in 2011, isn't yet completed. First, Najjar has upcoming Virgin Galactic test flights in the works for later this year or in 2017. Then, hopefully the trip to space itself. He says that people have asked him what he will photograph when he reaches space. But he explains that it is not as important as what he will see: The many photographs from astronauts and satellites have given us some idea of what the Earth looks like once you have loosened its tethers of gravity and atmosphere. Instead the whole process, from boarding the spaceship to blasting off to reaching microgravity, intrigues him.

Najjar sees his role as an artist as one full of privilege and responsibility. So far, just more than 530 people have been to space, but they were all professionals of space travel. They were military, scientists and engineers who may have a "limited language" to tell of their travels, Najjar says. "Artists have different tools,” he adds, “and can find ways to tell about the translations and transportations they experience."

Najjar hopes to learn what it means to leave the habitat where we all live. Then, he'll come back to tell us about it.

The series has shown in Spain, Italy and Najjar's home country of Germany. Now American viewers will get a chance to view a selection of 9 or 10 images and three videos from outer space at the Benrubi Gallery in New York City from March 31 through May 14, 2016. Najjar's work is also perusable on his website.