‘Portraits of a Planet’ — astronaut’s Yale exhibition blends art, science

“Ghost Panel” shows streaking stars and city lights — as well as the occasional lightning flash — from high above Earth.
Created using a 30-minute exposure, NASA astronaut Donald Pettit’s “Ghost Panel” shows streaking stars and city lights — as well as the occasional lightning flash — from high above Earth.

While a crewmember on the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Donald Pettit indulged his passion for photography.

Between 13-hour shifts performing maintenance work on the station and conducting experiments, Pettit pointed cameras out the station’s windows to document cosmic and planetary vistas few people ever witness.

Pettit, a chemical engineer and active member of NASA’s current astronaut roster, took more than 500,000 images over the course of three spaceflights — tours on the space station from November 2002 to May 2003 and from December 2011 to July 2012, along with a 2008 expedition on the Space Shuttle Endeavor. Forty of his favorite shots are featured in “Portraits of a Planet: Photographer in Space,” a new exhibit on view through March 6 at Yale’s Center for Collaborative Arts & Media (CCAM). It is the first large-scale exhibition presented at CCAM, a research center at 149 York St. that blends traditional arts with computer science and technology.

I love the intersection of art and science,” Pettit said on Dec. 4, the exhibition’s opening night, while standing beside one of three mural-sized prints on view, a 2012 image of the Ganges River Delta taken from the space station. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to present them as works of art rather than as a technical treatise on living and working in space.”

a near-infrared image of mangrove forests in the Ganges River Delta taken from the International Space Station
“Cosmic Matisse,” one of three large-scale murals on view, is a near-infrared image of mangrove forests in the Ganges River Delta taken from the International Space Station, over 200 miles above the Earth’s surface.

Pettit’s photographs capture the cross-disciplinary nature of the research projects that CCAM supports while offering an otherworldly perspective on the intersection of art and science, said Dana Karwas, the center’s director.

Bringing in this type of work, which raises interesting questions about how we view artistic practice and scientific process, creates incredible value for the university,” she said. “Also, having an astronaut in the building isn’t so bad.”

Portraits of a Planet” opens with a 10-foot-long mural called “Ghost Panel,” a composite photograph Pettit made using a 30-minute exposure during orbital night — the period when the space station passes over the portion of Earth experiencing nighttime. In it, Earth’s atmospheric edge glows yellow as it gently arcs across the image’s center. Orbital motion transforms the stars and Earth’s cities into white and amber streaks, respectively. Lightning flashes dot the planet. The ghostly outline of one of the space station’s massive solar panels appears motionless against the streaking light.

This picture captures a lot of natural phenomenology, but it’s also just a really compelling image that makes you wonder what’s happening in it,” said Pettit, who was selected to become an astronaut in 1996 and has logged more than 370 days in space. Previously, he served as a staff scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory for a dozen years.

Another photograph, “Turtleneck,” depicts the space station’s cupola module, a six-windowed observatory designed to capture images of Earth. Cameras point out each window. Pettit’s head protrudes from the center of a black canvas that he stretched across the cupola’s base.

That’s a primo place to take pictures,” Pettit said, who explained that he picked up his first camera, a Kodak Brownie, when he was in sixth grade, triggering an enduring interest in photography. “This shows how I mask off the internal light to prevent reflections on the windows, which is one of the big challenges about taking photographs from the space station.”

Pettit's head rises from underneath a black canvas used to block light from reflecting off the space station's windows.
Pettit’s head rises from underneath a black canvas used to block light from reflecting off the space station’s windows.

CCAM, formerly the Digital Media Center for the Arts, opened in the fall of 2017 after a renovation and rebranding as a research hub where people from varied fields and backgrounds can collaborate on projects and tease out ideas using a broad range of media resources, including cutting-edge digital tools. Projects could merge virtual reality with music theory, choreography with machine learning, or visual arts with video games.

Pettit’s work has already provoked discussions among campus artists, Karwas said.

We brought a group of photography students in today and they asked a lot of interesting questions, including about how American culture is present in the images and in Don’s craft,” she said. “His work allowed them to think about their own artistic practice in a new way.”

"Truss," another mural on view, depicts the International Space Station's solar arrays
“Truss,” another mural on view, depicts the International Space Station’s solar arrays, which measure 35 meters long by 12 meters wide.

The exhibition is open to the Yale community daily, 9 a.m. to midnight. It is presented in partnership with David W. Messinger, director of the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), and William Springer, imaging systems engineer at RIT’s Imaging Systems Lab. A traveling exhibition, “Portraits of a Planet” is executive produced by Peter Blacksberg. For more information, visit the Portraits of a Planet website.

Information about work happening at CCAM is available in Maquette, its online journal

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Media Contact

Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324