A Conversation with the First Astronaut to Paint in Space, Nicole Stott.

Our tendency towards aesthetic and order predates most aspects of who we are as a species.  Before we had language, we had art.  As Sir Antony Gormley told me, “The need to express abstract registers of time and deep space, and something of the life of the body, has never altered. Art is not a luxury, an object of exchange, a profession or a career; it is an intrinsic part of being human.

It seems perhaps, that humanity has long strived for a sublime form; a truth- and the quest for this truth manifests in our art.  Plato noted that real beauty is original, pure, and perfect, while natural beauty and artistic beauty are derived and tainted with imperfection (like ourselves).  It is in this vain that nature has provided an endless source of inspiration for artists; looking for order, for perfection, for truth within the scenes she provides.

As Sir Anish Kapoor told me, There’s a moment when you look at good art when time changes… It’s as if time no longer exists, becomes longer, or is suspended.  There’s a moment of reverie when you’re fully immersed in something apart from yourself.  One experiences this sometimes in meditation.  These inexplicable, wonderful and mysterious experiences we have never leave us.

More so than any other human experience, space flight has provided a perspective for immersion that- in one glance- explains more about the nature of who we are than millennia of philosophical discourse.

Nicole Stott is an artist, and an astronaut.  She is a veteran of 2 spaceflights and 104 days living and working in space on both the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS).  Nicole is also the first astronaut to paint in space, and I spoke with her to learn more about the art she found from 400km in the sky. 

Q: How did you become an astronaut?

[Nicole Stott]: I was always fascinated by space, but it took a lot longer for me to even start thinking about the possibility of astronaut as a job.

I have vivid memories of watching the first moon landing as a family, then going outside with my parents and looking at the moon and thinking, ‘wow! There’s people up there!’.  Even as a kid I thought ‘wow that’s really cool’ – but it never occurred to me that I could go to space one day myself.  Nobody ever discouraged me- and my parents never told me I couldn’t do something (unless it was bad for me!).  It just didn’t seem like something I could do; it seemed like something other people do.

My Dad built and flew small airplanes, and so while I was growing up our family hung out a lot at the local airport- I met lots of pilots and helped my Dad with the planes he was working on.  And my Mom was also a huge influence on me- she is a very creative person- she was always doing something crafty and I remember she made a lot of our clothes as we were growing up.  I think about that now and holy moly… I can barely get to Target to buy my son socks, let alone even think about making them.

When I was deciding what I wanted to study at school, I knew it would be based on flying, wanting to fly myself, and also wanting to know how airplanes fly – and if you want to know how airplanes fly, why wouldn’t you want to know how rocket ships fly?  Growing up in Florida with the space shuttle program and Kennedy Space Center on our doorstep, NASA was the place I wanted to work.

It was almost a decade after I’d started working at NASA before I really thought about being an astronaut.  My job was about getting spaceships ready for astronauts to fly; I would see them coming through, getting ready to fly in space, and I also was aware that 99% of their job is not flying in space.  It’s very similar to what I was already doing as an engineer for NASA.  When I started thinking about it, I reached out to people that I considered to be my mentors, and asked them. They encouraged me to pick up the pen and start the application.  Quite honestly, I don’t think I would have done it without them.  And believe me, I thank them every time I see them.

I don’t think even they [my mentors] realized the impact they had on me. I’ll talk to them about it now, and they’re like ‘Nicole, I just told you to fill out the application’. Without their encouragement though, I don’t think I ever would have had the confidence in myself to even pick up the pen.  I would have continued to believe that this wasn’t something that could ever be real for me.  That one small bit of encouragement had such a huge impact on my life.  It made me realize how sometimes it really is the little stuff that’s most important, and we never know how significant our encouragement can be in someone else’s life.

Q:  What was it like, the first time you saw the Earth from space?

[Nicole Stott]: If I had to choose one word to describe the experience of seeing Earth from Space, it would be wow.

The whole spaceflight experience from launch to landing and everything in between is awesome, and to me – aside from my husband and I having our son, I think there are very few things where awesome really applies.

We use that word a lot, but it so totally applied to what I was feeling when I saw Earth from space.  And I would say that it’s awesome in a bit of an overwhelming way.

Everything about the experience was overwhelming.  It was overwhelmingly powerful to get off the ground, overwhelmingly cool to float in microgravity, and really overwhelmingly beautiful and emotionally powerful to see the Earth from space.

Nicole Stott, During her mission to the International Space Station (ISS)

Q:  What surprised or intrigued you about seeing Earth from space?

[Nicole Stott]: Seeing the Earth form space, everything was surprising and intriguing but not just on the first view.  Every single time I looked out the window, it was simply awe inspiring.

Everything is just crystal-clear and glowing.  Our planet just glows with all the colours you know Earth to be made of, but in a way, that’s almost transparent, iridescent.

I was expecting it to be beautiful.  I’d looked at the pictures and videos, and spoken to the people who’d flown before, but nothing prepares you for it.

Seeing our planet from space is so much more than a visual experience, I think it’s about feeling it, I think it really is about having a kind of spiritual connection to it, that you feel.  Total awe, humbling.

Q: Did Earth ever stop inspiring you?

[Nicole Stott]: I’m the person you never want to sit next to on a plane, because I never want to pull the shade down.  As more and more people go into space, I hope they never want to either because there’s just this unique kind of appreciation you get for our planet, from seeing it from different vantage points and perspectives.

I wondered about this question myself, I wondered ‘oh man, if I float by this window 2 months from now, am I going to be drawn to it and want to take a quick look while I’m on my way to my next task’.  It absolutely never failed to amaze and lure me in.  In fact, if I was at the window during the work day, I had to set a timer on my watch, because I would just get immersed in the view.  It’s like a transcendence; I just started doing meditation, and it’s a little like that where you can just completely separate yourself and just be sucked into it.

I think very quickly you realize the planet is our home.  At first, I looked for things that were familiar to me, and then it became like a geography lesson and getting to know our planet better, and even getting to know where things are just by looking at whatever’s out the window. ‘Oh! that’s Africa’, ‘that’s North America’.

Then for me it just transitioned to what’s the next beautiful surprising thing I’m going to see.  And not even worried about what place on the planet it is.  This realization that everywhere you look is home and everywhere you look there is something new and beautiful and wonderful to discover.  It is a real lesson in Earthling and Earth appreciation.  And ever since I’ve been back from space, the impact of that view continues to inspire.

Q:  What was the beauty of seeing Earth from space?

[Nicole Stott]: You really realise very quickly that we, and our planet, are small.  We’re not that far away from each other.  We all share the same “planet in space”.  When you take the time to think about it, that “we’re all in space” part is pretty compelling.

I would argue though that small does not mean insignificant.  It is a bit of a contradiction – seeing the beauty of Earth from space and the reality of how small our planet is in the grand scheme of the universe, but at the same time recognizing the significance in how perfectly placed in the universe our planet is to take care of us.  A little bit closer or further from the Sun wouldn’t be so good for us.

Seeing things from a changed perspective like space introduces firstly a beauty and then perhaps a known understanding of the reality.  Take hurricanes as an example.  Nobody who has ever experienced a hurricane here on Earth would say it’s a beautiful thing, but when you see it from space it’s this swirling, white, fluffy mass- silently moving across the planet.  Through the view from your space station window, you’re not hearing or experiencing it in the same way you would in the middle of it.

From space, you also see our human impact; you notice shapes that look too symmetrical and predictable to be natural and you realise that’s the whole side of a mountain stripped off for mining.  You’d see these beautiful patterns of browns and greens, and suddenly realised it was deforestation and then notice patterns of fires that are too neatly arranged to be natural burning.

Going to space gave me the opportunity to separate from our planet, but in doing so it allowed me to feel more connected to it than I ever had on its surface in the middle of it all.  I carry that with me all the time now.  I encourage others to allow themselves to separate sometimes – to look at your home in a new way and from a new perspective, and to appreciate this perfect place we live and to take care of it and all of the other people we share it with.

Q: Why did you decide to paint in space?

[Nicole Stott]: I’ve always enjoyed painting, and arts and crafts; but it was one person- Mary Jane Anderson- who, before I flew to space, reminded me that I would be living and working there for several months, and so I should think carefully about what the personal items were that I would take with me.  In addition to mementos like pictures of my family and friends, I started to think about my time and what I wanted to do with any free time I might have while I was there- so I went and bought a little watercolour kit, with the idea of painting what I would see out of the window.

I only painted once while I was there, and it was a really cool experience.  I wish I would have videotaped it because there was some really cool science that goes along with watercolour painting in space.  I am thankful though to my crewmate Bob Thirsk who took what I believe is the one and only picture of me painting in space.

Spaceflight was honestly the inspiration for my work, everything I’m doing now.  And it goes back to that first look out of the window, being overwhelmed and in awe of what I was seeing, and how could I maybe share that in a unique way with people.  As I was thinking about retiring from the astronaut office (which is an immensely difficult decision), I kept coming back to that painting in space, and to art as a way that I could uniquely share the spaceflight experience.  I kept coming back to art, in a way that made me think that maybe I should do it professionally.

Art is a universal communicator, it is one of the ways that allows me to engage with audiences that might not otherwise think about what we’re doing in space every day that’s helping improve life here on Earth.  And it’s a way to help them consider the view from space and do a little bit of Earthling and Earth appreciation.

Nicole Stott, Painting on the International Space Station (ISS)

Q: How can painting tell us something different from the photo?

[Nicole Stott]: I think that painting a scene makes it more personal.  The photos and videos are stunning, but they still don’t capture what you see and feel as an astronaut.  There’s something about a painting that allows you to place a little bit of yourself in it.  My art allows me the opportunity to engage with a variety of audiences and speak to them about the backstory of flying in space in a different way.

I’ve had an exhibit on the Isle of Man (where my husband is from) – they were very kind, the main gallery on the promenade hosted an exhibit of my paintings, and you know what? It was one of the most frightening things to me that I’ve ever done in my life. People would joke ‘Nicole, you strapped yourself on a rocket with 7 million pounds of thrust underneath you.  You did a 6.5-hour spacewalk.  How can this be frightening?’  And all I could say was ‘Because it just is!’.

Your art is a totally different way of exposing yourself, of putting yourself out there.  People are going to love you or hate you, or appreciate it or not.  What I found was unexpected.  Whether you really love my artwork or not was not the important thing to me.  It was that it allowed me to share the spaceflight experience in a way that I don’t think I can do with just words or pictures.  And I picked the paints I used because they have this translucence, this iridescence to them, that is the closest I can find to what I remember seeing.

Looking out of the space station window is a never-ending supply of inspiration.  You can’t paint while you’re at the window; you’re moving at 5 miles per second, so by the time you put brush to canvas, your scene is gone- so every night, I’d scroll through the pictures I’d taken during the day and try to find a couple to send home in a ‘look what I saw today!’ sense.

On this one night when I was looking, there was this little chain of islands on the northern coast of Venezuela that just stood out to me, I made a connection to what I remember, when I was looking out the window.  It looked like somebody had painted a wave on the ocean.

I expected to see islands, and beautiful water, but something that looks like someone had painted on the Earth was a little unique, and different to me.  And then I started seeing those things all over the planet, little naturally shaped heart islands in the Red Sea and a point in the Amazon River that looks like the profile of an elephant with its trunk up; all these things that I think we’re meant to discover and be curious about.

“ISS 133”
Painting by Nicole Stott

Q: How can art help us inspire people about space?

[Nicole Stott]: Art is a great leveller, it means that you can just very naturally and comfortably speak to people that have no (or maybe they don’t think they have) interest in space and why we even explore space.

Just think about it, we have had this space station circling our planet for the last 17 years with crew members from around the world, working peacefully and successfully together. As long as my son has been alive, we’ve had people continuously living off our planet, doing things to improve life here on Earth.  The more people we can share that with and help understand that, the better.  That idea that the planet’s not that big and it’s the one thing we all have in common.

Art has a way of presenting that perspective that I don’t think anything else really does.

Q:  Would life be different if our leaders saw the Earth from Space?

[Nicole Stott]: I don’t think there’s a single astronaut who hasn’t wondered how cool it would be for us to get all of our world leaders together, facing that window out of the space station at the same time.  I don’t think you’re human if it doesn’t have a positive life changing effect on you.

As an astronaut community, more and more, you’ll see that groups of us are trying to figure out how we share the experience.

Art works for me as my personal thing, but how do we collectively come together to share this experience with as many people as possible? We have amazing technologies now such as film, VR and even storytelling that allows others to really immerse themselves in what we experienced, and that’s important.

Me, a human being, experienced this really awesome thing.  This extraordinary thing that I hope I can share in a personal way somehow that then brings them to a realisation of what else is going on around them.  And I hope it does.  I mean, I really hope it does.  I think it’s really important that we start understanding our place here.  On this planet that’s our home.

Nicole Stott – Astronaut, Artist, Earthling

[bios]Nicole has explored from the heights of outer space to the depths of our oceans.  She marvelled at the awesomeness of our planet as experienced through these vantage points, and she believes that sharing this perspective has the power to increase everyone’s appreciation of and obligation to care for our home planet and all who inhabit it.

Nicole is a veteran NASA Astronaut with two spaceflights, one spacewalk, and 104 days living and working in space as a crewmember on both the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS).  She is also a NASA Aquanaut and was a crewmember on the longest duration saturation dive mission on the Aquarius undersea laboratory.

Always an Artist, Nicole was the First Astronaut to Paint in Space.

She combines her spaceflight experience and artwork to inspire creative thinking about solutions to our planetary and personal challenges, and to increase awareness of the outstanding work being done every day in space to improve life here on Earth.  She uniquely shares the impression of our planet from the orbital and undersea perspectives, while stressing the significance of our planetary community and environment, a renaissance approach to education and wellness, and the surprising interplay between science and art.[/bios]

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.