SpaceX to Launch CubeSat Containing “Soul” of First African American Astronaut

The mysterious satellite is a collaboration between artist Tavares Strachan and Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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An artist's rendering depicts CubeSats being deployed from SpaceX's SSO-A spacecraft.
An artist's rendering depicts CubeSats being deployed from SpaceX's SSO-A spacecraft.
Image: Tavares Strachan/LACMA

A Falcon 9 rocket due to take off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California next week will launch a unique cargo into orbit alongside the usual communications and observation satellites—the “soul” of Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., the first African American astronaut.

The launch manifest for the SSO-A SmallSat Express mission, organized by Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, lists a spacecraft called Enoch, owned by LACMA—the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And for months, that was all that was publicly known about the satellite.

Now, IEEE Spectrum has learned that Enoch contains a 24-karat-gold canopic jar with a bust of Lawrence. Canopic jars were used by ancient Egyptians to house the organs of the deceased for use in the afterlife. This jar was blessed at a Shinto shrine in Japan and “recognized as a container for Lawrence’s soul,” according to the museum.

“[Lawrence is] someone who has a mostly untold story, who I look at as a hero but who wasn’t necessarily considered one when I was a child in school,” says Tavares Strachan, the artist behind Enoch, in an interview with IEEE Spectrum.

Although Guion Bluford Jr. was the first African American to reach space, on a space shuttle in 1983, Lawrence was the first black astronaut, selected for training in 1967. Just six months later, Lawrence died in the crash of an F-104 Starfighter jet while teaching a junior pilot shuttle-landing techniques.

“A black guy doing space exploration with the U.S. government wasn’t a normal situation in 1960s America. He was traversing a very difficult time,” says Strachan. Strachan first learned about Lawrence while researching an earlier project on cultural invisibility—the tendency for minority figures to get written out of history.

A gold jar with a bust etched into the top, displayed on a black stand. Photo: Tavares Strachan/LACMA Enoch holds this canopic jar sculpture with a bust of astronaut Robert Henry Lawrence Jr.

The Enoch project began back in 2014, when Strachan was selected as one of the first artists to participate in LACMA’s Art + Technology lab. His initial idea was to conduct experiments with rockets made of glass and powered by fuel made from sugarcane grown in his native Bahamas. However, a meeting with Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, a founding sponsor of the lab, encouraged Strachan to change focus.

Publicly, Strachan would work on a project called Chalkboard Drawings, where SpaceX engineers discussed rocketry with a group of elementary school children. Illustrations from that discussion have been embossed in large slabs of chalk for display in a future solo exhibition.

But behind the scenes, Strachan was thinking even bigger. Inspired by Egyptian artifacts at LACMA and the biblical figure of Enoch, who ascended directly to heaven without dying, Strachan wanted to fulfill Lawrence’s ambitions to travel into space.

In July 2015, Strachan and LACMA asked Pumpkin Space Systems, a San Francisco–based startup, to build a satellite to incorporate Strachan’s sculpture. Enoch is a CubeSat 3U (measuring 30 x 10 x 10 centimeters) and will be deployed into a sun-synchronous, low Earth orbit. Altogether, the SmallSat Express will launch 64 CubeSats and larger satellites.

Although Spaceflight’s manifest says that Enoch will not have a radio transmitter on orbit, a blog post by Pumpkin notes that it will “carry some hi-tech tags that will simplify its tracking.” Strachan says he is planning a global project to allow schools around the world to follow Enoch’s progress: “Imagine a beacon of light that exists somewhere on campus and every time the satellite goes by, it lights up.”

Enoch is not the only art satellite on board SSO-A. Orbital Reflector is an inflatable space mirror designed by Trevor Paglen and funded by the Nevada Museum of Art that should be visible to the naked eye. This has prompted concerns among some astronomers that it would interfere with observations —something the much smaller Enoch should avoid.

The SpaceX rocket will also launch a satellite called Elysium Star 2, containing the cremated remains of people who wanted a “shooting star” memorial. Most of the SSO-A’s satellites will naturally reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up within five to 10 years.

Strachan recently won the prestigious US $100,000 Frontier Art Prize, and his previous works have included themes of aeronautical and astronomical science, deep-sea exploration, and extreme climatology. He has even undergone cosmonaut training in Star City, Russia. All of which suggests that he would be a natural candidate for Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa’s Dear Moon circumlunar mission for artists, planned for the mid-2020s on a SpaceX rocket.

“Obviously, it would difficult for any truly creative person to pass up [this] trip,” says Strachan. “Without getting into too much detail, I think it’s interesting.”

Robert Lawrence’s “soul” will orbit the Earth in his gold canopic jar for about the next seven years. If Elon Musk can get his moon capsule ready in time, it’s far from impossible that Strachan will, briefly, join him there.

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