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The second crewed moon landing mission — Apollo 12 in 1969 — had a secret payload attached to one of the legs of its lunar lander.
It was a ceramic tile about as large as a thumbnail, with six artworks etched on it, one of them by Andy Warhol. Nicknamed “Moon Museum,” it was attached to a leg of the spacecraft and then left on the moon with it.
It marked the first time human art landed on the moon, and two years later NASA sent up a tiny figurine — Fallen Astronaut — aboard Apollo 15, which astronauts left at the landing site to commemorate those who had lost their lives in the quest for lunar exploration.
Now Samuel Peralta — a Canadian physicist, artist and entrepreneur — is aiming to significantly expand on the moon’s art collection by sending up tens of thousands of works from a diverse group of artists, representing almost every country in the world. Called the Lunar Codex, it will be split across three launches planned over the next 18 months.
“If NASA and other European and Asian countries are serious about building a colony on the moon, then this will be the start of arts and culture for that colony,” Peralta said.
Ticket to ride
Initially, Peralta just wanted to send his own works to the moon. “I’ve been a poet since I was a young boy,” he said. “After a stint in the high-tech and energy industries, I also dabbled in speculative fiction.”
Since 2015 he has published an anthology series, “The Future Chronicles,” which now has 22 volumes that include a mix of award-winning authors and newcomers.
“The joy that I felt realizing that I could put my work on the moon was then transmitted to the folks who are in my books,” he said.
The pandemic inspired him to broaden the selection even further, as a way to offer hope and help during those times.
“Artists were not able to show their works at galleries, musicians were not able to go to concert halls. In the arts community there was a general feeling of malaise,” he said. “I began considering works that did not include me at all, that were provided to me or pointed out to me. I reached out to people that I knew, gallery owners, collectors, other anthropologists, and it just basically grew organically from there.”
In the meantime, he had reserved a spot on three upcoming moon missions, operated by private launch service providers SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.
“These companies don’t just send NASA material up, and they have extra payload space,” he explained. “They have opened it up to other companies, corporations, scientific institutions, universities, and also private individuals. When I learned that, I thought, maybe I can send something up to the moon.”
The missions’ primary objective is to deliver lunar landers, built by private American companies, that will undertake a variety of scientific experiments to gather data about the moon and its properties. The earliest one is currently slated to launch by the end of this year; two of them will land near the lunar south pole, and one in a lunar plain known as Sinus Viscositatis.
Contemporary time capsule
Out of the three collections that will make up the Lunar Codex, two have been finalized, but one is still open to submissions, as the rocket it will be on won’t launch until November 2024 at the earliest. For now, Peralta has works from 157 countries, but he aims to expand that as much as possible.
“I truly want this to be a global endeavor,” he said.
He believes there are well over 30,000 contributors in total. “I just stopped counting at 30,000,” he said. “Each one of them has at least one piece, but one artist or writer may have as many as a dozen pieces. That means there are over 100,000 pieces. There’s a lot of realist art on there. We have photography, we have wood prints, we have lithographs, we have oil, acrylic, mosaic, sculpture — there’s basically everything in every kind of art. We have full books, short stories, and poems. It’s massive.”
Peralta is self-funding the endeavor — at a cost of “less than what a space tourist would pay,” which on a Virgin Galactic flight is up to about $450,000 — and the collections will be miniaturized in nickel NanoFiche, an analog format that can be read with a microscope. The content that can’t be stored this way, such as movies, will travel via digital cards instead.
The content is mostly contemporary, with the oldest works dating back to the 1960s. The youngest contributor, Canada’s Mazzy Sleep, is just 11 years old: “She has published poetry in some of the most prestigious literary journals in North America,” Peralta said. “I asked her mom and commissioned a poem about the moon from young Mazzy, and she sent me four or five. The one I chose, I thought, was simply amazing.”
Ukrainian graphic artist Olesya Dzhurayeva, who fled Kyiv after Russia invaded the country in 2022, is also part of Peralta’s project.
“She fled with her two daughters to a village west of Kyiv. Her desire to create art was strong, but without her studio with her she had to improvise with what she had on hand,” Peralta said. “So she got blocks of wood, made ink out of Ukrainian soil, and basically used that to express her despair at the situation, in pieces like ‘The house whose light went out forever’; there’s hundreds of stories like this in the Lunar Codex.”
The collection also includes what Peralta said is the first work from a disabled artist to be launched into space. The piece is by American artist Connie Karleta Sales, who paints digitally by using eye gaze technology as she has very limited use of her limbs due to an autoimmune disease.
A new space race
One of the rockets that will host a Lunar Codex collection will also carry a similar project, called the Moon Ark — an 8-inch-tall (20-centimeter-tall) mini-museum about humanity, designed by Carnegie Mellon University to capture our view of Earth, the moon and the space between the two. Another initiative, an artwork called Moon Gallery intended to lay the foundation for a permanent museum on the moon, is made up of 100 artifacts including sculptures, paintings and even organic matter such as seeds, contained within a plane about 5 inches (12.7 centimeters) in diameter. Developed by an international team of artists and managed from the Netherlands, Moon Gallery could be launched as early as 2025.
“Male Western artists were the first to colonize the moon with their work,” said Daniela De Paulis, an artist who recently created a space transmission meant to simulate an alien message. “The Lunar Codex wants to expand from that scenario by including female artists, artists from non-Western countries, as well as disabled artists, symbolically opening the possibility to remotely embody the Moon through their work and become part of the space exploration narrative and the new space race.”
Paulis, who is not involved with the Lunar Codex, adds that while the project is the vision and work of mostly one individual, reflecting his personal interests in arts and culture, it is clear that its founder paid great attention to the overall quality of the works included.
“New generations of Moon dwellers or space-faring civilizations might be able to understand the symbolism of examples of art of our times and the complexity of the terrestrial human soul, as expressed through the specific art forms selected by the collector and the curators of the project,” Paulis said.
Jack Burns, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Colorado Boulder, thinks the Lunar Codex is a cool concept.
“As one of the science investigators on NASA’s first radio astronomy telescope that is scheduled to touchdown on the Moon’s South Pole later this year, I’m enthusiastic that the arts and literature will be included as part of future lunar payloads,” he said.
“I’m reminded of the ‘Golden Record’ which flew on Voyagers 1 and 2 to the outer solar system and now into interstellar space. Motivated by Carl Sagan, the disks contained sounds and images of life on Earth. Similarly, the Lunar Codex is representative of the arts and culture of our world.”
Timothy Ferris, the writer and author who produced the Golden Record, said the Lunar Codex strikes him as odd, but its eccentricities may well mirror the changing status of space exploration at a time when getting into orbit and beyond is becoming more affordable.
“Back in 1977, when I produced the Golden Record, we endeavored to make its 90 minutes of music representative of Planet Earth and not just that of our one nation,” he said. “We had too little bandwidth to get into individuals’ ideas and sensibilities except insofar as they were reflected in the genius of compositions by the likes of Bach, Beethoven … and Chuck Berry.”
Working independently, Mr. Peralta can afford to be more subjective, Ferris said.
“Having purchased the payload, and having the advantage of modern miniaturization technologies, he’s free to send a lot of whatever he likes to the moon. I expect that we’ll see more of this sort of thing as humankind expands its realm to Mars, the asteroid belt, and the endless frontiers proffered by the clouds of comets surrounding the Sun and other stars,” Ferris added via email. “One day, monuments to big state projects like Apollo on the Moon and the Viking robots on Mars may be outnumbered by millions of ‘Kilroy Was Here’ markers scattered from here to our interstellar frontiers.
“Time will tell,” Ferris said, “whether future historians regard as more valuable the works of official committees or of inspired individuals.”