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An Artist’s Tribute to First African American Astronaut Launches into Space

Tavares Strachan is sending Robert Henry Lawrence Jr.’s “soul” into space — fulfilling the astronaut’s dream that was cut off by his death in a trading accident in 1967.

ENOCH display unit (courtesy LACMA)

LOS ANGELES — Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. was the first African American astronaut. His dream of going into space was cut off by his death in a training accident in 1967, and widespread recognition for him was slow to come in the years afterward (NASA honored him last year, on the 50th anniversary of his death). Now, Tavares Strachan is seeking to cast a new spotlight on the astronaut, and is doing so the way only a conceptual artist can: by sending Lawrence’s “soul” into space.

The Bahamian-born Strachan has previously explored ideas around harsh environments in his work, and also used it to bring overlooked black figures from history into public consciousness. In 2014, he was one of the inaugural recipients of grant awards from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s then-new Art + Technology Lab. With his grant, he initially created Lift Off, a project in which he launched rockets made with local Bahamian materials.

Subsequent conversations with representatives of Art + Technology Lab sponsor SpaceX led Strachan to reorient his grant toward ENOCH. As Art + Technology Lab director Joel Ferree tells Hyperallergic: “He started thinking about sending something into space, and so we had a meeting with Gwynne [Shotwell] at SpaceX, and Tavares pitched this idea to them, and they’re amazing, they’re just like, ‘Yeah, okay, let’s see if we can make this happen.’ There were a lot of details that we had to work out, but from that initial meeting, this project was born.”

Artist Tavares Strachan and SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell (courtesy LACMA)

ENOCH melds multiple religious beliefs about the afterlife with the possibilities of immortality offered by technological process. Strachan has fashioned from 24-carat gold a canopic jar, like those used to enshrine organs for entombment in ancient Egypt. The jar bears a bust of Lawrence, and was blessed by a priest at a Shinto shrine in Fukuoka, Japan, officially designating it as a vessel for Lawrence’s soul. The name “Enoch” refers to a figure in the Abrahamic religions who did not experience bodily death, but was instead taken directly into the afterlife by God.

The jar will be launched into space on Spaceflight’s SSO-A mission, the “Smallsat Express.” This inaugural “rideshare mission” features 64 miniature satellites which will be put into sun-synchronous low Earth orbit from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. ENOCH will be one of multiple art pieces, communications satellites, and high school and university projects aboard the vehicle, commissioned by both government and independent entities from 17 different countries. Other projects aboard include a microbe experiment designed by middle school students and the first Thai-built satellite, developed at King Mongkut’s University of Technology North Bangkok. Strachan’s tribute to Lawrence is calculated to orbit the Earth for around seven years before it destabilizes and burns up in the atmosphere.

Still from Spaceflight animation of ENOCH in space (courtesy LACMA)

Ferree explained some of the more practical details that had to go into realizing this creative vision: “There are a lot of things you have to do to launch a satellite. You need approval from all the necessary regulatory bodies and your launch provider. They have a certain framework that you have to operate with, based on the trajectory of the rocket … We worked with Seven Stars, who helped us with project management. We also worked with Pumpkin, which builds small-scale satellites. A company called Moog produced little shock absorbers that we mounted on our deployer. Planetary Systems Corporation made that deployer, and they also helped us a lot with mitigating the risks involved.”

Preparing ENOCH for flight also entailed a rigorous testing process much like the one astronauts themselves go through. There were multiple tests to ensure the cubesat would work as intended. “One thing that we had to do was a ‘shake test,’ which basically determines what frequency the satellite will vibrate at during the launch as it’s exposed to these g-forces. You have to make sure that your payload vibrates within these given parameters of frequency. If it vibrates too much, that could cause other objects on the rocket to vibrate and pose a risk.”

SSO-A was originally scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on November 19, but it has been delayed, and is currently set to take place between November 22 and 25. LACMA will be streaming SpaceX’s webcast of the launch on its website. Soon, ENOCH will — in a way — fulfill Robert Henry Lawrence Jr.’s aspirations of space exploration.

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