The Art of Healing Through Space Exploration

January 2nd, 2019

Astronaut Kate Rubin sports ‘Courage’ at the International Space Station Center (ISS).

By Sumer Dene

The SpaceSuit Art PROJECT is a global collaboration of hospitals, volunteers, and the International Space Station aimed to help children battling cancer. The Spacesuit Art Project was founded by artist and writer Ian Cion, retired astronaut Nicole Stott, and the NASA ISS Program Communications team. Nicole Stott is deemed “The Artistic Astronaut,” as she is the first astronaut to watercolor in space. Stott has flown on two spaceflights and spent 104 days living and working in space on the ISS and Space Shuttle. Ian Cion was the founder and director of the Arts in Medicine program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital, where he created a series of large-scale public works in collaboration with patients, families, staff, and community partners. Cion is now the exhibition and program manager at Rice University, Moody Center for the Arts. He coordinates and develops program initiatives for the arts center and supports development and implementation of exhibits. Stott and Cion are co-founders of the Space for Art Foundation, and recently concluded their 2nd Space for Art World Tour, which traveled to pediatric oncology hospitals in four countries – The Moscow Institute for Pediatric Oncology in Moscow, Russia; Gustave Roussy in Paris, France; Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, Great Britain; and University Hospital Pediatric Oncology Clinic, Cologne, Germany. Children use their imagination to paint patches of inspirational artwork, which is later stitched together by volunteers at spacesuit company ILC Dover to form a spacesuit. The art spacesuits – Hope, Courage, Unity and Victory; and the two suits currently in work, Exploration and Dreamer, tell the stories of pediatric patients around the world.

The Spacesuit Art Project has partnerships with hospitals in over 30 countries and includes participation with all 5 ISS agencies; spacesuit companies in both the U.S. and Russia; creative artists such as Projekt Postcard founder Loli Lanas and Russian partner and founder of Unity Movement Foundation, Alena Kuzmenko; and more than 45 NASA and international astronauts. This support offers amazing opportunities for kids to reach their highest potential, even in the most dire of circumstances. The positive, interactive experience builds a community among patients, healthcare workers, creative artists, families, and offers children a sense of purpose, hope, and fulfillment. The Spacesuit Art Project wants to increase awareness of pediatric cancer, inspire space-theme art therapy programs around the world, and understand the profound connection between space exploration, technology, art, healing, unity, and the human spirit.

The Spacesuit Art project is partners with many organizations that integrate art, science and technology through education, collaboration, and innovation. “We’d like to bring pediatric cancer research to the ISS and create more arts and medicine programs in hospitals around the world. We’d also like to start additional art projects to continue the positive relationships we’ve built along the way,” Stott explains. The Spacesuit Art Project inspires creative new ideas globally, such as The Space for Art Foundation in the U.S. and the Unity Movement Foundation in Russia, formed to develop space-inspired art therapy programs, exhibits, and research. It has also led to Postcards to Space, artistic messages created by children and sent via an electronic art compilation to astronauts at the ISS, and Earthrise projects, a network of educational and research centers with a variety of space-related activities for all ages. Children at partnering hospitals were even able to visit mission control in Houston to ask questions to astronauts while in space. This encourages children to ask meaningful, imaginative questions and think beyond their circumstance to look forward to the future.

The Spacesuit Art project wants to raise awareness of pediatric cancer. According to the National Pediatric Cancer Society, cancer is the No. 1 cause of death by disease among children, but only 4% of federal government research funding goes to study it. We still don’t really know why children get cancer, although much of what we have learned to treat adult cancers, such as combination chemotherapy, was discovered from childhood cancer research.

Pediatric research has developed groundbreaking new therapies, interventions, vaccines, and diagnostic tests that have improved lives worldwide. Researchers are beginning to understand genetic mutations that might cause certain types of pediatric cancer. Immunotherapy and genomic medicine are inspirational fields of study dedicated to find individualized treatment methods for all cancer types. The Childhood Cancer Data Lab (CCDL) is accelerating the path to a cure by empowering health professionals to harness the power of large-scale collections of harmonized data. The mission is to find the cure for childhood cancer by allocating data and resources sufficiently.

“We can shift the role an artist plays by building interdisciplinary teams to utilize art in the field of health and exploration. As an explorer, it’s not just one path. It only matters how we communicate and integrate information to get to the same destination. Art gives kids [and adults] a sense of purpose, wonder and accomplishment. There is a commonality between astronauts and children who are battling cancer, they both require incredible strength and courage to overcome isolation, risk, and medical procedures. These spacesuits are made as a prayer for the kids and a celebration of life.” Cion adds.

The mission of the Spacesuit Art Project could not have been accomplished without the wonderful volunteers, such as the many space professionals like ILC Dover, NASA’s space suit engineers since the beginning of project Apollo, and Zvezda, the Russian space agencies spacesuit manufacturer.

ILC Dover and Zvezda generously donated time and talent to build the Hope and Unity and Victory suits for the Spacesuit Art Project. David Graziosi and many other engineers volunteered time and effort to work with children at hospitals and put together a cutting-edge spacesuit with paintings from thousands of pediatric patients around the world. “Interacting with the children at the hospital was life-changing. It showed me what’s important in life and also how short life can be.” Graziosi explained. Many people are inspired to join the Spacesuit Art Project and the other work of the Space for Art Foundation because of its impact on youth and the opportunity it gives to children and their families. Children recognize the universe and humankind as a whole, interconnected system. They are curious about the mysteries of life and naturally innocent. There’s no borders, boundaries or limits when everyone works together, there’s only opportunities to overcome obstacles in search for a cure.