Science & Tech
Meet the Performance Artist Who’s Using Data From the Mars Rover to Help NASA Figure Out If There Is Life on the Red Planet
Sara Schnadt is a key player in NASA's latest mission. Her journey started in an unlikely place.
NASA’s newest mission to Mars notched a major victory last week when scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory landed the Perseverance rover in the Jezero crater, where scientists believe they are most likely to turn up any potential evidence of life.
The mission also aims to collect samples of the red planet that will later be brought back to Earth for analysis and even to help prepare for human exploration there.
And when the Perseverance rover landed on Thursday, among the cheering NASA staffers was none other than artist Sara Schnadt.
Could this be the first time an installation and performance artist has had a key role in such a high-profile NASA mission?
“This has probably never happened before,” the artist acknowledged in a Zoom conversation on Monday.
Schnadt’s job was to help create a software platform through which hundreds of scientists around the world could keep updated on the science data coming from Perseverance, and use that data to plan the rover’s next tasks.
(Her lengthy and multipart title, should you want to know, is ground data system human-centered design lead, cross-cutting tools systems engineer and cognizant engineer for the surface strategic office, and science engineering liaison in the science operations team. Phew!)
Whereas day-to-day science goal planning on such missions has typically been orchestrated through meetings, she said, her task “was to formalize the science questions in the software everyone is using and help facilitate a balance between keeping sight on larger science goals but also being on the same page as they improvise based on the new information that comes in each day. I developed tools that help the team to quickly see how far along we are in answering the science questions we have.”
How exactly did an artist end up contributing to the search for life on Mars?
Believe it or not, it started when she was an intern with a performance art journal, tasked with printing mailing labels from a FileMaker Pro database. She became fascinated with the database itself, and began to incorporate data systems into her own installation and performance art projects, as a medium and a subject.
Teaching herself more and more, she got a job building a database for the career development office at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she earned an MFA in performance art.
Next, the city of Chicago hired her to build a larger system. Before long, her fascination with databases led her to work at Planet, an aerospace startup in San Francisco, where her design team created an interface for exploring satellite imagery.
Then it was off to NASA, where she worked on systems architecture for JPL’s Europa Clipper mission, which will study the moon Europa, in orbit around Jupiter.
(With the rest of her time, she built a career as an artist, performing and showing her work at venues such as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Busan Biennale.)
“Sometime in the first year working on the Europa Clipper mission, I was at happy hour with my team, and they wanted to know, ‘How did you get to JPL?’” Schnadt said. “I started telling them the story of the incremental process, and the engineers kept laughing at me, saying, ‘You sound like an engineer in denial!’”
Indeed, not until she started working at NASA did she realize that systems architecture was a core part of her practice.
“Once I discovered system architecture, I found that it was stimulating me in the same way as making art was. It was so inspiring and fascinating, I couldn’t keep it separate anymore. So I’ve shifted my identity.
“As an artist, you’re trained to focus on the concept and acquire any tools and methodologies to research that idea. You could say that is the core skill set of a conceptual artist. I simply applied all that to this. I was just fascinated with what Planet was doing and I wanted to be involved.”
After the cheers died down on Wednesday, Schnadt had a few hours to relax before clocking into her first shift monitoring the Perseverance rover.
So, what did she do to unwind? Naturally, she watched Matt Damon playing astronaut Mark Watney, who gets stranded on the red planet in director Ridley Scott’s 2015 film The Martian.
“I’ve watched that film so many times,” she said. “There’s a scene where he’s writing a letter to his parents, in case he doesn’t survive. He says, ‘I’m working on something big, beautiful, and greater than myself.’ That right there is the difference between engaging in my creative process in this context as opposed to being an individual artist. That’s what’s most exciting to me about working on a flagship mission that humans have never done before.
“As an individual artist, I’m working alone or I’m delegating, whereas at JPL I’m working with others who are challenging me constantly and pushing the edges of what I understand the problem we’re solving to even be. There’s a sensibility at JPL that it’s good to have a diverse group of people solving problems. No one is like, ‘What are you doing here?’ It’s so satisfying.”
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