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Freewheeling leaps into space at NASA / 9 December 2013

photo of Trish Wheatley and underwater wheelchair artist Sue Austin pictured with astronaut Kate Rubins in her space suit

Sue Austin and Trish Wheatley photographed with astronaut Kate Rubins

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Sue Austin’s latest project, ‘In at the Deep End USA’ takes Freewheeling to the States to develop links with potential partners across the arts and sciences, exploring new opportunities to propel ‘Creating the Spectacle!’ and the underwater wheelchair into new dimensions.

In 2012 we literally were thrown in at the deep end with how the artwork took off. This is our chance to capitalise on the approaches and connections that have been made since the Unlimited commission. This project takes in visits and talks with NASA, Stanford University, Monterey Bay Aquarium, an independent Software engineer and artists, activists and producers connected to the documentary FIXED: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement.

Our three days at NASA were a real once-in-a-lifetime experience. Sue kept saying “pinch me, I can’t believe this is happening”! Della Cardona, who organises the SAIC Innovation Technical Speaker Series at which Sue was invited to speak, put together an absolutely wonderful programme that included a great mix of touring the buildings at Johnson Space Center with meeting people who work in a variety of roles for NASA.

Our first experience was the Sonny Carter Training Facility, which contains the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. This is a vast pool, the largest of its kind in the world, in which the astronauts train underwater to experience a weightless environment. Inside the 6.2 million gallon pool is a large replica section of the International Space Station (ISS). Sue has been dreaming of a performance in this tank, but never imagined we would even ever get the chance to see it in real life.

The first thing that struck me when we arrived at surface level was that this is clearly a very slick operation, where briefing and defined job roles are paramount to the safety of all involved and ultimate success of the activity. Peering over the edge of the water we could see the Space Station below. Scuba divers were busy preparing to enter the water as a training session with two astronauts was about to begin and feeling a little bit of kit envy we listened to Steve, our tour guide, with interest as he explained the details of the training facility. Moving around the pool, we were introduced to various team members, including astronaut Douglas Wheelock who questioned Sue about the underwater wheelchair.

We then had our photo taken with Kate Rubins, one of the astronauts suited up and about to embark on the six hour training session. We watched them enter the water on a platform lifted by a crane before continuing on the tour of the facility. Pictures and posters decorated the walls of corridors, with cabinets containing old diving and space paraphernalia indicating a pride in the history of NASA that would become more apparent throughout our visit.  Specific to NBL, were posters of almost every space film you can think of that has utilised the facility for filming scenes in recent years.

Lori Wheeton, our main tour guide for the day gave a real insight into the experience of being part of the NASA community. In Building 9, where astronauts train inside replica sections of the space station, we walked the floor as we looked up at people on a glass screened walkway taking the public tour.

We were allowed to get up close to robonaut, a current robot being developed and used to take on tasks in space to reduce human risk. In amongst the lunar vehicles and unearthly equipment it was almost so unreal that it felt like a sci-fi film set. As Lori explained, NASA is much smaller than it used to be when the Shuttle programme was still in full operation. There was a real sense of nostalgia and regret amongst people we met that Shuttle is not still in operation.

The Americans currently rent spaces on the Russian spacecraft at $70 million per seat to access the ISS.  The new NASA spacecraft Orion is in development and I got the impression that until it is operation NASA’s reputation, certainly with the American public won’t be fully restored.

‘In at the Deep End USA’ is supported by Plymouth University and the Artists’ International Development Fund, an Arts Council England and British Council programme.



20 December 2013

Sue and Trish, I am really happy that I found this report since we met the very day in the hotel lobby before you left to NBL. I had hoped to see you during the following breakfasts but somehow we missed. Also good that you got a tour to Bldg 9, which really is impressive. I can only confirm that your project is just outstanding and very inspiring as our short breakfast talk was. All the best and happy holidays.