By Mustafa Khan

For a startup founded by three ex-NASA scientists, you’d think its biggest feat to date would be launching 28 small satellites that are currently orbiting the Earth. But the SOMA-based firm Planet Labs is responsible for an equally remarkable accomplishment — putting one of the first art exhibits of its kind in outer space.

There have been past instances of art traveling within a spacecraft, but it's rare the artwork is on the exterior, actually facing Earth. These satellites, which are intended to gather data for a variety of purposes from agriculture to disaster relief, each have a surrealist drawing of animals etched on their outside panels. This floating art gallery comes thanks to the company's artist-in-residence (and now art director), Forest Stearns.

“I focused on animals because I wanted a subject matter that would resonate universally with all viewers.  These ‘creatures’ are looking back at Earth, reminding us to take care of the planet we live on,” Stearns expains.

The collaboration started when Stearns landed an invitation to an event for creatives hosted by Planet Labs’ investors, where he and the startup’s co-founder Robbie Schingler struck up a conversation about art and technology.

Despite Schingler’s enthusiasm, some people at the company were initially reluctant to have an artist in the middle of a satellite laboratory. But after two weeks of Stearns being there, management noticed that he brought out something in employees that they hadn't seen before.

“When I got tasked with this project,” Stearns says, “I first started by creating a large painting in the middle of the office. The employees had never seen anyone paint live before.”

This inspired the company’s engineers to think about making their work more elegant and better designed, Stearns says. “The engineers would continually show me what they created, and that in turn fueled my creativity, and the cycle continued.”

Once he had the company on his side, he still had to find paint that wouldn’t peel, evaporate, or boil off in space. Stearns was up against solar radiation, huge temperature ranges, and the lack of atmosphere.  He spoke to a range of experts, from chemists to paint companies to other rocket companies. He even traveled to Japan to conduct research.

Then one day, a light bulb went off in his head. Stearns threw a satellite panel in his backpack and went to visit a friend living in Berkeley. He realized he could feed his artwork into a laser-etching machine that his friend owned, and that would permanently emblazon his art onto the panels. And the rest is history.

Stearns hopes this project will inspire similar collaborations in San Francisco and beyond. In a time when tech companies are criticized for being aloof and callous to other communities, there’s an opportunity for artists to breathe humanity into the work of techies and for techies to offer a canvas for other creators.

“The experience initially was unique and uncomfortable. But it was an honor to be included as an artist,” says tearns. “Above all, I was respected as an equal.”

And so the art will continue hovering around our planet, until it eventually burns up upon re-entry into the atmosphere, making this project all the more special.

All photos courtesy of Planet Labs, Forest Stearns, and NASA