If there are human beings on Earth in the year 52,001, and they happen to look to the northern sky one evening and find it filled with a shimmering aurora, they can thank Jean-Marc Philippe for the light show. Philippe, an artist in Paris, is the creator of KEO, a satellite designed to stay in orbit for 50,000 years. When KEO finally plunges back into the atmosphere, an ice age or so from now, its disintegrating heat shield will generate spectacular streamers of light--"to alert our descendants that something abnormal has happened," says Philippe. As the northern lights fade, KEO's core, a small titanium sphere, will fall to Earth somewhere, intact. Inside will be letters from us.
Philippe hopes to collect billions of letters, store them on compact disks in that titanium sphere, and launch them in 2001. Because KEO is meant to be a work of art, it will have giant wings that will flap for a few years after its launch. Their sole purpose is to be beautiful.
Some frequently asked questions about this plan include: Could someone who is not French have thought of it? Perhaps not. But the same could be said of the Eiffel Tower, hot-air balloons, and many other sublime creations. Will our descendants have CD players? Almost certainly not, but Philippe intends to include instructions (in pictures) for how to build one. Will we have any descendants in 52,001? No one knows. Why send messages to people we’re not even sure will exist? You’re missing the point.
The point is really not complicated: Philippe wants to make us—the people of the dawning third millennium—think. Trying to look back at yourself from 50,000 years in the future is like looking down at home from 50,000 feet; it may give you vertigo, as an early letter writer has put it, but it certainly gives you a different perspective. Philippe’s goal is to get people to look beyond their desks and kitchens and crowded roads and ponder what is important, and what kind of future they want to create for their world.
“An artist has to say what he feels strongly,” he says, “and what I feel strongly is the contradiction between a supremely gifted species, man, which is able to measure distances in light-years, manipulate genes, produce a Mozart—a magnificent species—and at the same time is able to behave, on a day-to-day basis, in a way that makes me ashamed. To raise kids, for example, in our rich society, who are sorry to be alive. There’s a profound incoherence to our culture. As an artist, what I want to do is stimulate the beauty of the species, the grandeur of humanity.”
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Philippe’s surprising idea is that it may actually fly. He has the support of the French aerospace industry, including a promise that his satellite will be launched on either a French Ariane rocket or a Russian Soyuz, if not in 2001 then probably in 2002. He has dozens of engineers from top industry and government labs in France working on his project for free in their spare time. He does not have billions of letters yet, but it’s early, and thousands have already poured into his Paris apartment and the KEO Web site—from 52 countries and from people from 7 to 92 years old. Philippe says he has room for every human to send up to four typewritten pages, or 6,000 characters. The messages will not be censored. You can say anything you like in any language.
Philippe is a slight man in black clothes, with graying hair and beard and a warm, open, focused expression. He talks very fast, in a rich baritone, but he listens well too. Thirty years ago he got a Ph.D. in space physics at the University of Paris. He doesn’t regret that education—these days it helps him talk to satellite engineers—but he hasn’t done a lick of science since.
“After graduation I chose to favor intuition over rationality,” he says. “So I became a painter. And at that point my problem was, what does it mean to be a painter in a society that has lost its values? I would have liked to have been an artist in the Renaissance, when there were values, values tied to the beauty of man. Instead I became a painter-provocateur, an antiestablishment painter.”
Philippe calls the art he did as a young painter graffiti, but it was graffiti on canvases—canvases that sold well in Paris galleries, and even hung in museums. Eventually Philippe tired of that kind of rebellion. He wanted to do something more constructive. Space spoke to him then, and not simply because of his scientific background. “The most beautiful poetry I ever saw were those first footprints on the moon,” he says. Lying outdoors on his back one summer night, watching the trace of light left by a satellite, it came to him: Why not use space as his canvas?
That is easier thought than done. Philippe has since conceived several works of space art, but only one has been realized. And that one was more performance art than sculpture or painting. In the late 1980s Philippe secured time on a large radio telescope near the Loire Valley and permission to use it as a transmitter of terrestrial signals rather than a receiver of celestial ones. He then mounted a publicity campaign, offering people the chance to send personal messages to extraterrestrial civilizations. Some 10,500 people sent letters via MINITEL, the French data-phone network. Philippe converted all those letters to radio signals and beamed them toward the center of the galaxy.
“There were three types of messages,” he recalls. “This was soon after the Chernobyl disaster, and so the first were along the lines of ‘Earth is beautiful, we’re ruining it, come help us.’ ” The second type of message was philosophical; people asked about the extraterrestrials’ views on God, for instance. The third type was more personal and even tender.
“A young nurse said, ‘On Earth, when people meet, the custom is to kiss or shake hands. No doubt you don’t have human lips. So with this message I’d like to caress your intelligence with mine.’ Another young girl said, ‘Oh extraterrestrial, I know you, it is you who are in the silence between the notes of my music.’
“People were absolutely unpredictable. One man who lived on Boulevard Montparnasse said, ‘Extraterrestrial! I live at 50 Boulevard Montparnasse in Paris on the second floor. If you come down to Earth, come visit me. But first go see Louise on the fourth floor and tell her I love her. If it’s you who tells her, she’ll believe it.’ ”
From sending messages to the universe to sending messages to the future is not so big a step. The inspiration for KEO struck Philippe suddenly in 1994. “He woke up one morning and asked me, ‘What do you think?’” recalls Karin Jestin, his wife. She thought it was a good idea. Philippe has been working on KEO for nearly five years now, without pay, and living off the proceeds of his other art; three years ago Jestin quit her own job as a management consultant to help him organize the project.
To make KEO real, Philippe needed the help of engineers. The first door he knocked on was that of Aerospatiale, the huge French company that is one of the main contractors on the Ariane rocket, the Airbus jet, and many other things that fly. Philippe met the human resources director there, an engineer named Patrick Tejedor. This turned out to be a lucky thing.
“I told him right away that I thought it was an excellent idea,” says Tejedor. “I could see it was a project that was one part dream, one part passion, and one part wonderful—and that all those parts might be a little difficult to realize, but that it could be done. And I knew that at Aerospatiale there would be people interested in working on this in their spare time. A company like ours produces things that make people dream—planes, rockets, helicopters, things that fly—and there are people who come to work here because they are dreamers. Philippe’s project could help motivate them, because it would take them beyond the routine of work.”
Official KEO site
Space Arts Program