The Vitae Project

The Vitae Project

As I wrote in my post about ThumbSat, my friends on Dassault Systèmes’ Passion for Innovation programme asked me to help out with another of their projects created by the amazing French artist, Anilore Banon.  Anilore’s Vitae Project is going to put a sculpture on the moon – why not?!

Not only does Anilore want to put a sculpture on the moon, but she’s capturing at least one million handprints, and we’ll print them in small scale on the “dish” of the sculpture.  There’s a beautiful symmetry here.  Some of the oldest “paintings” on earth are human handprints on cave walls.  On the moon, if we can protect them against UV radiation, our handprints could last for just as long as those handprints in ancient caves.

I love the art aspect of Vitae, but from a professional and technical perspective, I approach it like any other payload. It’s incredibly challenging but phenomenally exciting. It really has the power to change the world.

The Vitae Project involves novel materials and multiple stages.

The first stage was an “edge-of space” mission with a small 3D-printed version of the sculpture. Anilore’s previous project was an awesome sculpture on the famous Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, to remember the casualties on both sides during D-Day. People said that installing her huge sculpture onto the sands, where it would be battered by the sea, would not work. She made it work, so putting a sculpture in a hostile environment like the moon does not scare her. The Normandy sculpture “Les Braves” was only supposed to be a temporary exhibit, but the townspeople loved it so much that they asked for it to stay.

Anyway… we thought that it would be beautifully symbolic if we carried out the edge-of space mission (on a stratospheric meteorological balloon) and launched it from Omaha Beach. It worked, and it was indeed beautiful.

Launch from Omaha Beach (Anilore’s “Les Braves” sculpture is visible in the background)
Edge of space, 120,000 feet above the Normandy countryside

While you can now buy fairly complex and expensive equipment for these types of edge-of-space flights, when we began we were doing it from scratch, and developed a clever yet simple and cheap way to achieve what we wanted (the whole mission can be carried out for less than £100). There were several college groups interested in this, and I passed on all of the details necessary for them to carry out their own missions.


The next stage of the project was to be carried out in real space, on the International Space Station.  We wanted to create the first truly deployable sculpture ever to reach Earth orbit, and we secured a ride on Nanoracks’ DreamUp programme.

Initially we worked with a company called Noumenon to build a deployable asculpture using shape memory foam, but it was proving too difficult to overcome the safety issues on board the International Space Station.  So we refashioned a sculpture using shape memory allow wire that was “trained” by Nimesis in France.  We also incorporated a few other exotic materials.

It’s rare that one gets to personally hand-build a device that goes into space, so it was very satisfying for me to see my finished handiwork.  It was fiddly, but the result was well worth it.

Vitae sculpture compressed like a flower (“stowed”)
Vitae sculpture deployed, as it would appear on the International Space Station


It was very exciting because it was the first project that I had personally hand built, on my own, after so many years of space engineering in larger teams, where one usually only gets to touch a small part.  The sculpture blasted off on a SpaceX rocket to the International Space Station earlier this year, and was successfully deployed by French astronaut Thomas Pesquet – thanks Thomas!