Humanity’s First Cosmic Gallery of Children’s Art: What the Youngest Members of Our Young Species Most Cherish About Life on Earth
An illustrated love letter to our Pale Blue Dot by humanity’s most innocent scale models of the universe.
By Maria Popova
“Out of the cradle onto the dry land… here it is standing… atoms with consciousness… matter with curiosity,” Richard Feynman wrote in his poetic ode to the wonder of life a decade before he won the Nobel Prize in Physics and two decades before these atoms of consciousness sent their most ambitious civilizational artwork toward the unknown reaches of the cosmos as the Golden Record sailed aboard NASA’s Voyager spacecraft, carrying our music, our photographs, and our longing for connection.
An improbable dream dreamt by Carl Sagan, rendered real on the wings of his passionate conviction that we are “a species endowed with hope and perseverance, at least a little intelligence, substantial generosity and a palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos.”
A poetic gesture signaling to some other civilization who we are and what we value.
Humanity’s first art beyond our atmosphere.
A generation and an epoch of discoveries later, the first cosmic gallery of art by the youngest members of our young species is launching into Earth orbit: a data-gathering NASA satellite carrying 100 drawings by children, depicting what they most love about life on Earth.
Inspired by the Golden Record, the project is a collaboration between illustrator and graphic journalist Wendy MacNaughton and NASA spacecraft systems designer Luke Idziak, winged by Wendy’s DrawTogether experiment-turned-icon — another improbable dream made real and resonant for millions with little more than passion and perseverance.
DrawTogether was born early in the pandemic, in that Blakean way of complaining by creating: Amid the gasping incomprehension of the lockdown, as schools vanished from the cultural horizon and left parents around the world sequestered with their small humans and their large fears in every imaginable type of human habitat, Wendy — a longtime friend and occasional collaborator — began offering a daily series of free, simple, sunny-spirited online art lessons for kids, using drawing as a tool of social emotional learning and feeling-processing. Living proof of Ruskin’s impassioned Victorian case for drawing as a technique for paying attention. A way of seeing the world — both the inner world and the outer world — more clearly so that we may love it more deeply and live more unafraid of what we feel.
What began as a personal labor of love on Wendy’s Instagram became an online show became a global club, in that organic unfurling by which a seed becomes a sunflower. Millions of kids around the world have gathered for the ongoing invitations to draw a particular thing — a wolf, a treehouse, a ferry, a sunflower, the sound of a guitar riff, the weather in the heart. Then came NASA and the invitation to draw the largest thing there is for us earthlings: this one and only home, this drifting house in the drawing room of which our “child of a species” sits together to give shape to our love of life and our curiosity about it in the art we make and in the science that carries poems of metal and mathematics into space.
The satellite is part of NASA’s PACE initiative — a kind of R&D lab aimed at transforming the future of deep-space missions by designing ever-smaller, sturdier, and lither modular satellites. Only one such satellite has ever carried art into space before, and it carried Feynman’s diagrams — those beguiling hieroglyphics of quantum field theory, which created a new visual language for how subatomic particles interact, using drawing to usher in this new way of seeing the most fundamental layer of reality.
The drawings come from kids across different developmental stages, from early childhood to early adolescence, different cultural and social backgrounds, different places across this landmass — an elementary school in Ohio, the Booker T. Washington Community Service Center in San Francisco, a music school in Manhattan, a STEAM school in Los Angeles, a nature-centered school housed in an upstate New York barn. Accompanying each drawing is the child’s written answer to why they drew what they drew — a carnival of inventive spellings and simply worded elemental truths.
A fourth-grader named Amaya draws a butterfly in loving memory of her recently deceased grandmother, who loved “butterflys.”
Her classmate Rachelle offers a bittersweet reminder of the unselfconscious sincerity we learn to cower from as we grow up: “Dear NASA, I chose this drawing because I like nature, and it’s very pretty to look at and it calms me down.”
A boy named Christopher offers a most endearing and rather psychologically apt spelling of “astronaut”: aschonut.
A miniature philosopher of nine named Jovie draws the infinity symbol over a heart and explains: “This is love. Love brings us together. It will never tear us apart. We’re stronger with love.”
Punctuating the hundred-piece totality are some touching testaments to how impressionable kids are and how formed the human mind is by its cultural brine: cartoon characters, movie references, video game consoles, sports emblems.
But two things emerge as the most common objects of pride in life on Earth, incontestable as daybreak: nature and love. (Which are, in the end, a single thing.)
There are many people holding hands. There are flowers and turtles and a singing bird and a smiling octopus. Two different black-and-white curvatures colored by the mind’s eye into rainbows. The ocean and the sky. A multitude of mountains.
Most of all, there are the trees, abstracted and detailed, crowned and coniferous — a wilderness of ways of seeing, carrying a diverse forest of love into space. (Cue aschonut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to Earth’s trees and Bruno Munari’s existentialist exercise in drawing a tree.) Because, as nine-year-old Dominic explains in his caption, trees are “one of the most inportent thing on earth they give us 02.”
Radiating from it all is G.K. Chesterton’s dandelion-inspired observation that “what was wonderful about childhood is that anything in it was a wonder,” and echoes of Dylan Thomas’s poetic insight that, when we strip away the accrued confusions of adulthood, to be “children in wonder watching the stars, is the aim and the end.”
But what I find most moving is the developmental progression — by the time we get to the kids on the cusp of adolescence, the drawings are animated by the dual awareness that this wonder-full world is in peril and that it falls on them, these emissaries of tomorrow, to save it.
Thirteen-year-old Sylvia draws an exquisite geometric hummingbird to represent “the fragile beauty of our world.”
“Earth isn’t the best place right now,” writes thirteen-year-old Alma beneath a drawing of a smoking house and a denuded tree, “but we can work to fix it.” Their classmate Sebastian’s detailed drawing and pointed caption can spin a future President on her axis: “Taking notice isn’t enough we need to take action first.”
The project shares something profound and everlasting with its inspiration: The Golden Record’s stated scientific aim — to compress, encode, and transmit information about our world to another — was the Trojan horse by which Sagan conquered NASA’s consent and achieved his true aim, which was the poetic: In a world falling apart in the Cold War, shuddering with the aftershocks of two World Wars, haunted by the assassinations of Dr. King and JFK and Gandhi, here was a mirror held up to humanity, inviting us to reflect on who we are and what we stand for, on the staggering beauty of this indivisible, irreplaceable Pale Blue Dot and our staggering capacity for the noticing of beauty, which is the language of love — that ultimate poetic truth of what makes us human.
It is this same truth, made all the truer and more tender by their openhearted innocence, that radiates from the children’s drawings.
Published June 20, 2022