The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, known as NASA, turned one-hundred this year.
As part of the centennial celebration, NASA's Langley Research Center commissioned a special work of art. It’s not a sculpture or painting. It’s a dance.
And when you think about it, the art of dance is a wonderful way to capture the essence and honor the achievements of the centenarian space agency.
In 1917, when they broke ground for the first Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, Air travel was young and space flight still only a dream. That first lab was called NACA, which stood for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. And that’s where Amy VanKirk, who teaches Dance at Radford University started; at the beginning.
Van Kirk spent months going through decades of NASA history, adding hours more with her own interviews of current and former employees.
“What I wanted to do was represent not just the facts or the accomplishments of NASA Langley for the past 100 years, but what it was like to work there," VanKirk said. "What is it like to create these things? To invent these things that get people into space; to have breakthrough advances in earth science technology.”
And what she heard is that it’s a lot like choreography. It requires inspiration. There’s lots of trial and error and endless refinements.
“These are very creative people. All these people are talented in physics or engineering or math but as was referenced in the recent movie Hidden Figures, which was about mathematicians who worked at Langley; that you can do all the math and science you want, but unless you ask the right questions, no one’s going to land on the moon.”
VanKirk interviewed Christine Darden, a Hidden Figure who did research on sonic boom minimization and hypersonic flight. She was part of that team of black women who made it possible for the U.S. to win the space race in the 60’s.
“The expanse, alone of these accomplishments is really exciting. But then to hear the similarities in Christine Darden being so passionate about what she did then, -- you have to think creatively—and that’s what we do (as choreographers) as well.”
Leland Melvin is a former football player from Lynchburg Virginia who went on to study science at the University of Richmond and UVA and became an astronaut. He flew two space shuttle missions. He keynoted the centennial celebration.
“Watching Amy and her team translate all the things that we did there at Langley into motion and into dance and you could see them twirling their fingers like they were writing equations on the blackboard or launching into space or launching in to the atmosphere as they jumped and moved and pirouetted,” Melvin said.
"I think of STEAM instead of STEM education; Science, Technology, Engineering Arts and mathematics," Melvin noted. "We have to make sure our kids know how to do math and science but also have an appreciation for the arts and know how to do the arts so they can be complete individuals. What Amy and her team did to bring that home was phenomenal!”
The ten minute Dance is titled, “Remember the Future.”
Choreography by Amy VanKirk, original music by David Roth and motion graphics by Heather Walters.