Yuri's Night: Burning Man meets NASA

Artists and science geeks, DJs and dancers on hand, celebration of Yuri Gagarin and first manned spaceflight was a perfect mashup of cultures. Photos: Yuri's Night Space Party

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--So, when did NASA merge with Burning Man?

That was a little bit how it felt here on Friday night at NASA's Yuri's Night World Space Party--a commemoration of Russian cosmonaut .

Held at the NASA Ames Research Center, this was an all-night science fair cum dance party cum aviation festival, but with a healthy topping of the hip, artistic, community-minded rhythm found in the Nevada Black Rock desert's annual Burning Man festival.

I know I shouldn't make the comparison, because every time I attend an event and compare it to Burning Man, the organizers complain. "This has nothing to do with that," they always seem to shout. But it was hard not to come away with that impression as several of the very first exhibits, set amid the giant NASA hangars, were pieces that had been created originally for Burning Man. So let's just say that spirit was very, very much in evidence last night.

This event, however, was really about a worldwide shout out to Gagarin and his pioneering role in getting humans into space. The NASA event here was, in fact, just one of 122 events being held in 33 countries.

Yuri's Night World Space Parties were intended to serve "as both a tribute to our global heritage of space exploration and a reminder of how much more is out there to be discovered," the official program heralded.

Dozens of exhibits--ranging from the science of predicting earthquakes, to that of studying microbes on Mars, to "self-propelled, motion-sensor drawing robots," to interactive kinetic light sculptures--spread out inside and outside the giant hangar. At first it felt like a Maker Faire for the science set. Then I noticed that Maker Faire itself had a booth.

It was kind of the ultimate mashup of do-it-yourself and the ultimate don't-do-it-yourself: Burning Man artists, Maker Faire crafters, DJs and science geeks convening at NASA, controller American space exploration. Even the NASA angle was tempered, however, by the inclusion of Anousheh Ansari, the first female private astronaut.

Early in the evening, I stopped by Ansari's press conference, an intimate affair attended by no more than a dozen journalists. Given the tenor of the evening, it was worth seeing what Ansari thought about the prospects of space travel for more people of the not-so-uberwealthy set, people who can't pony up a quarter of a million dollars for a jaunt on a private rocket.

"I definitely think that as we get more competition in the suborbital market, the price will come down," Ansari told me. "Maybe in 10 or 15 years it will come down as low as $10,000 or $15,000.

"There's so many (entrepreneurs entering the business). We definitely can get to those numbers," she said.

Fair enough. That's still more expensive than a luxury trip to Paris, but definitely not the sole province of the filthy rich. If I start saving my change now, I might be able to afford one of those journeys by 2022.

Later, I went back outside to see artist Michael Christian's "Hypha," a tall, metalwork sculpture originally built for Burning Man 2005. I also saw several geodesic domes set up to house some of the exhibits. And I was struck by something: "Hypha" was roped off and unapproachable. And the domes had signs that said: "Do not climb."

I understand liability, but "Hypha" was built specifically to climb. In the desert two years ago, the sculpture always had people inside it. Geodesic domes are amazingly strong and easily able to handle people scaling them. So why were they there if not to climb? It felt like a bit of a disconnect to see a piece like "Hypha" at an event like this and have it be disengaged from the participants.

I still don't have an answer, but well, maybe it was only my concern. Besides, there were definitely some interactive elements of the event, including a lovely, old, four-engine Boeing airplane, called Phoenix, sitting in one corner of the hangar. I regret I was unable to determine its model number. By ducking underneath, however, it was possible to climb up inside it. So I did just that and emerged inside the cockpit of this wonderful plane.

Because this was a party, however, the pilots' seats were already occupied by a couple of fellows nursing their beers and playing with the controls. They pulled back on the rudder, and the plane actually shook a little bit. We joked about where we would fly off to.

Back on the floor, I wandered into one of the domes and watched a projection of NASA World Wind, a free, downloadable application that gives a Google Earth-like view of the world and then lets you zoom into satellite views of any place you want to see. This one had a special feature I liked: Little icons appeared all over the globe to signify all kinds of natural events--such as fires, hurricanes, and floods--on which you could zoom in to see satellite imagery. It was very cool.

Another Google Earth-like exhibit was Burning Man Earth, a custom application of Google's software mixed with 3D renderings of Burning Man and its art. I'd written about it before, but hadn't seen it in action. Again, very cool.

As I wandered, I couldn't go more than eight feet without bumping into someone I knew: friends from my social circles, people who work with NASA, people from the virtual-worlds companies I write about, and others. This particular Yuri's Night event was the perfect confluence of the communities I run in and write about.

As I looked around, flashing lights everywhere, ambient DJ music in the background, friends saying hello, science and art on abundant display, and everyone smiling, I knew we were all in the right place, just like Yuri Gagarin was in 1961.

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