The International Space Orchestra

Royal Holloway, University of LondonUS


Concept / Student


Director and designer of experiences: Nelly Ben Hayoun, full team details here:


The International Space Orchestra (ISO) is a team of space scientists from the NASA Ames Research Center, the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Life) Institute, Singularity University and the International Space University. In the summer of 2012 in California, ISO performed Ground Control: An Opera in Space composed by a team including Damon Albarn, Bobby Womack, Penguin Café, Maywa Denki, Beck and two-time Grammy award winner Evan Price, with a libretto by science-fiction author Bruce Sterling and Jasmina Tesanovic, directed and created by designer Nelly Ben Hayoun. ISO members included NASA Flight Director, Rusty Hunt, a Payload Officer, a Capcom (triangle), and NASA center Deputy Director (Lewis Braxton performing the gong) and a NASA astronaut (Yvonne Cagle: percussion). As well as being an unconventional public space outreach event, ISO also acts as an experiential and hybrid interdisciplinary research and critical design environment in which space scientists and engineers were invited to implement, deconstruct, perform, sing, mix, modify, and design musical acts in control rooms, acting as a provocation and a critique to imagine and disrupt human relationships with science and technology. ISO bring together greek tragedy with space missions, orchestral music with space institutions and the human condition in their bureaucracy.


ISO’s first performance took place in front of the world’s largest wind-tunnel at the NASA Ames Research Center and its second in San José during the ZERO1 Biennial  In addition, public talks by leading NASA and SETI scientists were curated, giving insights into missions that inspired the musical composition. Ground Control was recorded at Skywalker Ranch, George Lucas’ studio (where fiction meet reality/ NASA versus Star Wars). In January 2013, the International Space Orchestra feature film had its world premiere at the Rotterdam International Film Festival where it was acclaimed by the critique as a “masterpiece” (ICO), a ‘real achievement’ (DOMUS), “as thrilling as watching a rocket launch” and “Spine Tingling” (Guardian). In May 2013, the International Space Orchestra performed at the Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco in front of 2,700 people with singer Beck. ISO also appears in newspapers and magazine worldwide (Wired, Guardian, Republica, Disegno, Icon Magazine, Domus, Protein, etc…). The International Space Orchestra record launched in space aboard the H-IIB Launch Vehicle on 4th August 2013 on two ArduSat ran by the company Nanosatisfi. The ISO disrupted ‘the Agency’ NASA  and created a ‘counterculture’ within it and beyond (that is still ongoing!)


I am a Designer of Experiences. I enable you to become an astronaut in your living room, to generate dark energy from pigeons’ eggs in your kitchen or to collide atoms in your bathroom. I have been appointed Designer of Experiences at the SETI (Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence) Institute. I extend outreach activities on scientists’ research in terms of scale and methods of engagement towards architecture, events and narratives by designing subversive experiences for the public. I have been described as the “Willy Wonka of Design and Science”. I aim to combat the hierarchy of art, design, architecture, technology and science fields by enlisting bold scientists, to contribute to experiences that mix creativity with technology, science with fiction, amateur with expert. Through these experiences I enable public access to normally off-limits scientific spaces. I believe that Design should not just serve reality, but strive to create wonder. I’m known for creating meaningful experiences that unlock people’s imaginations and that lead to new forms of individual and social imaginings and actions. I created the International Space Orchestra at NASA Ames Research Center in this context. The aim was to design an experience that would disrupt the bureaucracy of the space programme.


On this project, which took two years to come to fruition, I gathered all the collaborators, produced the project, fundraised on the go_ under extreme pressure, directed it, designed the set up, did a feature documentary about it, and currently still manage it. I intend to demonstrate that the role of the designer nowadays go beyond the one of the maker-only, we practice as author-director, editor, producer, and planner who assume a role as key agent in the larger context of creative industries.
The origins of the International Space Orchestra (ISO) was created in order to perform Ground Control: An Opera in Space, a musical piece inspired by three events in space history, the landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon in 1969, the detection of the 1420 MHz ‘Wow!’ signal by the Big Ear radio telescope in 1977 and the contemporary Kepler exoplanet detection mission by NASA. However, the purpose of ISO went beyond just straightforward performance being intended – in its various incarnations – to physically and emotionally engage both the ISO performers and the public through the use of dramatic reenactment as an experiential framework, reconnecting the two groups with NASA’s embodied imagination and cultural capital.


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