NASA Lunar Landing Research Facility at Langley (Photo: NASA/Bob Nye)

In 1964, NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia published a paper on their studies of ‘Man’s self-locomotion in Lunar environment’. This work formed part of a whole range of experiments which all had the goal of temporarily suspending the effects of Earth’s gravitational field in order to determine whether humans could move autonomously in its absence. With the imminent prospect that humans for the first time in history, at least temporarily, would leave their ancestral habitat, this was by no means a small question mark.

Only three years prior to this, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had been the first human to experience the sensation of weightlessness that is characteristic to the gravitationally curved free fall of orbiting a planetary body such as Earth. Gagarin had been crouching in a ship named ‘Vostok 3KA’, that in the descent phase essentially resembled an oversized cannonball, and every manned spaceflight since had also taken place within the extremely confined space of a capsule. Before the first tethered space ‘walks’ were performed by both cosmonauts and astronauts in 1965, it was thus essentially unknown whether the musculoskeletal system of our bodies would allow for intentional movement at all if it were to be freed from any frame of reference or subjected to the much weaker gravitational field of the Moon.

The work at Langley primarily aimed to add a technique to the range of existing gravity simulations which would allow for an unlimited duration of the test condition, so that more complex tasks such as the exploration of "possible caves" on the Moon or body movements required for the manipulation of mechanical devices could be staged and analyzed in great detail. To achieve this, subjects were suspended sideways from the ceiling by multiple strings in a way that was restricting the movement of their head and limbs to parallel planes. At the same time their feet were resting on an inclined ring-shaped structure or was part of a long walkway. The inclination of this plane in turn corresponded to the desired gravity. A fully horizontal position of the subject simulated complete weightlessness, while a deviation of for instance 9.5 degrees from that allowed for the simulation of traversing the Lunar surface on foot.

Thomas R. Kane's trampolinist (Photo: NASA/LIFE)

Another such experiment was Thomas R. Kane’s NASA-commissioned work at Stanford University which was exploring whether humans in microgravity conditions could rotate by moving their arms similar to the way in which a cat manages to turn in free fall in order to land on its feet. Kane first explained the ‘falling cat phenomenon’ – which he named ‘Jones Motion’ after a fellow NASA scientist – in a series of differential equations using a computer to generate drawings of the various turns required and then proceeded to have the resulting movement "acted out" by a space suit-wearing gymnast on a trampoline. Both experiments were ultimately regarded as successful in proving that "lunar explorers should be able to walk and run on the Moon" and, like many others, were extensively documented in both photography and film.

Yet, there is something strangely gripping about the visual documentation which may have to do with the researcher’s peculiar situation – the fact that they were exploring a place which was still quite literally beyond our world. Experiments like these thus form part of a branch of scientific investigation where certain parameters are changed to expose a subject to conditions as expected elsewhere. Since the intention stated by John F. Kennedy in 1962 was to go, but reaching this elsewhere still lay ahead in time, such experiments could well be considered to be pre-enactments of a chosen future.

Another factor that sets these pre-enactments apart from other experiments may be that the bodily experience of the simulated elsewhere was at their heart. For instance, photos of the Stanford experiment very much resemble the dance-like aesthetics of the work of Étienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard James Muybridge on human and animal locomotion and their focus on performance and its analysis. The photos of the subjects in free fall turn them into veritable subjects in the sense of photography, producing simulated yet beautiful visual impressions from a time yet to come and a place yet to be. They in turn themselves become visions of the future, especially if the visual context of the experiment has been omitted such as in LIFE Magazine’s coverage of the ’Copycat Astronaut’ in 1968.

The researchers of the Langley experiment at one point describe how test subjects, suspended by cables could perform "high jumps, forward and backward flips, handstands, and headstands and an increased ability to perform all sorts of movements" which on Earth may come with the risk of bodily harm. It becomes clear that they were indeed considering the subjective bodily experience of the simulated elsewhere when in their scientific paper they remark that "the effects of the Lunar gravity on a person's physical capabilities could be described as exhilarating". A carefully crafted experiment in order to explore how a certain future feels.

Langley Research Center 1964, Skylab space station 1974 (Photo: NASA)

How close the pre-enactment was to both the appearance and experience of floating in actual microgravity became clear with the first permanent American space station Skylab that was in orbit from 1973 to 1979. Its comparatively vast interior resembled a "small bungalow"; the main orbital workshop compartment alone was fourteen meters long and had a diameter of almost seven meters. The astronauts were able to float freely across its cylindrical shape, an experience which they described as "a delight in comparison to [moving yourself] on the surface of the Earth" and, according to the many films that can be found on YouTube, "every evening when all the work was done" they would go "up there and just free fly".

One of those short films is titled ‘Skylab Gymnastics’ and shows astronaut Alan Bean seemingly effortlessly performing some gymnastic feats which would be prohibitively difficult under Earth’s gravity, ninety seconds of which almost perfectly mirror footage from a suspension experiment at Langley Research Center. Taken in the future that had become the present and the elsewhere made accessible, pre-enactment and performance fuse into a man "having quite a bit of fun".


Evaluation of a Gravity-Simulation Technique for Studies of Man’s SelfLocomotion in Lunar Environment, Donald E. Hewes and Amos A. Spady, Jr., NASA, 1964
A Copycat Astronaut, LIFE Magazine, August 16 1968
Skylab Gymnastics, NASA,
Skylab Space Station 1, NASA,
Centrifuge Gravity Simulation, NASA,

As appeared the New Order exhibition catalog, part of Volume 32: Centers Adrift