Monday, September 16, 2013

Sergio Autrey: Mixing Science and Art in the Satellite Business

One of Mexico's leading businessmen advises a group of artists on their launch of one of the world's first art satellites.

Sergio Autrey spent a decade and a half in Mexico’s satellite business — leading satellite phone company Globalstar de Mexico since 1996, and then SATMEX, Mexico’s leading satellite service provider, from 1998 through 2006. He has witnessed both the highs and the lows of that risky, and often unpredictable, sector: business partners declaring bankruptcy, a satellite that conked out unexpectedly, and the government changing the rules midstream about foreign competition. Now he’s helping to take satellites into a new direction: he’s working with a group of Mexican artists to help launch one of the world’s first art satellites.

What’s an art satellite? Conceived by Mexican photographer Juan José Diaz Infante, the satellite — called Ulises1, and named after late 20th-century Mexican multimedia artist Ulises Carrión — is Diaz Infante’s response to the chaos and social disruption created by Mexico’s drug war. In 2011, after reading an article about do-it-yourself satellites in Scientific American, Diaz Infante came up with the idea of creating a Mexican Space Collective.

He invited a variety of Mexican artists to create sounds or music that could be launched into space on a 20-centimeter-tall nanosatellite. One artist composed a piece based on the DNA of Mexican maize, with different notes for the A-C-T-G of the DNA code. Another created a magnetic resonant-sounding “Om,” with the aim of sending peace to the world.

Only one “sound composition” will be launched on the satellite (the selection hasn’t been made yet), but an exhibit featuring all 11 compositions has toured the Balloon Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Museum of Technology in Mexico City, and will head to Belgium and Madrid, Spain in the fall. Once the satellite is launched, you can listen to the composition being broadcast using any antenna that gets 433 MHz wavelength. It will also be broadcast through the Ulises website.

Diaz Infante says they are doing this in an attempt to “rupture thoughts.” Mexico, he explains, is “a poor country, and it’s in the middle of a drug war.” But if a group of artists who knows nothing about space can pull this off, “reality can be changed.”

One of the first people Diaz Infante turned to as an advisor was Sergio Autrey, who has long had a passion for contemporary Mexican art and was intrigued by the idea of this project. “We have to see ourselves in the future, and see Mexico as part of the space industry,” he says. “This is how we start, by taking risks.”

Autrey has provided advice on how to manage a satellite mission, the design of the satellite, and how to test it. The mission has a $150,000 budget. The satellite, which will only be in orbit for 2-3 months, is slated to be launched by U.S. firm Interorbital Systems in early 2014 from the ocean off the coast of California. Autrey is excited about how the preparation for the launch has spurred Mexican activity in aerospace. Over the past two years, Mexico’s Space Agency (known as AEM) was re-launched and more universities, including the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, now have space programs or are working on starting them, he says. “One of the goals is to take away the fear of satellites,” adds Autrey, a 1978 Stanford Graduate School of Business graduate. “There is fear of failure. In the satellite business, things can go very wrong.”

The project also pairs nicely with his artistic interests. “I think science becomes art in the satellite business,” he says, citing 19th-century French physiologist Claude Bernard, who said “Art is I; Science is We.” “An artist,” Autrey says, “is usually just one person, and science is more a collaboration between people.” But in the satellite industry, he says, everything has to work — one cannot fix a satellite once it is launched. “So I think that when you launch a satellite,” he says, “at that moment all the people that worked on the mission become as one person, and that is art.”