Art Exhibit on the Moon

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Mark Rooker wheels his cart of tools into the studio. He heads over to an old gas tank sitting in the corner and twists the squeaky valve, sending argon gas shooting through pipes on the wall that lead to a large machine. After adjusting his chair and scooting in front of it, he focuses his eyes on microscope lenses and inserts his hands into the openings on the sides
of the machine. He’s now ready to get to work — creating a piece of art, welding metal with the LaserStar Laser Welder.

Rooker is a metals and jewelry professor in the School of Art, Design and Art History at JMU. He didn’t start working with metal until his last semester of college, but when he did, he was hooked.

“I just fell in love with the material and the process and the culture of it all,” Rooker said.

He returned to school and studied metal while working toward his Master of Fine Arts degree, and is now a master metalsmith and jeweler. He works with his hands to create art out of metal; however, this particular piece of art is different. This piece of art is going to the moon.

Rooker is a designer for the MoonArk Project, which is led by Carnegie Mellon University art professor and space artist, Lowry Burgess. The project will send art, which is representative of Earth and it’s culture, to the moon on a rover constructed by Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute in 2016.

The MoonArk will contain elements that are representative of art, design, drama, dance and poetry. It’ll also contain substances found on earth, such as ocean water, different forms of carbon, minerals, single-celled organisms and possibly human blood. This is contained in four separate chambers, each of which will be attached to the underside of the rover and reside permanently on the moon. Rooker is responsible for designing metal sculptures that run through the center of each chamber.

His involvement with this project began in 2013 while lying on a bleak hospital bed, recovering from major heart surgery. His wife sat with him in the recovery room and read an email he’d received. The sender was Mark Baskinger, the MoonArk Project director and Rooker’s former classmate in graduate school. Baskinger remembered Rooker’s impressive level of skill and recalled that he had a love for all things space and sci-fi. He asked if his old friend had any interest in being part of the project, and Rooker’s spirits were lifted immediately. His automatic response was, “Yes! I want my art to be on the moon!” 

Part of the reason why Baskinger knew Rooker was such a good fit for the project is that Rooker is able to create art on a very small scale. His sculptures, which fit easily in the palm of a hand, are a minuscule fraction of the size of a traditional sculptor’s work. This is a huge advantage to the project’s size and weight limits, and is due in part to the technology he uses to make his art — specifically, the LaserStar Laser Welder.

The LaserStar is an impressive machine that lives in JMU’s art building, Duke Hall. The $27,000 welder is the biggest, most complex and most expensive piece of equipment in the studio.

The LaserStar is a class- four laser, which is the most powerful laser available outside of those used for governmental work. These lasers are classified as hazardous. The laser beam in the machine is 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is just under 3,000 degrees cooler than the surface of the sun. The machine is able to make welds, which are significantly smaller than any other type of welding equipment, at just half a millimeter around.

If Rooker were to move his finger a millimeter too far while holding the metal under the beam, he would receive a third- degree burn. It would be a half-millimeter burn, but a painful burn all the same.

The intensity of this technology in the studio doesn’t scare Rooker — in fact, sitting with his eyes up to the optics and fingers centimeters from the laser beam is where he thrives.

“I need to work with my hands to be happy,” Rooker says. “Working with metal just feeds my soul in a lot of ways, and I knew that at a gut level long before I could rationalize it.”

The art that Rooker creates with this machine will be on permanent display 238,900 miles away, and he can’t wait to send it on its journey.

“If something or someone other than a human were to come across this art, I would want them to understand that there is more to us than science and technology, because that is all the evidence they have of us, and we are more than that,” Rooker says.