Artist and scientist Ed Belbruno channels the universe in his art
By Scott Morgan
Edward Belbruno’s life reads like a movie script.
In 1991, Belbruno was at a low point in his life and his career when Japan’s space agency, the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, came along, and everything turned around.
ISAS used the theory that had just gotten Belbruno fired from his job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to save its Hiten lunar mission. In the process, they — and Belbruno — redefined the way we think about space travel.
And while no one has produced a Hollywood version of Belbruno’s life, the story of how he used his artwork to save the Hiten mission has been chronicled in a recently completed feature-length documentary, Painting the Way to the Moon, by Emmy-nominated director Jacob Akira Okada.
You see, in addition to being a noted scientist and mathematician, Belbruno, a Princeton resident, is an accomplished artist. His works have been shown in exhibitions in Paris, Rome, Los Angeles, New York and Minneapolis, and one of his paintings, commissioned by the director of NASA, is in the space agency’s executive collection in Washington.
And while he is most celebrated for his scientific accomplishments, Belbruno considers himself an artist first.
“Math and painting each use very different parts of my brain,” Belbruno said. “Math is something I’m good at. But I was born to paint.”
Belbruno lived in Germany until the age of 2, coming to the United States with his family in the 1950s. His mother worked at various part-time jobs, including as a clerk in a bookstore, and a financial record keeper in a drugstore. His father was in the U.S. Army, and afterwards became a technical writer for Westinghouse.
Belbruno first discovered his love of painting as a 7-year old. His first finished work was of Titan, one Saturn’s moons.
“I read a lot of science fiction like (Robert A.) Heinlein and (Isaac) Asimov’s Foundation trilogy when I was a child,” he said. “Science was something that triggered my imagination, but my interest manifested in paintings.”
Although Belbruno had considered making art his life’s work, he opted instead to pursue a career in mathematics. He earned his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in the subject from New York University.
As shown in Painting the Way to the Moon, Belbruno’s path toward integrating science and art started in 1984. Belbruno, fresh out of grad school, was unhappy in his job teaching mathematics at Boston University, and was again contemplating a career in art.
Instead, he left BU for a job working for NASA to design trajectories for the Galileo mission from earth to Jupiter at its Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Unfortunately, Belbruno was just as unhappy at JPL as he was at BU.
“It sounded really cool at first,” he said, but soon he realized the magnitude of what he was working on. “However, when I got there I [was stuck by the reality] that Jupiter is a real planet and that the spaceship is not just a point on paper, but a $4 billion machine.”
Eventually, he worked out a trajectory and thought he had accomplished his task, but soon learned that JPL was going to need “about 1,000 more of them.”
“After a year, it was pretty clear that it was oil and water with me and the space business,” Belbruno said.
He transferred from working on Galileo to a project focused on finding a new way to get spacecraft into the moon’s orbit using a meandering, low-energy route. Belbruno thought he’d have several years to find a solution, but JPL gave him three months.
“Part of me said, ‘I’ve been set up,’ because I didn’t really mix with the place very well,” said Belbruno. “I instantly went into a state of confusion and uncertainty. I was panicking. I thought, ‘I’m never going to figure this out, it’s impossible.’”
After his initial consternation, though, he had an epiphany. He thought that his subconscious might be able to find a solution where his logical, conscious mind could not. He was going to paint.
“My reasoning was, ‘If I do a painting of a route to the moon, my subconscious is going to access that route where my conscious mind could not do it. Maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll see in that painting a little route to the moon and that might save the day,’” Belbruno said.
What he came up with was a rather abstract whorl of purples and blues, pocked with dots of yellow and orange, traversed by a gray-white line that loop-de-looped its way through space and ringed the moon.
“The real test was to see whether it actually worked,” he said. “So I transferred the trajectory to a computer, which had this really fancy JPL software on it, and I found that it really did work.”
It was a route that basically redefined the thinking at the time about getting spacecraft to celestial bodies. The space agency, however, wasn’t as excited as Belbruno by the theory. To his bosses, it seemed more like science fiction than science.
“I thought they were going to throw rose petals in my path, but it didn’t work that way,” he said. “I was using words like ‘chaos’ and ‘fuzzy boundaries’ from my theory—that’s what it’s called because the regions where you get capture around the moon are very fuzzy and there’s no definition to them.”
They told him, “Don’t work on this any more, because we don’t do this here,” he said.
So Belbruno went back to his day-to-day work, but over the period of several years he worked in his spare time to improve the new route.
“The original route that I had found was two years to the moon. I knew if I could find a shorter one, that would be really valuable. Not using fuel for capture is really important, and it saves a lot of money.”
That, it turns out, was NASA’s problem with the theory, Belbruno said.
He said he was told by his supervisor that if he solved the problem as well as he was doing it, it would mean missions that were way too efficient. “They said, ‘We don’t want you working on this any more, because if you figure this out, it means that we will be able to employ less people, the missions will cost less money, and that means we’ll have to lay people off.’”
“I told him I was going to keep working on it any way. It turned out that wasn’t really the best strategy,” Belbruno said. The tactic wound up getting him fired.
“That was a tough few days for me,” he said. “I lost my girlfriend, broke out in hives, I ran over a dog and it bit me when I went over to see how it was doing, and my car just stopped working one day when I was driving down the street. I felt like crows were going to come out of the sky and attack me.”
Enter the Japanese space program.
Earlier that year, in 1990, the country had launched a mission that would make it the third nation in history to send a spacecraft to the moon, but the craft that was meant to enter the moon’s orbit failed. Japan wanted to find a way to try to get the mothercraft, Hiten, into orbit, even though it was never intended for that purpose. The larger problem was that there wasn’t enough fuel to get the Hiten spacecraft into the moon’s orbit using standard routes.
Belbruno heard about the mission on the news, and faxed ISAS an unsolicited proposal outlining his work. A few days later there was a knock at his front door by an ISAS representative. They wanted his help.
Belbruno returned to his actual drawing board and painted a new inspiration—a deep blue backdrop dotted by the moon and the Earth, the distance between which was marked by a pathway that looks like a French curve that mechanical illustrators use.
Rather than going straight toward the moon, he thought, head away from it, then swoop around to better capture orbit. To his surprise, Japan went for it, and ISAS proved his theory worked when Hiten successfully entered into the moon’s orbit about a year after Belbruno first started working with ISAS.
Today, the scientific community recognizes the impact of Belbruno’s accomplishment.
“Ed came up with a practical way to exploit the intrinsically complicated dynamics furnished by chaos theory to design spacecraft trajectories that use very little fuel, or, figuratively speaking, are fueled by chaos,” said Marian Gidea, a professor of mathematics at Yeshiva University and colleague of Belbruno’s. “Indeed, his design of the Hiten re-energized a whole field of research.”
Richard Gott, professor of Astrophysics at Princeton University, called Belbruno a master of his field in a comment about Belbruno’s book, Capture Dynamics and Chaotic Motions in Celestial Mechanics. “Belbruno found the almost magical low-energy chaotic orbit that got the Hiten spacecraft successfully to the moon. This text has a beautiful general treatment of chaotic orbits, which are now of great importance both in the celestial navigation of spacecraft and in evaluating the threat of killer asteroids in near earth orbit.”
A resident of Princeton since 1999, Belbruno has assembled a unique résumé and is focusing on his painting more than ever. He’s found his full artistic voice, which sometimes influences or is influenced by his science work, and his scientific work is still breaking ground.
Belbruno heads a business called Innovative Orbital Design in Princeton, and serves mainly as a consultant on space travel. His work with Princeton University has led him to a theory that the universe is in a continuous expand-and-contract cycle. That theory, he said, was built from understanding microwave patterns (which, by the way, feature heavily in many of his paintings).
Did his painting inspire this universe theory? Well no. At least not consciously, he said. But given that his work comes from “the zone” where unconscious and conscious intermix, Belbruno concedes that something he painted might have lain dormant in his head for a few years and eventually came out as a new understanding of the singularity that generated the universe.
Belbruno has been active as an artist as well. Last month, he hosted a two-day exhibition in his residence on Park Place, which he had specially designed with 30-foot ceilings to serve not only as his home, but also as a professional art studio.
The exhibit coincided with the premier of Painting the Way to the Moon on Princeton Community Television, and there are plans to show it at festivals and in in theaters. There is also a possibility it will air on PBS, Belbruno said.
In his artwork, Belbruno crafts richly textured, large-frame paintings that he said trigger “a spiritual experience” in the viewer, and his work casts a dreamy, Van Gogh-like charm, which is fitting, because he is heavily influenced by Van Gogh’s use of colors and textures.
Since 2010, he’s done more work in what he calls his “Tree Series,” which is trees and landscapes as seen through the eyes of a celestial visionary, as inspired by Van Gogh and the German expressionist works of Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Hermann Max Pechstein.
Belbruno said that his newer series are done with extremely vibrant colors and lots of texture. Before that, his paintings were done in an impressionistic style, surrealistic or even cubist style, but never free-form abstract
“Sometimes when I’m painting, I’m concentrating so thoroughly on a particular piece of the canvas and so intensely I don’t see the rest of the painting,” Belbruno said. “Then I stand back and see the whole thing. And I think, ‘Holy s**t! Wow! Where did that come from?!’ I’m definitely channeling something. I call it the Universe.”
“When I’m doing these newer paintings, I’m completely in the zone. I lose track of time, I’m not thinking at all,” he said. “If I start to think, I stop painting. If I start to think, my mind controls my hand, and I don’t want that to happen. The best painting always occurs without thinking too much. It’s easy to paint a well-defined landscape or person, but to just let the image come out of you, that’s a challenge. You put a lot of faith in yourself to get this process to work. You have to have faith that the unconscious self is going to know how to make a painting pop. It pretty much always works.”
Belbruno said he believes that when he’s in “the zone,” “the unconscious part of myself is connected to another dimension that parallels the one we see with our eyes, but this dimension is one you cannot see with your eyes and it taps into that. That’s where all the knowledge of the universe is sitting. If you can tap into that, and you are an artist, you are going to get a painting that looks magnificent.”
There is little doubt that Belbruno’s art inspires other artists, however.
Mary Ann Martini of the Metropolitan Opera, who met Belbruno “several seasons ago” when the Met selected him to sit on a panel to discuss Robert Oppenheimer said, “Dr. Belbruno was very well-received and actually created one of his now distinctive paintings based upon the life and times of Oppenheimer, which was shown during that Met Opera event.
“His ability to bring science and art to life—as well as to incorporate his now infamous chaos theory to his artwork—was a great inspiration to all who attended.”
Belbruno’s work also caught the attention of Okada, who, after two years and countless interviews with Belbruno and colleagues such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, put the finishing touches on Painting the Way to the Moon this year.
As for where Belbruno will take his art — or his science — next, he says he doesn’t worry about such things. He simply harnesses what he calls “a powerful inner drive” and lets his mind loop-de-loop. Like a butterfly on a Sunday breeze.
Belbruno’s works will next be shown in New York City from May 9 to 11 at the PooL Art Fair New York 2014 (poolartfair.com) at 11 Rivington Street, in SoHo. For more information on “Painting the Way to the Moon,” go to facebook.com/paintingthewaytothemoon.