Humanities PhD Researcher Explores Image and Truth-telling at NASA

On the 21 October 2016, the European Space Agency decided on its preferred landing site for the ExoMars rover, due to set out on a one-year investigation of the surface of Mars in 2020. Concurrently, Critical & Historical Studies research student Luci Eldridge began writing up her PhD research on NASA’s images of Mars, reflecting on research trips such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena CA, and NASA Ames, Silicon Valley. 

Prior to her research studies, Eldridge, whose PhD is entitled Mars, The Virtual Landscape and Invisible Vision: Immersive Encounters with Contemporary Rover Images, received an MA in Printmaking at the RCA. She is one of many researchers who arrived in the School of Humanities from a background in Fine Art or complementary discipline, and whose approach incorporates an understanding of thesis research as a kind of practice in itself. The Royal College of Art is known for its Humanities research that combines the intellectual rigour of traditional academic study with a dynamic and creative approach. 

Eldridge’s work is an excellent example of this type of research activity. Building on an interest in planetary imaging that evolved during her MA, she questions the place of the image as a truth-telling device, particularly with regards to our perception of terrains physically unavailable to us.

With developments in space exploration over the last few years – New Horizon’s flyby of Pluto, ESA landing Philae on comet 67P, and Kepler discovering habitable Exoplanets – there is an abundance of images by which it is possible to explore the notion of ‘invisible vision’ inherent in imaging outer space. Eldridge is focusing on Mars, our closest planetary neighbour. Due to its deadly and inhospitable nature, we can still only experience Mars through the image and the imagination

Eldridge has carried out several pivotal trips for her research. At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Eldridge was hosted by ‘Mars rover driver’ John R Wright, who provided her with in-depth access to the facilities, including the developmental stages, construction, and control room of the Mars rover, as well as Curiosity’s Earth-bound prototype and its testing grounds, the Mars Yard. At NASA Ames Eldridge was able to explore head-mounted displays developed for perception tests. The process enriched Eldridge’s research into how different image forms are used for virtual exploration of Mars. But the real highlight was an experience in FutureFlight Central: a large-scale and immersive 360-degree panorama of Mars. She was thrilled at this unprecedented simulation of a pivotal concern in her research, noting the similarity such an illusion might share with painted panoramas of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

Eldridge’s visit enabled her to present her research to scientists from the NASA Ames Human Systems Integration Division. She gained critical feedback from notable leading professionals in the field. The presentation provided new insights and questions: Eldridge was inspired by the intellectual contact and support from a scientific community that works with such images on a daily basis. During her trip, Eldridge also attended The Sixth International Conference on the Image, hosted by the University of California, where she delivered a paper on her research.

In summer 2016, Eldridge presented new work alongside the work of RCA Print alumni Meg Rahaim at an exhibition entitled Framed Expanse (Cube Gallery, Leicester). One work stemmed from the NASA Ames trip, with other work relating to a visit to Airbus Defence and Space's Mars Yard, which Eldridge undertook in 2014. Airbus are working on the autonomous navigation system on ESA's ExoMars rover (due to launch 2020). Eldridge visited the Mars Yard to take photographs and interview engineers for the final chapter of her thesis. Her interest centred on the combination of object and image used in this immersive testing ground. Eldridge says, 'the image, funnily, is not registered by the rover as "Mars" but indeed as it truly is, as a flat wall – it's more important for colour consistency, and of course for our immersion as humans'.

Eldridge’s research is an example of the ways in which the School of Humanities recognises the critical value of access to research resources, including fieldwork and visits to facilities and professionals outside of the UK. The School encourages students to think broadly when considering undertaking a research degree in Humanities at the RCA. The College offers funds to support activities, conferences, travel and student-organised events. In so doing, it hopes to nurture an already expansive and accomplished body of research students and to attract like-minded practitioners and research models for the future.