'Space cadet' artist renders satellites from salad bowls

When Brian Sullivan's friends nicknamed him ''space cadet'' in junior high school, they weren't being unkind - just accurate. Outer space and space flight dominated his fantasies. But while many others leave childhood fascinations rusting with their roller skates in the basement, Mr. Sullivan's head is still in outer space, envisioning the first manned flight to Mars or a huge ''oribital ear'' listening for E.T. to phone home across the universe.

Through a combination of ingenuity, imagination, and artistic skill, Sullivan is bringing his visions back to earth and creating a slide show of the future for us more gravity-bound earthlings.

Sullivan is one of the leading artists in the relatively new field of space illustration. What that means is that he can look at the lid of his Dairy Queen sundae and see a space station - and within a few hours make everone else see it as clearly as if he had taken a quick flight into orbit and snapped a picture of it.

So realistic and technically correct are his illustrations that they are exhibited in planetariums around the country and abroad and accompany articles in such futuristic magazines as Omni, Odyssey, and Discover. Both the European Space Agency and NASA have commissioned him to make their visions come to life - or seem to.

At a time when special effects are big box-office stars, making a fantasy spaceship appear real is almost old hat. And though his work is what he calls ''NASA-based'' (based on current technology), Sullivan claims no special technical expertise. He majored in audio-visual communications at Rochester Institute of Technology, not in engineering. But unlike moviemakers with their million-dollar budgets and year-long work schedules, he completes most of his projects in less than one or two days, and often for less than $30.

He manages this because of his unique way of seeing space hardware. For example, a satellite may remind him of a cole slaw container - or a deodorant cap, a flowerpot, a plastic sprinkler head, ping-pong ball, salad bowl, doorknob , or butter dish. A little glue, some photography and animation paint later, and presto - the space shuttle is docking at a solar satellite to make repairs.

As production designer for the Flandreau Planetarium in Tucson, Sullivan says he is used to working with ''no time and no money'' to complete special displays and shows for the planetarium's dome. His background as a special-effects technician at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., also helps. So does extensive investigation into space vehicles of the past and the direction of current research, through such publications as the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Space Technology, Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine and NASA technical briefings. And then of course, there's his $200-a-year budget for comic books - ''there's some really great artists working for comics,'' he insists. ''You can get some great ideas.''

All of which means that Sullivan's independent production company, the Farside Project, is ready to deliver - and deliver quickly - when the need arises.

For example, Discover magazine called earlier this year asking for a color illustration of possible future uses of the space shuttle, ''and, oh yeah, we need it yesterday,'' Sullivan recounts. He bought a clear salad bowl and drilled holes in it, screwed hex screws into the holes and added a few odd plastic bits he had about. He then spray-painted the bowl black, then battleship gray, and took a black and white photograph of it. With a pen he drew in details on the photo, added a model of the space shuttle (''Use the Japanese kits - the American ones don't fit together''), some air-brush magic, and a toothbrush full of white animation paint flipped across the background for a star field. Using a polarized lens and lights, he took a color picture of the result and in less than a day - and for $24 - he had a convincing picture of the space shuttle constructing an ''orbital ear,'' a project Congress is considering funding, to listen for messages from deep space. ''Discover wouldn't pay me for the salad bowl,'' he grins. ''They didn't believe it.''

If NASA could complete projects as easily as Mr. Sullivan, humans would be living and working in space today, he believes. ''We already have the technology to do these things - we should be there by now,'' he says. A bad economy and a political shift away from funding the space race have grounded many ambitious projects - except in the visions of a true space cadet.

''When NASA says, 'Here's something we're studying,' I get excited and put it together,'' he said, pulling out an illustration of a space station made out of the external fuel tanks from shuttle crafts. At present, the shuttle jettisons the tanks and they fall back to earth. NASA is considering leaving them in orbit and building space stations out of them - a big savings when the United States decides to build a space station. Other projects such as a space-built solar platform five miles across or a telescope 100 times more powerful than any now in existence - assembled in space but manned on the ground - have come to life through toothpicks, paper clip boxes, and Sullivan's imagination. At times, NASA uses these illustrations to make a case for their funding to Congress.

It is the Europeans who are commissioning illustrations of projects they actually intend to launch. Sullivan recently completed an ilustration of the Giotto comet probe that the European Space Agency will be sending to intercept Halley's Comet on its next swing by Earth later this decade. The Russians and Japanese also have comet probes in the works, but not the US. ''We've done all the background work, but our information is being used by everybody else while we're dragging our feet,'' he says glumly. ''The Europeans will be dominating the space race in the 1980s.''

Sullivan's speculations into future reality are sometimes too close to the mark for the US government, and show how touchy the situation is. In 1980 he created an illustration of what the Russian space shuttle ''Kosmolyot'' might look like, based on his knowledge of Russian crafts and a little guesswork. He offered the illustration to Omni magazine but it was the Central Intelligence Agency which responded first, calling and asking him not to publish any pictures of Russian spacecraft - and giving no explanation. Sullivan guesses that finances had more to do with the request than politics. News that the Russians had drop-tested their own shuttle might create the same public demand for space funding that the Russians' Sputnik did for the Apollo program in the 1960s. In any event, he didn't publish the picture.

Fantasy holds a special appeal for Sullivan, especially technology-based fantasy. After reading Arthur C. Clarke's ''Fountains of Paradise,'' he created a compelling illustration of an elevator tower 22,000 miles high, which would transport material and people to space stations for a few dollars' worth of electricity. Situated on the equator and anchored to an asteroid, Sullivan claims the tower is entirely feasible - once a microfiber stronger than steel is developed. At that time, however, towers might spring up around the globe and connect with each other in space, enmeshing the earth in a web of tunnels which could support the entire earth's population and then some. It's a space cadet's dream come true.

The darker side of fantasy also sometimes gets Sullivan's realistic treatment. He recently was asked to illustrate an article by noted astronomer Carl Sagan, in which Dr. Sagan speculated that Earth hasn't made contact with another planet because that planet's inhabitants destroyed themselves with their technology. In an eerie illustration, Sullivan shows an earthlike planet at the moment of the first nuclear blast, light spewing out of pristine darkness like an exploding boil.

''I don't like to draw destruction,'' Sullivan says, returning to his more hopeful illustrations of star probes and space colonies. ''But when you get an illustration to look real enough, it has an impact on people.''

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