The first nonscientific payload the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will launch from its space shuttle, probably next May, is an artwork. And a far-out one, at that. Somehow, that seems appropriate. Moving off Earth into space is not a new idea to Lowry Burgess. He is the artist whose work, an elaborately manufactured five-inch cube titled ``The Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture,'' will be exposed to intense light and weightlessness in space and brought back to be embedded in a 400 million-year-old hunk of metamorphosed lake bed from Afghanistan.
Mr. Burgess took advantage of the non-scientific payload policy announced by NASA in August of last year. His artwork's ``seat'' on the shuttle will probably cost a little over $6,000. The space agency is scheduled to make an official announcement of this unconventional cargo at midweek.
``The Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture'' is one of a series of complex structures that make up Burgess's lifework, ``The Quiet Axis.'' It all began in 1968, with a vision of an inclined lake with waterlilies on it, high in the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan. Burgess managed to make his vision a reality with various technological aids such as holograms and what might be described as conceptual juggling of time and space.
The reorientation he experienced in the process led to the next stage, a moving from darkness into light, symbolized by ``The Utopic Vessel,'' a two-foot crystal sphere containing, among other things, saffron, pulverized holograms of ``peachlike forms,'' and honey. It was dropped into the Pacific Ocean near Easter Island in 1979, on the opposite side of the earth from the ``Inclined Galactic Light Pond'' in Afghanistan.
The next stages of his work materialize the idea of the upward release of droplets into space, sent forward into time as ``The Utopic Vessel'' hit the water (``Gate into Aether''), and the downward movement of the vessel backward into time and through the earth (``The Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture''), as Burgess sees it.
The ``Gate into Aether,'' a doughnutlike shape made up of 18 sections of frozen water from around the world, was rejected by NASA, since material would have been expelled into space. But Burgess's latest work requires only that a five-inch cube with holographs of texts be irradiated in intense light and be weightless. The cube contains all the elements and purified waters from Earth, surrounding an inner cube of nothing. The idea is that ``The Quiet Axis'' proceeds from darkness through nothing into l ight. Hence the exposure in space and then the reconnection with Earth.
It is all part of Burgess's effort ``to possess and understand that light'' incorporated in ``The Utopic Vessel,'' which is part of an ever-unfolding vision of purification and transformation out of materiality which he says he feels privileged to be able to explore.
Burgess calls ``The Quiet Axis'' a spatial and temporal axis extending from the dark side of the moon to the brightest star in the universe, in the Clouds of Magellan. It goes ``from darkness beyond darkness to light beyond light . . . an ancient mythic structure . . . reconnecting Earth to its matrix in the heavens.'' He thinks it is a ``perceptual shift,'' and ``if everybody shifted into his own vision, and everybody had that vision on that scale, .MDN M . . we would perceive where we are, and start doing things very differently.''
The rock that the artwork will be installed in upon its return from outer space is the property of the DeCordova and Dana Museum and Park in Lincoln, Mass., which is displaying the components, drawings, and notebook for the work through Nov. 19.
Last October, a computerized payload designed by sculptor Joseph McShane went into space aboard Challenger. Eight glass spheres were coated with gold, platinum, and other metals using vacuum deposition techniques. Though the result was artistic, it was considered a scientific payload. Burgess's piece will be the first strictly artistic cargo.