Sarah Jane Pell: Re-defining engaging creative experiences from Sea, to Summit, to Space.

Women in Tech


Australian artist Dr. Sarah Jane Pell is an independent artist on Earth (since 1996), commercial diver (since 2001), Artist-Astronaut Candidate (since 2016), and an explorer and researcher of new worlds. She is on a mission to bring space to art, and art to space. She has exhibited since 1997: Themes of human-aquatic adaptation to other worlds and other extreme-performance interfaces are central to her work. She is best known for pioneering “aquabatics” that is performed underwater or shown in museums as films and artifacts. To be honest, the real work for Pell has been to push the boundaries of what defines research and extreme exploration performance in practice, prioritizing experimentation by design, and seeking practice-led research opportunities to demonstrate creative research impact pathways for that 15% in high-risk operational environments. By doing so she strives to build an international award-winning creative arts research practice in hard-to-access underwater technology and space-related environments.

“I “inspire” others by sharing what I do. People are inspired to be bold, to be ambitious, and to be curious, creative, experimental and adventurous. This is an outward appreciation for the complex and poetic work that is unlike anything they have heard before.”

The Journey-- of Passion & Joy

Her career began with a 3-year investment in underwater performance by the Edith Cowan University (ECU) Pro ViceChancellor’s Fund Innovation Advancement Enterprise Office. Pell established the Aquabatics Research Team initiative [ARTi] in 2002 for performing pneumatic acts; integrating advanced-life support systems with choreographic media; and designing and demonstrating prototype-breathing apparatus. From 2003, Pell also aligned herself with SymbioticA: the art and science laboratory at the School of Anatomy & Human Biology, UWA. She collaborated with pioneer bio-artists on the ‘LifeBoat Project: a mobile performance and biotechnology lab’ contained within a ship’s lifeboat and home to the processes of life itself. By 2005, Dr. Pell was selected for the League of New World Explorer as Official Artist-Aquanaut of the subsea habitat Atlantica Expeditions citizen-led program towards permanent undersea human presence and zero-waste colony. The first artist to graduate from the International Space University, Dr. Pell led and co-authored the successful SSP06 team project ‘Luna Gaia: a closed loop habitat for the Moon’ under Co-Chair Gen. Dr. S. Pete Worden. NASA HQ approved and adopted outcomes and Popular Science 2007, animated the design and called it “a self-sustaining lunar habitat that would make Al Gore proud.” She also participated in the 2006 NASA-SETI Haughton-Mars Project, HMP Lunar Medical Contingency Simulation; Non-tethered Neutral Buoyancy EVA SIMs in France 2006. In parallel, she devised ‘SubCulture: a liminal Bio Sphere’ with art and science producers The Arts Catalyst, London. Her own long-duration submersion-act, SubCulture proposed to examine the human experience on artificial worlds and the bio-political implications of the astrobiological condition. Her activities revealed that divergent human embodiment is indistinguishable from environmental interactions from sea, to summit, to space. Leonardo LABS, MIT, awarded her Ph.D. on Aquabatics as the “Best Ph.D. Art & Science” 2007.

Between 2008-2012, Pell logged over 500+ hours as an Occupational Diver contracted to perform repetitive black-water operations under extreme conditions in the remote, wilderness of Macquarie Harbour. She achieved operational and highly specialized diving mastery spanning the commercial, aquaculture, film-tv, and scientific research diving. By contributing embodied knowledge to research in diving operations, namely with unique insight from a zero-visibility black-water operations perspective, her design insights demonstrated significant impact in expanding human-factors research in remote and extreme environments, contributing to bounce-diving procedures and high-altitude diving standards. She continues to have extensive access to the latest diving technology and hyperbaric professionals, underwater laboratories and subsea explorer networks valuable to this research. 

But it also came at a cost. This was the last time Pell had secure employment. Pell has lived in crew-housing, shared and temporary accommodation for well over a decade. Working in high-risk operational environments in remote locations such as the West Coast of Tasmanian places enormous restrictions on access to health services and amenities, and limited social, intellectual and cultural engagement. The cost has been commercial, professional, personal and psycho-social. Pell hasn’t had a relationship: she remains a single self-reliant soul, and the chance of having a family of her own feels slim. 

She has visited many space agencies and designed and exhibited a space-art payload that was launched into orbit with JAXA 2009. Valued as an orthogonal thinker, Pell received a priority-scholarship to the Singularity University in 2010 to conduct a NASA-commissioned technology impact report, predict exponential space technology trends, and map pathways to positively impact a billion people in ten years. Her team ignited startups including MadeInSpace and Escape Dynamics. Pell founded Bio-Enhancement Space Technologies [BEST], which failed to get traction. She also co-developed and led tethered-EVA SIM Workshops with Astronaut Dan Barry, NASA Ames Pool 2010; and participated in FMS and VMS Shuttle Pilot Simulations at NASA Ames 2010. 

Since 2012, Pell has been a Research Associate: AEGIS Research Group (Arts, Ecology, Globalization & the Interpretation of Science) within the RMIT University, School of Art. Many technical and creative publications have resulted. A Visiting Research Fellow, RMIT University 2012-2015, Pell has hacked interaction design and digital systems for use underwater at the Exertion Games Lab and co-authored multiple papers and ARC Discovery submissions on ‘Designing Aquatics Digital Play to Benefit Australian’s Well-being’. As Visiting Faculty, International Space University Southern Hemisphere Pell led EVA Simulation Training Underwater with a remote Mission Control Workshop over 2 days with 40 students in 2013. In 2015, Pell led BENDING HORIZONS and reached Everest Base Camp intending to summit Mt. Everest and make art on-route. She reached Everest Base Camp 5364m and survived the 2015 Gorkha Earthquakes. She also penned ‘Bodies in Extremis’ for publication in Star Ark: a Living, Self-Sustaining Star Ship by Prof. Rachel Armstrong Eds. It also inspired a short film set on Mars “We are all Explorer Fish” which premiered at Meta. Morf 2016: Trondheim’s Art & Technology Biennale. 

Project PoSSUM (Polar Suborbital Science Upper Mesosphere), 2016

In 2016, Dr. Pell qualified as an Artist-Astronaut Candidate and became Australia’s first female Scientist-Astronaut, for the suborbital spaceflight aeronomy experiment with Project PoSSUM [an acronym for Polar Suborbital Science Upper Mesosphere]. She then partnered Project MOONWALK as the Simulation Astronaut for the Human-Robotic Collaboration EVA Simulation Mission trials at the Comex Undersea Lunar Analogue site, Marseille FR. This 3-year cooperative Research & Development project was funded by the European Commission, while Pell’s participation was supported by Skycorp Inc. She then joined The SeaSpace Society: Project POESIDON as Official Aquanaut 100-day Undersea Mission in 2017 (now re-branded as Untethered Exploration and looks forward to a Dubai 2020 Expo project). The same year, Pell was also identified as an Australia Council Arts Leader “on a mission” to create positive change for the sector and to actively promote and represent the interests of Australia. Pell was also internationally recognized as a global Gifted Citizen with an Honourable Mention in the prestigious $100,000 Prize for her outstanding impact and contribution to global innovation; and access, inclusion, and diversity in the field of Sea/Space exploration. 

In 2018, Pell was COMMANDER of LunAresMoonMars Station SPECTRA Mission in Pila, Poland. She architected a high fidelity 15-day lunar analogue mission in total isolation and confinement of the Lunares Habitat with an enclosed darkened Crater simulating the far-side of the Moon, and with a remote Mission Command. 

Pell recently returned to Nepal in March 2019 as CREW of the inaugural Mars Analogue Medical Unit Mission. This project benefited from her established collaborative research foundation and preliminary work, and it enabled great healing after the quakes. 

Dr. Pell is also the first Australian TED Fellow. She delivers keynote lectures on the power of an arts framework for igniting technology transfer and new discovery across academic and technical domains to solve real-world problems. She serves on SeaSpace Boards and Committees including Co-Chair, European Space Agency (ESA) Topical Team Art & Science [ETTAS]; Senior Advisor of Space Art and Human Exploration Initiatives, Icarus Interstellar; Senior Advisor (Diving) The Maritime Union of Australia; and Australian Standards SF-017 Occupational Diving Committee.

So how did she do it all? “I know it sounds like “work”, but this really is the blessing of doing what you love. It encompasses all the pleasures of hobbies and so much more,” says Pell.

The Power of Purpose

Professionally Pell is grappling with her audience/customer/partnerships in that she only peddles “Inspiration”. “I “inspire” others by sharing what I do. People are inspired to be bold, to be ambitious, and to be curious, creative, experimental and adventurous. This is an outward appreciation for the complex and poetic work that is unlike anything they have heard before,” says Pell. “I now aspire to be “Aspirational”. This is an inward feeling that compels others to take action, to take on a mission, to join a cause, to emulate or imagine themselves playing a role in the success of a venture. I could achieve so much more if I was well supported by a nucleus.” At the same time, Pell stresses on the importance of self-care to stay aligned. “Whatever I believe and conceive, I achieve,” says Pell. “I flip-flop between approaching burn-out, and recovering from burn out, and time incremental progressions towards peak performance goals, and nourish myself with good stimuli, food, neuro-sonics, positive reinforcement, clear goals, and occasionally sleep.” Pell also encourages others by suggesting that no challenge is big and there is always a way. At this point, Pell shares one of the leadership lessons she has learned saying “Breathe, always breathe. Find a way. There is always a way. Dream. Create. Share.” And the advice that Pell followed — to turn her passion to purpose to action — that bought her where she is today: “Be prepared to lower your expectations but never your standards.”  

She advises women who want to achieve a more prominent role in their organizations to “Imagine it. Take a seat at the table. Speak. Act. Unapologetically,” says Pell.

Vision for Future

Dr. Pell’s work has a strong international and interdisciplinary advocacy and inspirational focus. She is passionate about diversity, inclusion and trans-disciplinary approaches to exploration including civilian access to SeaSpace domains, arts-led and culturally-informed solutions to environmental custodianship, and symbiotic exponential technologies solving grand challenges.  

Optimistic about the future, her visions are bold, innovative and disruptive. She gravitates to entrepreneurial partners and game-changing individuals intent on making a difference. Her ambitions goals for the future are to build the World’s first permanent undersea artist studio laboratory; design for commercial spaceflight and underwater creative experiences; develop training and tool kit testing for an artist in space residency and be instrumental in the implementation of an internationally ratified Space Arts Policy.

She is not done yet.

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