Meet the director of the International Space Orchestra

Wired, October 2014

Nelly Ben Hayoun in Wired as part of Wired Conference.

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The irrepressible Nelly Ben Hayoun does not believe in the word "no", "This has not been easy," she told the WIRED2014 audience. "It took a lot of what I call hammering. You go somewhere and they say no. But really a no is actually a yes. You just keep asking."

A critical designer and designer of experiences at the SETI institute, Ben Hayoun describes her role as not just finding solutions, but finding problems, designing experiences and bringing experts together with the public to debate them. This is not, she stresses, about cooperation. "It's about conflict, you don't discuss with each other, you vomit ideas at each other. If you want to create a strong debate you need to make these experiences as extreme as possible."

Ben Hayoun's work, which includes building a miniature living room volcano and a chair that gives a realistic experience of rocket lift-off, is perhaps one of the few things for which extreme could fairly be considered an understatement.

This theme of scaling down huge cutting edge science projects and making them accessible underlies most of Ben Hayoun's experiments, "I was working with these lovely physicists at the LHC [Large Hadron Collider] and I said, 'There's only about 50 of you who get to be there when the big bang smashing is going on -- but what about us, the members of the public, how can we be there too?'"

Among Ben Hayoun's list of job titles, perhaps the most exciting is "director of the International Space Orchestra," (ISO) which is composed of a team of space scientists from the Nasa Ames Research Centre, the SETI Institute, Singularity University, and the International Space University.

"We need to reconnect with the human condition behind the space program, the people behind it," she explains. "The way to do this is to know about the failure component of their work. The space orchestra recreates the drama of mission control, not just the beauty of space travel but the drama behind it." Three recordings of the space orchestra's work have now, successfully, been put into orbit on micro-satellites.

Turning from the people who send things into space, to those responsible for whatever it might throw at us, Ben Hayoun started to wonder about the reality behind movies like Armageddon. "When it comes to asteroids we always think about Bruce Willis saving the world from disaster," she said. "But who are the real people who pick up the red phone? Do you know? I certainly didn't."

So she decided to find out, on a documentary journey that took her to the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency and the United Nations in a documentary feature film, Disaster Playground, set for release March next year. After the exclusive trailer Ben Hayoun showed the WIRED2014 audience -- with the ISO's orchestration of the Prodigy's "Breathe" and Ed Banger Records album "Vandoid" as the soundtrack -- we can't wait to see it.