MD Anderson, NASA and ILC Dover partner on Space Suit Art Project to increase childhood cancer awareness

Pediatric cancer patients aim for the moon with space inspired art project

Today, several of Space City’s best-known institutions — The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)  and ILC Dover — announced a partnership that brings the benefits of arts and science to pediatric cancer patients while increasing awareness of childhood cancer. More than 530 patients, families, and staff members painted original artwork used to create full-sized suits for the Space Suit Art Project.

Born out of an idea from MD Anderson’s Arts in Medicine Program, which helps pediatric patients cope with cancer treatment through art, this project inspired leaders at NASA’s International Space Station (ISS) to support the effort with help from astronauts, scientists and engineers. NASA provided patterns for the suits and worked with ILC Dover, a manufacturing and engineering company that develops NASA space suits, to assemble the suits by stitching the hand-painted art pieces together into a wearable replica space suit.

“This project has inspired hope for kids fighting cancer, instilled them with courage and created unity, all while increasing awareness of childhood cancer and the importance of pediatric cancer research,” said Ronald A. DePinho, M.D., president of MD Anderson. “We are so proud of this project and grateful for the passion and support we’ve received from NASA, ISS and ILC Dover. This is a wonderful example of the power of collaboration.”

On average, one in 285 children in the US will be diagnosed with cancer before the age of 20. Similar to adults, children going through cancer treatment can experience anxiety and depression. Research shows creative arts therapy benefits cancer patients as mental health and behavioral health are positively impacted. At MD Anderson, art gives patients a sense of control and purpose, makes them more comfortable in the hospital environment, and helps build community among patients and families.

“This collaboration highlights both the knowledge and inspiration that flow from the International Space Station,” said Ellen Ochoa, Ph.D., veteran astronaut and director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “Our astronauts conduct research on board the orbiting National Laboratory that benefit people around the world, including experiments that may inform future cancer research.”

Leading the effort to connect science, technology, arts and the human spirit are Ian Cion, director of the Arts in Medicine Program; Nicole Stott, retired NASA astronaut and the first person to paint in space; and David Graziosi of ILC Dover. Their collaboration created the Space Suit Art Project, which demonstrates the transformative power of arts in the healing process through three space suits designed to convey different meanings: Hope, Courage and Unity.

The first suit, HOPE was stitched together from more than 600 hand-painted art pieces created by patients, families and staff at MD Anderson. It represents the hope patients and families have as they go through treatment. Their primary hope is to survive cancer, but it’s deeper than survival. The project inspires hope for progress in childhood cancer research, which is consistently underfunded, and hope that childhood diseases like cancer can one day be eliminated. One patient inspired by the Space Suit Art Project and who provided artwork for the first two suits shared his hope.

“Even though my cancer is back after I already survived it twice, working on this project makes the days go faster and reminds me about the importance of hope,’ said Jacob, a 17-year-old Ewing’s sarcoma survivor. “I’m excited to tell people that my art may go to space, and, one day, I hope to work with the space exploration vehicles at NASA.”

COURAGE, the second space suit created with patients at MD Anderson, many of whom were on isolation during their treatment, is meant to demonstrate the courage it takes to be isolated from family and friends during long periods of time. Astronauts face similar isolation during space exploration missions. Stott took a watercolor paint kit on her space missions to remain connected to the world left behind and to help document her experiences.

Creation of the third space suit, UNITY, will be an international collaboration with children’s hospitals around the world. The UNITY space suit will represent the global issues surrounding childhood cancers, with a goal to unite others, help spread awareness about childhood cancers and offer hope and courage to cancer patients around the globe.

“The kids and families we’ve met during this creative journey have shown us all the importance of hope, the power of courage and the strength of unity,” said Stott. “All of the partners involved with this project and I hope people will see these works of art and they will be inspired to learn more about the story behind it, which is the need for increased awareness of childhood cancer. There’s so much work to be done for pediatric cancer research — we’re just trying to do our little part.”

The Space Suit Art Project officially launched today at MD Anderson. Ochoa, Stott, patients and families, astronauts and other collaborative leaders of the project joined MD Anderson President Dr. DePinho on stage for the special unveiling of the first space suit, HOPE, and a special announcement that COURAGE will be going into space later this month.