Art History NASA Style

To some, art and science are opposed to one another. Art is aesthetics, expression, and intuition, while science is all cold, hard, rational thought. But that’s a simplistic understanding. They’re both quintessential human endeavours, and they’re both part of the human spirit.

Some at NASA have always understood this, and there’s actually an interesting, collaborative history between NASA and the art world, that reaches back several decades. Not the kind of art that you see hanging in elite galleries in the world’s large cities, but the kind of art that documents achievements in space exploration, and that helps us envision what our future could be.

Mitchell Jamieson produced this painting of astronaut Gordon Cooper. Titled “First Steps”, it documents Cooper’s first steps after exiting his Mercury spacecraft in 1963, after Cooper had completed 22 orbits of Earth. Image Credit: Mitchell Jamieson/Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Back in 1962, when NASA was 4 years old, NASA administrator James Webb put the wheels in motion for a collaboration between NASA and American artists. Artist Bruce Stevenson had been commissioned to produce a portrait of Alan Shepard. Shepard, of course, was the first American in space. He piloted the first Project Mercury flight, MR-3, in 1961. When Webb saw it, he got a bright idea.

When Stevenson brought is portrait of Shepard to NASA headquarters, James Webb thought that Stevenson wanted to paint portraits of all seven Mercury astronauts. But Webb thought a group portrait would be even better. The group portrait was never produced, but it got Webb thinking. In a memo, he said “…we should consider in a deliberate way just what NASA should do in the field of fine arts to commemorate the …historic events” of the American space program.

That set in motion a framework that exists to this day. Beyond just portraits, Webb wanted artists to produce paintings that would convey the excitement around the entire endeavour of space flight, and what the deeper meaning behind it might be. He wanted artists to capture all of the excitement around the preparation and countdown for launches, and activities in space.

This 1963 painting by artist Paul Calle captures the lift-off of the Saturn V Moon rocket. Image: Paul Calle, NASA

That’s when the NASA collaboration with artists began. A young artist named James Dean was assigned to the program, and he took a page out of the Air Force’s book, which established its own art program in 1954.

There’s a whole cast of characters involved, each one contributing to the success of the program. One such person was John Walker, Director of the National Gallery. He was enthusiastic, saying in a talk in 1965 that “the present space exploration effort by the United States will probably rank among the more important events in the history of mankind.” History has certainly proven those words to be true.

This Norman Rockwell painting is from 1965, and shows astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young suiting up for the first Gemini flight in March, 1965. NASA loaned Rockwell a spacesuit for the painting. Image: Norman Rockwell, NASA Art Program

Walker went on to say that it was the artists’ job “…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race.”

And that’s what they did. Artists like Norman Rockwell, Andy Warhol, Peter Hurd, Annie Liebowitz, Robert Rauschenberg, and others, all took part in the program.

Artist Peter Hurd painted the launch of Skylab in 1973. Image Credit: Peter Hurd, Courtesy of National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

In the 1970’s, thinkers like Gerard K. O’Neill began to formulate ideas of what human colonies in space might look like. NASA held a series of conferences where these ideas were shared and explored. Artists Rick Guidice and Don Davis created many paintings and illustrations of what colony designs like Bernal Spheres, Double Cylinders, and Toroidal Colonies might look like.

This piece by artist Don Davis depicts the end-cap of a cylindrical colony. Notice the suspension bridge, and people enjoying themselves by a river. Image: Don Davis, NASA Ames Research Center
This cut-away image of a Bernal Sphere colony was created by artist Rick Guidice. Image: Rick Guidice, NASA Ames Research Center

NASA continues to work with artists, though the nature of the relationship has changed over the decades. Artists are often used to flesh out new discoveries when images are not available. Cassini’s so-called Grand Finale, when it will orbit between Saturn and its rings 22 times before crashing into the planet, was conceptualized by an unnamed artist.

An artist’s illustration of the Cassini probe’s Grand Finale. Image: NASA/JPL/CalTech

The recent discovery of the exoplanets in the TRAPPIST-1 system was huge news. It still is. But TRAPPIST-1 is over 40 light years away, and NASA relied on artists to bring the discovery to life. This illustration was widely used to help us understand what planets orbiting the TRAPPIST-1 Red Dwarf might look like.

Illustration showing the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA now has quite a history of relying on art to convey what words can’t do. Space colonies, distant solar systems, and spacecraft ending their missions on other worlds, have all relied on the work of artists. But if I had to choose a favorite, it would probably be the 1981 water color by artist Henry Casselli. It makes you wonder what it’s like for an individual to take part in these species-defining endeavours. Just one person, sitting, contemplating, and preparing.

This Henry Casselli watercolor shows astronaut John Young preparing for a launch on April 12, 1981. What must he have been thinking as he prepared for the first flight of the Space Shuttle Program? Image: Henry Casselli, Courtesy NASA Art Program
Evan Gough

Recent Posts

Juice is Fully Deployed. It’s Now in its Final Form, Ready to Meet Jupiter’s Moons in 2031

Launched on April 14, 2023, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (Juice;…

14 hours ago

China’s Rover Found Evidence of an Ancient Ocean on Mars

In a recent study published in National Science Review, a team of researchers led by…

1 day ago

When Black Holes Merge, They'll Ring Like a Bell

How a merged black hole rings as it settles into a stable form holds clues…

1 day ago

ESA Has a Playground for Mars Rovers to Learn how to Explore the Red Planet

NASA makes successful rover missions seem mundane. Spirit and Opportunity were wildly successful, and Curiosity…

2 days ago

Amazing Views From ESA’s New MeteoSat Weather Satellite

The European Space Agency’s latest third generation Meteosat-I 1 weather satellite shows its stuff, with…

2 days ago

Chandra and JWST Join Forces in a Stunning Series of Images

NASA scientists have combined data from the James Webb and Chandra observatories to create stunning…

2 days ago