Art History NASA Style

This illustration of a double-cylinder space colony is from the 1970's, by artist Rick Guidice. Image: NASA Ames Research Center

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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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

“The Hobbit” Author Gets a Crater on Mercury

Here’s a little something to please fans of space, art and fantasy alike (and those who enjoy all three): on August 6 the International Astronomical Union approved names for 9 craters on Mercury, one of which is named for J.R.R. Tolkien, revered author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (among other seminal fantasy works.)

The crater Tolkien is approximately 30 miles (48 km) in diameter. All 9 newly-named craters are located in Mercury’s north polar region and exhibit radar evidence of water ice hidden in their shadowy pocketses.

IAU procedure for craters on Mercury has them named after “deceased artists, musicians, painters, and authors who have made outstanding or fundamental contributions to their field and have been recognized as art historically significant figures for more than 50 years.” Find out who all 9 new craters are named for after the jump:

Egonu, for Uzo Egonu (1931-1996), a Nigerian-born painter who at 13 was sent to England to study art, first at a private school in Norfolk and later at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. Exile, alienation, and the pain of displaced peoples were recurrent themes in his work.

Gaudí­, after Antoni Gaudí­ (1852-1926), a Spanish architect whose work concentrated largely on the Catalan capital of Barcelona. He was very skilled with ceramics, stained glass, wrought-iron forging, and carpentry and integrated these crafts into his architecture.

Kandinsky, for Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), a Russian painter and art theorist credited with painting the first purely abstract works.

Petronius, for Titus Petronius (c. AD 27-66), a Roman courtier during the reign of Nero. He is generally believed to be the author of the Satyricon, a satirical novel believed to have been written during the Neronian era.

Prokofiev, for Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor who is considered one of the major composers of the 20th century. His best-known works include the ballet Romeo and Juliet — from which “Dance of the Knights” is taken — and Peter and the Wolf.

Tolkien, for John Ronald Reuel (J. R. R.) Tolkien (1892-1973), an English writer, poet, philologist, and university professor, best known as the author of the classic fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Tryggvadóttir, for Nina Tryggvadóttir (1913-1968), one of Iceland’s most important abstract expressionist artists and one of very few Icelandic female artists of her generation. She primarily worked in painting, but she also created collages, stained glass work, and mosaics.

Qiu Ying, for Shifu Qiu Ying (1494-1552), a Chinese painter who specialized in the gongbi brush technique, a careful realist method in Chinese painting. He is regarded as one of the Four Great Masters of the Ming Dynasty.

Yoshikawa, for Eiji Yoshikawa (1892-1962), a Japanese historical novelist best known for his revisions of older classics including The Tale of the Heike, Tale of Genji, Outlaws of the Marsh, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

“These designations expand the opportunities to recognize the contributions to the arts by the most creative individuals from many cultures and eras. The names of those individuals are now linked in perpetuity to the innermost planet.”

– Sean Solomon, MESSENGER Principal Investigator

The craters were imaged by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft, currently in extended mission around Mercury. Learn more about the preciousss MESSENGER mission here. (Gollum! Gollum!)

Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington