“The astronomical artist will always be far ahead of the explorer. They can depict scenes that no human eye will ever see, because of their danger, or their remoteness in time and space.”
-Arthur C. Clarke1
The NASA Art Program was started in 1962, shortly after NASA was founded in 1958, in an effort to present NASA's discoveries and cutting-edge research to the public in a way that would be more accessible than complex scientific reports.
In alignment with NASA’s primary mission “to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind,” the NASA Art Program brought artists from many different disciplines and backgrounds together to chronicle NASA’s missions. Many of the artists who participated in this program were the first members of the public to be allowed to fully explore a NASA installation, interact with NASA staff and observe the behind-the-scenes activity connected with a space mission.
According to James Webb, the second NASA administrator, who directed the start-up of the NASA Art Program, "Important events can be interpreted by artists to provide unique insight into significant aspects of our history-making advances into space. An artistic record of this nation’s program of space exploration will have great value for future generations and may make a significant contribution to the history of American art.”2
Webb wanted to convey to future generations the hope and sense of wonder that characterized the early days of space exploration. To carry out his vision, Webb asked James Dean, a NASA staffer and artist, to set up an artists' program that would document NASA missions. Working with National Gallery of Art curator Hereward Lester Cooke, Dean established a program that would give selected artists the chance to speak with famous astronauts and scientists, and allow them to have behind-the-scenes access to NASA missions. Artists flocked to the program, attracted by the chance to be a part of the early space exploration of the 1960s and the freedom to chronicle events through their unique forms of artistic representation. The first mission to be documented in the NASA Art Program was the 1963 launch of the spacecraft Faith, the last manned space mission of the Mercury program, from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Various artists, including Peter Hurd, George Weymouth, Paul Calle, Robert Shore and many others, spent several days exploring the space center. This was one of the first times that any NASA facility had been opened to the public, allowing the artists time to talk with staff and witness some of the daily workings at the Cape Canaveral facility.
Over the last 50 years, the NASA Art Program has produced a diverse collection of more than 2,000 artworks that capture the images and the spirit of NASA's missions in forms ranging from sketches and drawings to painting, photography and music. Through the work of the artists who participate in the program, the moment at which a shuttle enters orbit and the sight of humans walking on another world can be creatively shared with the global public and immortalized for future generations.