“When you do a stamp, think big, but draw small.”
Paul Calle was one of the first artists chosen to be a member of the NASA Space Art Program. Calle documented several NASA missions, and designed many stamps dedicated to NASA’s achievements in space, including the first stamp intended to depict the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Calle’s first job as an artist was designing covers for The Saturday Evening Post and several science fiction magazines, including Galaxy Science Fiction and Amazing Stories, which would help to develop his interest in space science.
In 1962, he was invited to be a founding member of the NASA Space Art Program, established by NASA administrator James Webb. This program was set up to commission artists to help document NASA missions, so that their art could provide a visual record of space exploration and scientific achievements in planetary and space research. Calle was one of eight artists present at Cape Canaveral during the Mercury-Atlas 9 mission, the last manned mission of the Mercury program. This opportunity afforded him the chance to talk with various members of NASA, including the astronauts, and to make sketches of the suits, spacecraft and equipment used by NASA at the time.
Calle contributed two designs for stamps to the 1967 Accomplishments in Space Commemorative Issue. One featured the Gemini 4 space capsule orbiting the Earth, while the second one depicted astronaut Ed White making America’s first space walk. Calle was the only artist asked to chronicle the Apollo 11 space mission, the first human landing on the moon.
Calle was hired by the U.S. Post Office Department to design a stamp that depicted the moon landing, a project that was carried out in secret by the Post Office and NASA. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were to take a special die to the moon, which would be used to make the stamp's printing plates. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong would then personally postmark the stamp.
Calle was provided with pictures or duplicates of all the equipment used on the mission, and was permitted to observe the astronauts' training sessions for their first steps onto the airless, low-gravity surface of the moon. He was at Cape Kennedy on July 16, the day of Apollo’s liftoff, to sketch the astronauts throughout the morning as they ate breakfast and suited up for the mission.
"Calle had proven himself on previous art projects with NASA, particularly the Gemini Sketchbook, and his coverage of Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo flight. Also, we at NASA knew that Calle had been selected by the U.S. Postal Service to design the First Man on the Moon commemorative stamp," recalled James Dean, director of NASA’s Fine Arts program.
Like the Apollo mission astronauts, Calle was put under strict medical quarantine in order to prevent any transmission of diseases or viruses to the astronauts. While he was sketching the astronauts eating breakfast, Mike Collins, an astronaut who remained on the shuttle while Armstrong and Aldrin journeyed to the moon, came over to look at Calle’s drawings. Calle claimed, "He stopped eating and came over to look at my sketches. I was amazed. Here he was on his way to the Moon, and he stops to look at my drawings."
Calle continued to sketch the astronauts as they suited up for the mission, including one sketch of Neil Armstrong giving him a thumbs-up. Later, when Calle watched the moon landing from his home in Connecticut, he realized with pleasure that it was all happening just as he had painted it for the stamp.