NASA: 50 Years of Exploration
“Mission to Mars” - Oil on masonite painting by Ren Wicks. Wicks’ painting depicts Martian explorers conducting scientific observations, recording wind speed with an anemometer and planetary features with a hand-held camera. A dust storm is approaching the crater area near the landing site, but views of the moons Phobus and Deimos are available in the twilight sky. A Mars excursion vehicle in the background serves as crew quarters for the mission.
By Bert Ulrich
“Astronauts on the Moon” - Before Neil Armstrong walked on the lunar surface Norman Rockwell provided a compelling depiction of what the first step on the moon would look like. Rockwell, seen at top at the Johnson Space Center, was commissioned by NASA for this work
On first consideration, the concept of NASA commissioning pieces of art may seem far-fetched. However, reflecting the tradition of the military’s art programs, NASA began commissioning artists to document and capture on canvas the drama of its missions. The catalyst behind NASA leaving an artistic legacy was NASA Administrator James Webb. Upon seeing a deftly executed portrait of Alan Shepard, Webb came up with the idea of an arts program. Webb felt that NASA should actively seek out artists to show a different side of the space agency, reflecting that “Important events can be interpreted by artists to give a 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.”1
Webb tasked NASA staffer and artist James Dean in 1962 to implement this new art program. With the help of National Gallery curator Hereward Lester Cooke, Dean laid the framework. Artists would be given impressive behind-the-scenes access to NASA missions, including suit-up, launch and landing activities, meetings with scientists and astronauts, etc. In his invitation letter to artists, Cooke wrote, “NASA decided to ask artists to supplement the record after reviewing the documentation of the first few years of the Space Age. It was realized that important steps in the Space Age were missing. When a launch takes place at Cape Canaveral, Fla., more than 200 cameras record every split second of the activity. Every nut, bolt, miniaturized electronic device is photographed from every angle. The artist can add very little to this in the way of factual record. But, as [Honoré] Daumier pointed out about a century ago, the camera sees everything and understands nothing. It is the emotional impact, interpretation and hidden significance of these events which lie within the scope of the artist’s vision. An artist may depict exactly what he thinks he sees, but the image has still gone through the catalyst of his imagination and has been transformed in the process.”2
“When Thoughts Turn Inward” - Water color by Henry Casselli. The painting shows astronaut John Young during suit-up for the first space shuttle mission.
A NASA art commission was modest, a mere $800, but artists were not motivated by the financial gains but rather at the prospect of witnessing American history and documenting it. They were also given free reign to create works of art. NASA was not going to dictate a certain style as was the case of socialist realism of the Soviet Union. In fact, artists interested in participating in the program were quite a diverse group, ranging from the avant garde Robert Rauschenberg to the figurative Norman Rockwell. Rauschenberg created works for various launches, including Apollo 11 and the first space shuttle launch. Rockwell visited NASA centers and was even loaned a real space suit to create works, which would be displayed in Look magazine.
“From the Seeds of Change … a Discovery” - Oil by Robert A.M. Stephens, who said: “Sometimes, on the long voyage, there are curious things that man embraces in his insatiable quest for discovery. To wing into the void and continually see our home from afar and to utilize that void constructively, is that quest at its zenith. It is with the deepest of feelings in pride and loving passion for this life that I feel so honored to see this prowess exhibited in the form of that opulent white triad chariot that is the STS system. How truly fitting that in the deep sweetness that does abide in all of us that this configuration and its entire meaning comes to life in the manner painted, and returns from the final void in dear silence and in so doing, reminds us always that we are all kindred in a way, on the long voyage.”
The first group of NASA artists traveled to the Kennedy Space Center, Fla., in 1963 to witness the last Mercury launch, transporting Gordon Cooper on orbit. Artists commissioned included Peter Hurd, George Weymouth, Paul Calle, Robert McCall, Robert Shore, Lamar Dodd and John McCoy. Mitchell Jamieson was assigned to a recovery ship to artistically document splashdown and landing operations. Although NASA staff needed to get used to artists being around, after a while they welcomed them into the NASA community, which afforded the artists amazing access, including suit-up activities. Artist Peter Hurd reflected on the whole experience: “For the next five days, we painters, seven in all, roamed the Cape, sometimes with guides, sometimes by ourselves. We had been invited … to make notes, sketches and paintings … to form an archive of potential historical value. I am certain that I speak for all when I say we were, each of us, tremendously stirred and often awed, by the things we saw and heard during those five crowded days.”3
The works created from Cooper’s mission were incorporated into an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in 1965. Art Critic Frank Getlein who reviewed the exhibition for the Washington Star wrote, “‘Eyewitness to Space’ is the collective name of 70 paintings and drawings produced by 15 artists under the NASA Art Program, now 2 years old. The work shows total freedom and a wide variety, ranging from the superb illustrationist’s style of Paul Calle to the highly individual abstraction of Washington artist Alfred McAdams.”4 The success of the first exhibition led to a second exhibition of NASA art at the National Gallery in 1969 following Apollo 11. However, as the Apollo program drew to a close in the 1970s, fewer commissions took place, which coincided with the lull of missions between Apollo and the shuttle. James Dean arranged for a transfer of NASA commissioned works to the National Air and Space Museum to protect the collection. It wasn’t until the inauguration of the space shuttle that the program took on a new momentum under the direction of Robert Schulman. Schulman’s commissions embraced a number of subjects, but mostly focused on the space shuttle.
“Servicing Hubble” - Oil painting by John Solie. This painting depicts the historic servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope. Astronaut Kathy Thornton releases a defective solar panel into space as another astronaut performs duties in space shuttle Endeavour’s cargo bay. The Solar Array and the Wide Field/Planetary Camera were some of the major units serviced. The servicing mission, STS-61, took place from Dec. 2 to Dec. 13, 1993.
In the 1990s the program was turned over to Bert Ulrich, who was tasked by Administrator Dan Goldin to embrace new art forms. Works included video art by Nam June Paik, an Ode to NASA by Ray Bradbury, and photography by Annie Leibovitz. Patti LaBelle performed a song commissioned by NASA that would eventually be nominated for a grammy. The song “Way Up There” became an elegy for the lost crew of space shuttle Columbia. Works have been commissioned on subjects ranging from Mars probes to the Hubble Space Telescope. Newly commissioned works started to attract the attention of museums like the Pompidou Center in Paris; the Hirshhorn Museum and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.; and the Guggenheim, New York, N.Y.; which all exhibited NASA commissioned works. For NASA’s 50th anniversary, the Smithsonian is collaborating with NASA and the National Air and Space Museum to create a traveling exhibit of NASA art, which will run until 2010.
“Hot Shot” - Lithograph by Robert Rauschenberg. This work was created to share and express the artist’s belief in the spiritual and physical improvement of life and the mind through curiosity.
Today, the art program has been scaled back, but commissions have continued for a modest honorarium of $2,500. The collection currently comprises of some 3,000 works divided between the National Air and Space Museum and NASA. They still share something new with the public, and tell NASA’s story in a unique way. They also provide a historical record. After all, what often is left over of great ages in history is art. As Lester Cooke, one of the NASA art program’s original founders, wrote, “I hope that future generations will realize that we have not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company.”
1. NASA, First Drawings Received from NASA Artists’ Cooperation Program, NASA Press Release, #63-140, p.3 (1963).