NASA and Art: A Collaboration Colored with History

By Hannah Hotovy - NASA History Division Intern, Spring 2017

Three space colony summer studies were conducted at NASA Ames Research Center in the 1970s. A number of artistic renderings of the concepts were made, including this one showing a cutaway view of a fictional Toroidal (donut-shaped) Colony. Artwork: Rick Guidice. - Image Credits: NASA Ames Research Center (click to enlarge)

The relationship between the arts and sciences, to some, may resemble that of oil and water. One captures the nature of the universe through objective reason and data, while the other relies on expression of emotion and divergence of perception. At this intersection, however, lays a rich visual history that continues to bring the far reaches of the known universe closer to home.

The earliest movement for collaboration between art and science at NASA came to fruition in the creation of the NASA Art Program in 1962, just four years after the agency’s establishment. After viewing artist Bruce Stevenson’s commissioned portrait of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, NASA Administrator James Webb requested the artist create portraits of every NASA astronaut. He also began to envision all that artists could do for NASA. In a March 1962 memorandum to Hiden T. Cox, NASA’s public affairs director, Webb expressed his interest in creating a NASA art program to commemorate both past and future events. At a time when humankind was just beginning to venture into space, Webb recognized the importance of capturing the emotions of exploration, such as excitement and uncertainty, in a way in which history could look back and fully appreciate all that the agency had achieved. 

To help get the program off the ground, NASA officials enlisted artist and NASA employee James Dean to head the program with the assistance of H. Lester Cooke, Curator of Painting at the National Art Gallery. Together, the pair began organizing opportunities for artists to witness history being made firsthand, inviting them to impart their experiences onto the public through their works. Though the participants would only be granted a modest grant of $800, barely enough to cover travel expenses, the program promised an experience unimaginable to the average citizen. In May of 1963, the program selected eight artists to capture the final Mercury flight in which Gordon Cooper completed 22 Earth orbits in his spacecraft Faith 7. Under Dean and Cooke’s leadership, the work done by artists like Robert McCall, Peter Hurd, and Mitchell Jamieson serve as the cornerstone for the program and its future artistic collaborations that illustrate the wonder of the ages of Gemini and Apollo. Over the course of its decades-long history, the NASA Art Program continued to attract renowned talents including Norman Rockwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Annie Leibowitz.

The artwork created through the NASA Art Program shaped the stories of early spaceflight into a popular American mythology, one that inspires a sense of national pride and shared accomplishment. As Dean remarked, “The artists were really missionaries for NASA. I mean, they were carrying the message out like nothing else would.”

The "First Steps" painting by Mitchell Jamieson, a former World War II Navy artist, captures the moment astronaut Gordon Cooper emerged from his Faith 7 spacecraft after his 22-orbit mission in 1963. Through paintings, Jamieson documented Cooper's return, from post-flight medical examinations to the journey back to Cape Canaveral. - Image Credits: Mitchell Jamieson/Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

The "First Steps" painting by Mitchell Jamieson, a former World War II Navy artist, captures the moment astronaut Gordon Cooper emerged from his Faith 7 spacecraft after his 22-orbit mission in 1963. Through paintings, Jamieson documented Cooper's return, from post-flight medical examinations to the journey back to Cape Canaveral. - Image Credits: Mitchell Jamieson/Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

See some selected works from the NASA Art Program on the NASA History Flickr page. 

Though the NASA Art Program has been scaled back considerably over the years, the connections formed between science and art continue to act as valuable tools in illustrating NASA’s modern explorations and discoveries. Artists and filmmakers work closely with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), referencing subject images and mission data, to create scientifically accurate concept art and animations. The resulting works inform viewers about current missions and their progress, like the Cassini mission’s Grand Finale as the probe begins its dramatic descent into Saturn. They also help audiences visualize discoveries of the natural universe (like the recently discovered TRAPPIST-1 system exoplanets) far beyond their view.

The TRAPPIST-1 discoveries also presented another addition to a visual campaign out of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory that taps into the nostalgia of the science fiction culture and advertising styles of the 1960s. Dubbed Visions of the Future, the project ranges in scope to planetary bodies inside our solar system, like the moons of Saturn to distant discoveries like the Kepler and TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets. The visually engaging final product provides a creative imagining of a far-sighted age of future exploration, while bringing awareness to the promise of current discoveries.

Source: NASA press release - To learn more about Visions of the Future visit the Exoplanet Travel Bureau.


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