Shortly after John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, a NASA administrator had a fortuitous thought: Of course cameras would document every stage of the space program, but what if the agency enlisted artists to make a different kind of record? John Walker of the National Gallery of Art quickly agreed to help, arguing that artists could "probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race."
The results of this stunning collaboration between scientists and artists are collected in NASA/ART: 50 Years of Exploration, by James Dean and Bertram Ulrich, published by Abrams Books. For 50 years, artists got remarkable access to all aspects of the space program: They watched launches from the firing room, and interviewed astronauts on their return. They also dreamed of exploration. In this painting, the team of Kahn & Selesnick imagined a future adventurer on Mars.
Lowell Nesbitt camped out on the top floor of the space center's Vehicle Assembly building to capture this perspective, looking down at the specially shaped work platforms that surrounded the Saturn V rocket as it was being built. The massive Saturn V rockets were used in NASA's Apollo and Skylab programs from 1967 until 1973.
This watercolor painting by Dale Myers, titled "Apollo 11--Firefly to the Moon," presents one of the most breathtaking sights of the space age: a launchpad illuminated by floodlights on the night before liftoff.
Paul Calle used ghostly grays and ethereal layers for this commemoration of the three astronauts who died in the Apollo 1 spacecraft in 1967, when a fire ripped through the cockpit during a countdown rehearsal. The disaster shocked the nation, and caused NASA to ground the Apollo program while it redesigned the command module.
In the tense hours before the launch of Apollo 11, James Wyeth found an out-of-the-way spot in the firing room at the Kennedy Space Center and settled down with his watercolors. He captured the quiet discipline and focused energy of the technicians who were monitoring every reading from the astronauts, their spacecraft, and the launch vehicle.
The space shuttle launch observed in 1990 by P.A. Nisbet was part of a long-awaited mission: the astronauts were bringing the Hubble Space Telescope to its home in the sky. The artist wanted to capture the boldness of humanity striving towards the light, and towards unprecedented knowlege of the universe and our place in it.
It was the step heard round the world: On July 20, 1969, at 10:56 p.m. (EDT), Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on the moon. People clustered around television sets and listened on the radio to the words Armstrong radioed back to Earth: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant step for mankind." Artist Paul Calle took those grainy video images and produced his own illustration of that great, weighty moment.
David Stone titled this painting "A Handful of Emeralds" after hearing astronaut John Young describe the stars as "a handful of emeralds thrown across the sky." He tried to express the magnificent, revolutionary solitude experienced by an astronaut adrift in a manned maneuvering unit, staring out at the void of space.
The space shuttle Endeavor cruised up for a rendezvous with the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993, which allowed astronauts to perform some vital repairs and upgrades. Most importantly, they fixed the problem with the telescope's primary mirror, which had been ground into the wrong shape and therefore produced blurry images; the astronauts on the servicing mission essentially added spectacles that corrected the flaw. Artist John Solie captured another moment, when astronaut Kathryn Thornton releases a defective solar panel into the heavens.
Once the first astronauts had walked on the moon, the eyes of many curious humans turned towards the red planet, Mars. Wilson Hurley depicted the moment when the Viking 1 lander separated from its orbiter and began its descent towards the Martian surface; it would be the first spacecraft to successfully land on Mars and complete its mission.