NASA's Art Rides the Rails
A rolling exhibit brings space exploration to small-town America.
- By Constance Bond
- Air & Space magazine, April 2008
(Page 2 of 2)
Nearby, an elderly man examined two works for a long time—the still life of the astronaut’s glove and a pencil sketch by Henry Casselli of astronaut Shannon Lucid pulling on a glove, perhaps while training for her tour on the Russian space station Mir. Hanging the two works side by side was one of many inspired groupings by the show’s curator, Susan Lawson-Bell. “Sort of brings it all alive, doesn’t it?” he remarked to me.
In the first car, devoted to the race to the moon, Susan Heck and her two teenage daughters stopped in front of Robert McCall’s “Splashdown.” In this celebratory lithograph, the capsule carrying the Apollo 11 astronauts back to Earth after the successful moon landing has just fallen into the deep-blue ocean. Above the capsule, billowing red-and-white-striped parachutes slough off air; on the far horizon, a ship waits. Heck, who recruited the docents for the exhibit, pointed to the capsule, then to the ship. A few moments later she explained to me, “My kids were asking, ‘What’s that?’ and they didn’t even notice the ship waiting in the background. They only remember the shuttle.” She laughed. “I’m surprised how much I could explain to them. I mean, I lived through this!” As the three of them moved on, Heck said to me over her shoulder, “They want to see the paintings with the backpacks again.”
That would be the MMUs, Manned Maneuvering Units. To my surprise, there was a docent on the train, Shirley Prutch, who knew a great deal about them. Her remarks as people came on board were spirited (“…we were not only going to the moon, we were going to land on the moon, and we were going to return from the moon, and yes, we were going to do it before Russia…”). Turns out that Prutch had headed the division “at Martin” that developed the software for the maneuvering units. (“My dad worked for Martin before I did,” she told me, “and I don’t say ‘Martin Marietta’ or ‘Lockheed Martin’; it’ll always just be Martin to me.”) With the help of two paintings portraying extravehicular activity—“Working in Space” by Linda Draper and “Premiere Flight of Endeavour” by Howard Koslow—she explained to me how the MMUs worked. I realized then that the “Artistry of Space” exhibit would probably reach a lot of the people who had worked in the space program and that, like Prutch, they would see the art, remember their careers, and explain what they did to friends and neighbors, all across the country.