Four years after NASA’s inception in 1958, agency administrator James Webb saw Bruce Stevenson’s formal portrait of astronaut Alan Shepard, and came up with an unusual idea: to hire artists to illustrate and illuminate the agency’s missions. “Important events can be interpreted by artists to give a unique insight into significant aspects of our history-making advances into space,” Webb wrote in a 1963 press release. “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.”
Since 1963, hundreds of artists (and musicians, poets—even one fashion designer) have interpreted NASA’s aeronautic and space projects. The artists were given carte blanche to create what they wanted, in any medium, on any subject. In celebration of NASA’s 50th anniversary in 2008, more than 70 diverse artworks from the program are touring the country as part of an exhibition titled NASA / ART: 50 Years of Exploration. Click on the images at right to take a closer look at some of the items in the traveling exhibit. Images and text are taken from the exhibition catalog of the same name, written by James Dean and Bertram Ulrich.
Pictured above: In Power, by Paul Calle (oil on panel, 50 x 58 inches, 1963), “The Atlas launch vehicle, producing 360,000 pounds of thrust, lifts the last Mercury astronaut, Gordon Cooper, into Earth orbit for a thirty-four-hour flight on May 15, 1963—at the time, an American long-duration record.”
NASA / ART: 50 Years of Exploration is on tour through 2012 at
The Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, in Laurel, Mississippi, April 8 to June 27, 2010;
The Museum of Florida History, Tallahassee, Florida, July 22 to October 10, 2010;
The "Arizona Museum for Youth, Mesa, Arizona, October 30, 2010 to January 23, 2011;
The Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences of West Virginia, Charleston, West Virginia, February 12 to May 8, 2011;
The National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C., May 28 to October 9, 2011;
Las Cruces Museum of Art, Las Cruces, New Mexico, November 4, 2011 to January 29, 2012;
Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, Wausau, Wisconsin, April 14 to June 17, 2012;
Figge Art Museum, Davenport, Iowa, July 7 to September 30, 2012.
Robert McCall, watercolor on paper, 16 x 20 inches, 1965
In this painting, “The Gemini V crew, Gordon Cooper and Charles Conrad, bob in a life raft beside their spacecraft as a helicopter comes to the rescue after their Earth orbital mission, which took place in August 1965. It was the longest manned flight to date—7 days, 22 hours, and 55 minutes. Artist Robert T. McCall documented the return of the crew from the recovery ship USS Lake Champlain in the Atlantic Ocean.”
McCall had also been in the first group of NASA artists covering Gordon Cooper’s last Mercury flight in 1963. "Peter Hurd, who was with the group of seven at the Cape, marveled at the scenery: ‘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.’