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The Art of NASA: Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, Norman Rockwell, and Other Icons Celebrate 50 Years of Space Exploration

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Celebrated artists translate NASA’s mission “to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown” into stunning images.

Recently, while researching something only marginally related, I chanced upon a buried treasure of the finest variety — remnants of NASA’s Art Program, which began in 1962 and enlisted some of the era’s greatest visual artists across various disciplines and backgrounds in conveying to the public the Space Agency’s cutting-edge research in ways more vibrant and less sterile than research reports. Among the images, found in NASA’s Flickr Commons archive — which also gave us these gorgeous black-and-white photos of vintage space facilities — are artworks by such legends as Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell, and Annie Leibovitz. (Alas, much like in space exploration itself, in space art women remain a minority, only a fraction of the selected artists being female.) The art was featured in a Smithsonian traveling exhibition celebrating NASA’s 50th anniversary in 2008 and was subsequently collected in NASA/ART: 50 Years of Exploration (public library), featuring an afterword by none other than Ray Bradbury, tireless champion of space exploration.

To make the collaborations as powerful and authentic as possible, NASA gave the participating artists unprecedented access to the agency’s facilities and, in some cases, even lent them prized equipment to ensure true-to-life portrayal. NASA’s second administrator, James Webb, who directed the launch of the program, remarked:

Important events can be interpreted by artists to provide 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.

Indeed, the project is beautifully aligned with NASA’s mission “to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind,” yet it bears a bittersweet hue of lamentation as we remember to wonder how, in its present state of neglect, funding for space exploration will continue to support such inspired fringes. But at least we have these vintage gems to make our cosmic-kindled hearts glow. Enjoy.

'Moonwalk 1' by Andy Warhol, 1987 (silkscreen on paper)

The famous image of astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing on the Moon has become an icon of popular culture. The American hero with the U.S. flag became material for Warhol's silkscreen series of nationally known images printed on vibrant, retro, poster colors.

'Gemini Launch Pad' by James Wyeth, 1964 (watercolor on paper)

In the early days of manned spaceflight, technicians responsible for a launch worked in a domed, concrete-reinforced blockhouse, protected from accidental explosions. Although surrounded by cutting-edge technology, the technicians relied on a bicycle for check-up trips to the launch pad.

'Power' by Paul Calle, 1963 (oil on panel)

This painting depicts the first seconds of lift-off of the Saturn V moon rocket. Each of the 5 F-1 engines could encompass a full grown man standing up, and produced over 1.5 million pounds of thrust.

'Mike Collins' by Paul Calle, 1969 (felt tip pen on paper)

Paul Calle was the only artist with the Apollo 11 astronauts in the early morning hours of July 16, 1969, when they put on their spacesuits in preparation for the historic journey to land on the Moon.

'First Steps' by Mitchell Jamieson, 1963 (acrylic, gauze, and paper on canvas)

In a silver-colored spacesuit, astronaut Gordon Cooper steps away from his Mercury spacecraft and into the bright sunlight on the deck of the recovery ship after 22 orbits of Earth. Mitchell Jamieson documented Cooper's recovery and medical examination and accompanied him back to Cape Canaveral.

'Grissom and Young' by Norman Rockwell, 1965

Astronauts John Young and Gus Grissom are suited for the first flight of the Gemini program in March 1965. NASA loaned Norman Rockwell a Gemini spacesuit in order to make this painting as accurate as possible.

'Gemini Recovery' by Robert McCall, mid-1960s (watercolor)

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 Champion in the Atlantic Ocean.

'Sky Garden' by Robert Rauschenberg, 1969 (lithograph on canvas)

In 1969 Rauschenberg was invited to witness one of the most significant social events of the decade: the launch of Apollo 11, the shuttle that would place man on the moon. NASA provided Rauschenberg with detailed scientific maps, charts and photographs of the launch, which formed the basis of the Stoned moon series – comprising thirty-three lithographs printed at Gemini GEL. The Stoned moon series is a celebration of man’s peaceful exploration of space as a 'responsive, responsible collaboration between man and technology.' The combination of art and science is something that Rauschenberg continued to investigate throughout the 1960s in what he calls his 'blowing fuses period.'

'Saturn Blockhouse' by Fred Freeman, 1968 (acrylic on canvas)

As a participant in NASA's art program, Fred Freeman gained unlimited access to space facilities during missions. Here, he shows us just how close he was, even depicting his coffee cup resting on the console.

'Suiting Up' by Paul Calle, 1969 (pencil sketch)

This sketch of the Apollo 11 crew 'Suiting Up' stands as a visual record of the activities that took place on the morning of July 16th, 1969.

'Big Dish Antenna' by Paul Arlt, 1968 (acrylic on polyester)

This large antenna was part of NASA's worldwide tracking network. In order to maintain contact with an Earth-orbiting spacecraft, it was necessary to establish communication stations around the world.

'Space Age Landscape' by William Thon, 1969 (watercolor on paper)

The subtropical climate of Florida soon reclaims an early launch tower. As the space program progressed to larger launch vehicles, smaller gantries were abandoned to seabirds, who found them to be ideal nesting places.

'Moon, Horizon & Flowers (Rocket Rollout)' by Jack Perlmutter, 1969 (oil on canvas)

The most advanced technology, along with the subtropical Florida landscape, provided a variety of interesting forms, shapes, and colors for visiting artists during the time of the Apollo Moon-landing program.

'Apollo 8 Coming Home' by Robert T. McCall, 1969

Human eyes directly observed the far side of the Moon for the first time on Christmas Eve 1968. Robert McCall imagines the sight of the rocket engine firing to propel the spacecraft out of lunar orbit for its return to Earth.

'Sky Lab' by Peter Hurd, 1973 (watercolor on paper)

Peter Hurd participated in the early days of the NASA Art Program, documenting the last Mercury flight. He returned ten years later to record the launch of Skylab, a rocket modified to allow astronauts to live and work in orbit. The three separate crews of Skylab astronauts arrived via Apollo command modules.

'When Thoughts Turn Inwards' by Henry Casselli, 1981 (watercolor)

Astronaut John Young reflects pensively as he suits up for launch on April 12, 1981. Casselli conveys a quiet, almost spiritual moment when the astronaut must mentally prepare for his mission. This was the first time that the newly inaugurated space shuttle would carry humans, in this case the two-person crew of John Young and Robert Crippen.

'Lift-Off at 15 Seconds' by Jack Perlmutter, 1982 (oil on canvas)

Martin Hoffman captures astronaut suit-up in a wholly original way -- through the television screens in the media area at the Kennedy Space Center. The launch pad can be seen in the distance beyond Banana River. It is one moment of calm before the frenzy of launch activity.

'Sunrise Suit Up' by Martin Hoffman, 1988 (mixed media)

'Chip and Batty Explore Space' by William Wegman, 2001

William Wegman's signature Weimaraners pose as astronauts. One peers out of a space station while the other conducts a spacewalk. NASA loaned Wegman a model of a spacesuit to use in his work.

'Fluid Dynamics' by Tina York, 1995 (mixed media)

Tina York graphically depicts the principles of fluid dynamics, the movement of gases as a solid body passes through them. York researched this concept at California's NASA Ames Research Center while participating in the NASA Art Program.

'Servicing Hubble' by John Solie, 1995 (oil on canvas)

The painting depicts the historic servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope in December 1992. Kathryn Thorton releases a defective solar panel into the heavens as another astronaut performs duties in the space shuttle Endeavour's cargo bay. The solar array and the wide-field planetary camera were some of the major units serviced during the STS-61 mission.

'A New Frontier' by Keith Duncan, 2001 (mixed media)

Duncan depicts the International Space Station in an allegorical context. Icarus and Daedalus are hovering angelically over the Earth's surface, which is dotted with suspended configurations of the International Space Station and astronauts. Rays of sun emanate and provide a canopy for the floating astronauts and spacecraft.

'Titan' by Daniel Zeller, 2006 (ink on paper)

The basis of Daniel Zeller’s drawing is the intricate surface of Saturn’s moon Titan, as recorded by the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini arrived at Saturn in July 2004 after a seven-year voyage, beginning a four-year mission.

'Remembering Columbia' by Chakaia Booker, 2006 (rubber)

Chakaia Booker used rubber, her signature medium, to commemorate the Columbia crew. Pieces of a space shuttle tire that NASA donated to Booker are incorporated into the work. The resulting sculpture resembles a black star, reflecting mournfully upon February 1, 2003, when Columbia suffered an aerodynamic break-up during reentry.

Portrait of Eileen Collins by Annie Leibovitz, 1999

Annie Leibovitz photographed Eileen Collins at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, during training. Collins was the first female pilot (Discovery in 1995) and first female commander (Columbia, 1999) of a space shuttle program.

NASA/ART: 50 Years of Exploration was co-authored by James Dean, who founded the NASA Art Program and directed it from 1962 to 1974, and NASA curatorial and multimedia manager Bertram Ulrich. Complement it with this pictorial history of space in 250 milestones.

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