It’s easy to feel a little jaded today looking at the amazing satellite pictures of space that resemble modern works of art.
Back in the 1960s, NASA administrator James Webb knew that NASA “would probably take more photos than any other federal agency in U.S. history,” said Tom Crouch, senior curator for aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
But in the early days of the space program, the black-and-white images chronicling events weren’t always as visually appealing or even evocative of the mystery, danger, and excitement involved in space exploration.
Webb worried at the time that photographs alone wouldn’t capture the spirit of the agency’s work, and so he wanted a way to tell the NASA story through the creative minds of artists.
Thus the NASA Art Program was born.
Over the past five decades renowned artists have been invited to enjoy unprecedented access to astronauts, scientists, launches, landings, and all else NASA has been doing so the artists could chronicle the space program through their unique lens.
The results include thousands of paintings, sculptures, dioramas, and even dresses that use space as inspiration. Some of the works remain with NASA, while others are in the Air and Space Museum’s hands.
Recently the Smithsonian partnered with NASA to compile a traveling exhibit that showcases 70 pieces from both collections, plus a few extras from artists outside the program who chose to feature space in their art.
The exhibit has been at nine venues so far and will open at the Air and Space Museum on the National Mall this Saturday, May 28.
Wandering through the D.C. exhibit during a press preview this morning, I saw works by Mitchell Jamieson, Andy Warhol, James Wyeth, and Annie Leibovitz. The styles range from almost photo-like realism to mind-bendingly abstract, and many of the pieces carry several layers of meaning.
In the above painting by Norman Rockwell, for instance, viewers at first glance get a fairly straightforward view of astronauts John Young and Gus Grisson being suited up for the first ever Gemini flight in 1965.
NASA even jumped through some hoops so Rockwell could have access to an empty Gemini space suit, to make sure the painting was as accurate as possible.
In Rockwell’s mind, it was “as if the astronauts were knights being attended to by their pages,” Crouch said—a vision that, for me at least, puts the scene in a whole new perspective.
The NASA ART gallery opens just in time for the summer tourist season, maximizing potential viewership. What’s more, the tour was supposed to finish its run here in D.C., but it’s been so popular that it’s already booked for three more venues in New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Iowa when it closes at NASM in October.
BONUS UPDATE: I was missing the cable to get this off my cell phone yesterday, but the amazing Nichelle Nichols was also at the art tour, and she seemed to be loving it. And yes, that’s her next to a pop-art piece of the space shuttle Enterprise meeting the starship Enterprise. How much do I want a print of that for my living room?
Cell phone picture by Victoria Jaggard