The Art of Air and Space

Posted on Thu, August 4, 2016
  • by: Lois Rosson, Space History Intern

When you think about the National Air and Space Museum’s assortment of unquestionably memorable objects, a variety of different things may come to mind. Maybe it’s the 1903 Wright Flyer, the world’s first powered airplane; or the Bell X-1, the first aircraft to fly faster than the speed of sound. Art may not be at the top of your list. But, in fact, the Museum has had a robust art collection long before its opening in 1976. The collection forms a valuable lens through which to examine the cultural impact of twentieth century spaceflight and aviation.

A quick look at one particular portion of the art collection—composed primarily of paintings donated by NASA in the 1970s—can help illustrate how fine art is relevant to the Museum’s mission. In 1962, just four years after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was created as a federal agency, James Webb established NASA’s Artist’s Cooperation Program. Modeled after the U.S. Air Force’s art program, Webb hoped that the agency’s commission of fine art would help communicate the cultural significance of the space program’s initial advancements. Administrators still needed to sell the idea that traveling to the Moon was a possibility to the tax-paying American public. NASA believed that artistic interpretations of its projects would offer less fleeting narratives than newspaper or television coverage. Thus, throughout the 1960s, several well-known American artists were periodically invited to document NASA’s early space-faring activities.

Throughout the Apollo program, a range of artists were given unrestricted access to NASA’s various facilities in order to collect usable reference materials. Artists like Norman Rockwell, Robert McCall, Fred Freeman, and Robert Rauschenberg all participated in the program, lending their images and reputations to NASA’s public engagement efforts in the years leading up to the Moon landing. After the conclusion of the Apollo program, the need for commissioned art seemed less acute, and throughout the 1970s the art program slowed. In 1975, Jim Dean, a founder of the NASA art program, along with Lester Cooke, a curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art, played a key role in bringing the collection to the Museum under the guidance of Michael Collins, the director for the Museum at the time. 

Even though the Museum is surrounded by world-class art museums, the story its art collection tells is deeply contingent on the context of its production. In most cases, the commission and production of these artworks relate directly to the histories the Museum is charged with preserving. Yes, these paintings can be appreciated purely for their artistic merit, but their role in communicating the space program makes them uniquely relevant to the National Air and Space Museum. 

  • Apollo 8 Coming Home

    Apollo 8 Coming Home, Robert McCall (1969)
    This painting of the Apollo 8 command module returning to Earth was made by Robert McCall for NASA’s Artist’s Cooperation Program. McCall also produced the promotional art for 2001: A Space Odyssey, and painted one of the murals on the first floor at the Museum in Washington, DC. 

  • Grissom and Young

    Grissom and Young, Normal Rockwell (1965)
    NASA loaned the popular illustrator a functional spacesuit in order to properly inform his representation of Gemini astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young. 

  • Colorful painting from the view of the artist, with hand and sketchbook visible.

    Saturn Blockhouse, Fred Freeman (1968)
    Freeman created this painting from a series of intimate studies made inside Cape Canaveral’s Saturn Launch Control Blockhouse. The artist’s sketchbook and coffee-cup can be seen in the bottom right-hand portion of the image. 

  • Gemini Launch Pad

    Gemini Launch Pad, James Wyeth (1964)
    Wyeth, whose father Andrew Wyeth was also a well-known American artist, produced this image for the NASA Art Program in 1964. The image features a bicycle that technicians used to make quick trips to the launch pad.

  • Lithograph with images in red at the bottom and blue and yellow at the top of the Apollo space program.

    Sky Garden, Robert Rauschenberg (1969)
    In the weeks leading up to the Apollo 11 launch, Robert Rauschenberg roamed the Kennedy Space Center incorporating aspects of the Florida landscape into his composite lithographs of NASA imagery. 

  • Line drawing of the back of an astronaut receiving help from a technician in front.

    Paul Calle produced a number of drawings documenting the morning of July 16th, 1969. He was the only artist present as the Apollo 11 astronauts suited up for their mission to the Moon.