Out of This World
NASA | ART: 50 Years of Exploration
By James Dean and Bertram Ulrich
Abrams, 176 pages, $40.
Few spectacles are more spine-tingling than a rocket illuminated by floodlights at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) the night before a launch. The drama is gloriously captured in “T-Minus 3 Hours 30 Minutes and Counting,” Jamie Wyeth’s magnificent watercolor rendering of a Saturn V rocket bathed in searchlight beams hours before blasting the Apollo 11 astronauts to the Moon. Wyeth began his sketch of the 363-foot-tall Saturn V just before dawn, finishing the painting less than an hour before liftoff. The image is among more than 150 paintings, drawings, and an occasional odd sculpture in NASA | ART: 50 Years of Exploration.
In 1962, NASA administrator James Webb thought it wise to document the space agency’s history through a wider spectrum of art than simple portraits. Webb appointed NASA employee and artist James Dean to take charge of the project. A year later, the agency asked the National Gallery of Art to recruit eight artists to commemorate the final Mercury mission. Seven artists were assigned to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral; another was waiting on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean to depict the recovery of astronaut Gordon Cooper. Initially, the artists were confined to designated locations, but NASA soon allowed them unfettered access to the KSC grounds. Artists were given no guidelines; they were allowed to focus on any person or object. The only requirement was that every drawing sketched on site, regardless of how insignificant, be added to the NASA archive. NASA reasoned that “on-the-spot sketches often have an impact and immediacy which finished works of art lack.”
Norman Rockwell contributed the stirring “Behind Apollo 11,” which captured the Apollo 11 crew, the astronauts’ wives, Wernher von Braun, and other NASA personnel staring into the distance, their faces illuminated by what is presumably the Moon. James Dean captured a field of blossoms with a space shuttle on the launch pad in the distance. Others focused on the fiery explosions of liftoff. Depictions of space shuttles launched in daylight and at night offer fascinating contrast. The local tourism boom is reflected in sketches of the Satellite Motel and the Moon Hut Diner, where patrons chowed on Moon Burgers. (A replica of Earth in front of the motel features a pair of UFOs orbiting the planet.) William Wegman posed his famous Weimaraners in spacesuits. In Andy Warhol’s depiction of the first moon landing, Buzz Aldrin is wearing a neon pink spacesuit.
NASA | ART includes a brief history of America’s role in space exploration, including a foreword written by Apollo 11 pilot Michael Collins. Text accompanying each work often tells the story behind its creation. It is fitting that science fiction writer Ray Bradbury closes the book with a handful of thoughts pondering the universe: “Without us human beings, without NASA, the Universe would be unseen, unknown, untouched. A mindless abyss of stars ask to be discovered.”
Through June 27, a corresponding exhibition at The Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel, Mississippi, features 72 works from “NASA | ART: 50 Years of Exploration” as part of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The museum is located at 565 North 5th Avenue, Laurel, Mississippi. Details: (606) 649-6374; www.LRMA.org.