Annie Leibovitz, "Eileen Collins" (detail) (1999), photograph. Collins was the first NASA female pilot, as well as the first female commander.

Annie Leibovitz, “Eileen Collins” (detail) (1999), photograph. Collins was the first NASA female pilot, as well as the first female commander. (all images courtesy NASA Art Program)

For over 50 years, NASA has had an active art program to document and respond to both the exploration of space and the technology behind our growing understanding of the universe beyond our atmosphere.

A sampling of the over 2,000 artworks that are part of the NASA Art Program were recently uploaded to NASA’s Flickrstream, and give an insight into the breadth of work that has come out of this rare merger between a government agency and art. There are pieces by big name artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Annie Leibovitz, but also those who were intrinsically involved in behind-the-scenes access to NASA so that they’re best known for their space art, like Paul Calle who sketched the Apollo 11 astronauts as they prepared to launch into space for the first visit to the moon.

Robert Rauschenberg, “Sky Garden” (1969), lithograph on canvas. For this piece, part of the Stoned moon series, NASA gave Rauschenberg scientific maps, charts, and photographs from the Apollo 11 launch

The program was started in 1962, not too long after NASA itself was founded in 1958, with James Dean serving as its founding director from 1962 to 1974. The idea was not just to have a visual response to the technical triumphs, but also to, in a way, bring the public into these usually off-limits places. This wasn’t always easy, as Norman Rockwell found when trying to borrow a Gemini space suit for his depiction of astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young. The only way NASA would let him bring it to his studio was with a technician guarding it all times, not just from paint stains, but as the secrets of the spacesuit technology were closely guarded. As a tribute, Rockwell even included the technician in the painting as one of the people helping the astronauts to suit up.

While there are many of these responses with realism to the space program, there are more abstract works as well, and those that acknowledge the failures and tragedies that are involved with shooting for the stars. Chakaia Booker has a particularly haunting sculptural work where the rubber of a frayed space shuttle wheel is twisted into a starburst as a response to the Columbia disaster. As the program has grown, it’s also expanded into poetry and music, such music from Terry Riley and the Kronos Quartet.

NASA recently had a traveling exhibition for the program’s 50th anniversary with 73 of the works. Below are some selections from this ongoing artistic log of the space program, where the emotions of exploration of the universe, as much as its history, has been given a public voice. And here’s a full list of the NASA Art Program artists, from icons of 20th century art to lesser-known artists who were given a chance to use their work to respond to science that took people where none had tread before.

Mitchell Jamieson, “First Steps” (1963), acrylic, gauze, and paper on canvas, showing Gordon Cooper leaving the Mercury spacecraft.

James Wyeth, “Gemini Launch Pad” (1964), watercolor on paper

Norman Rockwell, “Grissom and Young” (1965). Here astronauts John Young and Gus Grissom suit up for the first Gemini program flight. NASA loaned Rockwell a Gemini suit for the painting.

Fred Freeman, “Saturn Blockhouse” (1968), acrylic on canvas. Freeman often was given free access to space facilities during missions. Meta alert: you can see his coffee cup on the console at left, as he paints the work in his hand on the right.

Paul Calle, “Mike Collins” (1969), felt tip pen on paper. Calle sketched the Apollo 11 astronauts in person on the morning of July 16, 1969 as they prepared for the first trip to the moon

Henry Casselli, “When Thoughts Turn Inwards” (1981), watercolor. The painting shows astronaut John Young as he suits up for an April 12, 1981 launch, the first time the new space shuttle would carry humans.

Andy Warhol, “Moonwalk” (1987), silkscreen on paper, showing Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon.

William Wegman, “Chip and Batty Explore Space” (2001), photograph. Here two Weimaraners pose as astronauts, one on a space walk, one in the space station. NASA actually loaned Wegman a spacesuit model for the work.

Chakaia Booker, “Remembering Columbia” (2006). Booker incorporated a space shuttle tire donated by NASA into the work to memorialize the February 1, 2003 Columbia disaster

Click here to view more works from the NASA Art Program.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

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