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