Art and the Promotion of Space Exploration

NASA Lunar Basex
NASA Lunar Base

A 1949 Gallup poll of Americans found that only 15% of the public believed that man would walk on the Moon by 2000. How is it that we accomplished this by 1969? Of course the Cold War and a series of Soviet space firsts played the lead role. But space art also played a role in providing for the population a visualization of what space exploration could be like.

Space art still has a role to play in exposing the public to the vision of what it would mean to truly become a spacefaring civilization. There is a precedent for art's ability to shape public policy. One of my favorite artists is Thomas Moran, an outstanding painter of the Hudson River School. One of Moran's landscape subjects was Yellowstone, which he visited as part of an expedition in 1871. His paintings of the landscape had such an impact on the public that in 1872 Yellowstone was made our nation's first national park. If you would like to know more about Thomas Moran and his art, I recommend the book Thomas Moran by Nancy K. Anderson and published by the National Gallery of Art.

Peter A. Nisbet, a well known landscape artist who was part of the NASA Art Program, said that “Art is about what words cannot express. Many things have happened in the exploration of space that people cannot know through photographs or newspapers/television reporting. It is the artist's task to bring forth the mysterious, the exalted, the great beauty and power surrounding these events.”

Later this month I will be attending the 2008 International Space Development Conference in Washington D.C. While it has not yet been confirmed, I expect to be giving a presentation on space art and its power to promote space exploration. Titled Using Art to Promote Space Exploration, the presentation is part history, part call to action. To be considered for a programming slot, I had to submit a 500 word abstract. Imagine my surprise when upon finishing the abstract I discovered that I was over 1,000 words. Heavy handed editing got me down to the 500 world limit. Following is the abstract that I submitted.

Title: Using Art to Promote Space Exploration
Author: Jim Plaxco

In the beginning there was astronomical art whose purpose was to illustrate planetary bodies and astronomical concepts. With the advent of science fiction space art came into being as a means of illustrating fictional space ships and off-Earth habitations.

In the 1950's space art migrated from the realm of science fiction to science when artists were commissioned to create illustrations for non-fiction books describing space exploration. A peak of public relations was reached during this period with a series of articles in Collier's Magazine which became the basis for a subsequent series of programs created by Disney for television.

In 1962 NASA created the NASA Art Program to document and celebrate the events and activities of the space program. This and other art commissioned by NASA has been used for multiple purposes including: technical illustration of hardware; public affairs imagery promoting particular programs; capturing the emotional impact of space exploration; illustrating scientific discoveries.

Throughout the space age art has been used as a means of visualizing and promoting space exploration. The target of this art has been both the public and public policy decision makers. This art focused on the Apollo program during the 1960's; the Shuttle program during the 1970's; the International Space Station during the 1980's and 1990's; and the Vision for Space Exploration during the 2000's. Today the main customers for professional non-fictional space art are space agencies, aerospace companies, and those publications that cover the field.

Recent years has seen the addition of marketing the images returned by various robotic missions as art. The initial such project was “Mars As Art” which used Mars Odyssey THEMIS data. Subsequently “The Sun As Art“, “Landsat: Earth As Art” and “Our Earth As Art” programs were launched. These programs raise public interest in space exploration. This is best exhibited by the extensive media and public attention that images from the Hubble Space Telescope have garnered.

In addition to commissioning art to illustrate its programs, NASA has also sponsored art contests targeting students. The positive relationship between space exploration and student interest in science is a long accepted one. By sponsoring these contests, NASA is spurring student interest in science, art, and space exploration, as well as heightening awareness of their own programs.

NASA has leveraged art to satisfy multiple objectives. The space activist community should take advantage of these lessons. NSS has embarked on a program of support for the space arts. In addition to the traditional venue of commissioning art for Ad Astra, recent years have seen space art programming and shows at the ISDCs. Additionally NSS has conducted two successful Space Settlement Art Contests. NSS leveraged the art submitted to these contests by building corresponding art galleries on the NSS web site and using the winning art to publish calendars promoting space settlement.

As chair of the NSS Web Oversight Committee, I plan to advocate for the creation of a Student Space Art Gallery to spur student interest in art and space exploration.

Moon Base Illustration

The art used to illustrate this post is of an advanced lunar base and was used as an illustration in the 1992 multivolume NASA publication Space Resources. The entire publication is available as a PDF download from the (Page no longer available: NSS Space Resources Library.

Ad Astra, Jim

| Return to the Blog Index | This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 30th, 2008 at 3:37 pmand is filed under Presentations, Space Art, Space Exploration.

4 Responses to “Art and the Promotion of Space Exploration”

  1. Cybasumo says:
    May 1, 2008 at 8:49 am

    That was a great Human knowledg evolution, i wouldn't be surprised if ther is such an invention that lets us live to mars as well.. due to overpopulation.

  2. Plaxco says:
    May 2, 2008 at 7:09 am

    Actually we don't need new inventions to allow us to live on Mars. What is needed is a decision to do it and a commitment to follow through.

    As to population, having an independent branch of humanity living on Mars is less about dealing with over population and more about insuring the long term survival of humanity because right now we have all of our eggs in one basket.

  3. Ray Katz says:
    May 11, 2008 at 10:19 am


    Nice blog! I was thinking of writing and posting an article on Art in the history of space travel…but I'd love to have a guest article, if you'd like to send one!

    My website, Museum of Space Travel profiles museums with space-related exhibits. It allows users to rate and comment on museums. And, it has a changing feature article on the front page…

  4. Plaxco says:
    June 30, 2008 at 11:08 pm

    Hi Ray,

    First off I wish you success with your web site. Being in Chicago we have both the Crown Space Center and the Adler Planetarium so we are fortunate on that count.

    As to writing an article for your site on the history of space art, thanks for the offer but I find that I don't even have time to write for my own sites! If things change, I'll let you know. Thanks. Jim