Long before Armstrong and Aldrin, artists were stoking dreams of space travel
During the space race, Hereward Lester Cooke, former co-director of the NASA Art Program, remarked: "Space travel began in the artist's mind."
If the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing was an opportunity to celebrate a remarkable technological achievement, it is also a good time to reflect on the creative vision that made it possible.
Long before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, artists and writers developed visions of extraterrestrial exploration that would make space travel possible.
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For centuries, the dream of human travel in the cosmos has caught the imagination.
Ancient mythologies were teeming with deities who filled the sky, shimmered with stars, and rode the sun and moon. Pythagoras, Philolaus and Plutarch each viewed the moon as a world of its own. As is well known, Leonardo da Vinci imagined flying machines that would take their occupants to heaven. Authors such as Cyrano de Bergerac, who was the first to introduce a rocket for space travel, whet the appetite for stories about the exploration of the sky.
In 1865 the French writer Jules Verne published his novel “From the Earth to the Moon”, followed five years later by the sequel “Around the Moon”.
Verne's story provides an eerily forward-looking account of the development of space travel: three astronauts fly out of Florida in a small aluminum capsule that was fired from the end of a giant cast iron cannon. After circling the moon and making observations with opera glasses, the three men return to earth and splash into the ocean as heroes.
Almost a century later, RKO Pictures released a film inspired by Verne's adventure story, while a comic book version of the story went through multiple prints between 1953 and 1971.
In the 1950s, the painter Chesley Bonestell further inspired the imagination of future space travelers with his visions of space stations published in Colliers. Walt Disney followed with three television films that showed how humans might one day fly into space and land on the moon.
After putting it on, the artists inspired again
In 1969, Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins realized the vision that Verne and millions of other people had brought to mind.
This achievement would in turn re-inspire artists.
"Nothing will be the same again", reads the text on the right margin of Robert Rauschenberg's collage "Stoned Moon Drawing". Rauschenberg's work, published in the December 1969 issue of Studio International, combined images from the Apollo 11 Moonwalk, Cape Canaveral, and the Gemini print shop. Rauschenberg wanted to draw attention to the intensive collaboration in the fields of art and science, be it for print production or for moon landings.
In the 1970s, the color field painter Alma Thomas explored what she described as the “vastness and incomprehensibility of space” in abstract paintings such as “Blast Off”, “Launch Pad” and “New Galaxy”.
"When I paint space, I'm with the astronauts," she said.
Artist Red Grooms, who participated in the Apollo 15 launch, turned to official NASA photographs to create a gigantic sculptural installation of astronauts David Scott and James Irwin exploring the lunar surface using cameras and a lunar rover.
"I wanted," he explained, "to do what the [NASA] people did - build something we couldn't understand and then try to get it going."
Pioneers of the imagination
What can you learn from this story from space visionaries?
Perhaps easiest is the power of the arts to cultivate the imagination - to make possible in the mind that which has not yet been tangibly realized. As the Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan stated in his 1964 classic: "Understanding the Media: The Extensions of Man":
“The artist is the [person] in any field, whether scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of [their] actions and new knowledge in [their] time. [The artist] is the [person] of integral consciousness. "
In recent years, American educational policies have increasingly emphasized the value of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, often at the expense of promoting the arts.
At what risk is educational policy drifting away from the arts? What kind of navigation instructions could be missing?
Scientists, according to essayist Rebecca Solnit, certainly play an essential role in the discovery of humans. They "transform the unknown into the known, pull it in like fishermen."
But it is the artist, she writes, who “leads you out into this dark sea”.
It was artists who first imagined and produced photographic technologies. It was artists who first foresaw a world in which individuals could fly. And it will be artists who will continue to destroy the perceived limitations of our own intellectual framework.
In 2018, Japanese tycoon Yusaku Maezawa paid an undisclosed amount of money to be the first to orbit the moon since 1972. If everything goes according to plan, he will leave in 2023 with companions of his choice.
I find his selection appropriate: he intends to take a group of artists with him.
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This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts.
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Anne Collins Goodyear does not work for any company or organization that would benefit from this article and does not consult any stocks or companies that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond her academic appointment.
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