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NASA Celebrates 50 Years of Space Art

BY Kelly Chen  June 1, 2011 at 11:33 AM EDT

NASA’s shuttle program reached a milestone on Wednesday, as the shuttle Endeavour returned to earth and Atlantis, the last remaining shuttle of the fleet, rolled onto the launch pad for its final flight.

In the meantime, NASA continues to explore space through the eyes of visual artists. The NASA art program has been chronicling NASA’s adventures in space since 1962  shortly after President Kennedy announced the goal of sending an American to the   moon. The program has since collected over 3,000 works of art, more than 70 of which are highlighted in the exhibit, “NASA | Art: 50 Years of Exploration.”   

We provide a sample of the collection here, with narration provided by Bert Ulrich, NASA’s art curator.

The exhibit, which features paintings, photographs, and 3-D installations from Robert Rauschenberg to Norman Rockwell, runs until October 9 at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.  Artists received a small payment for their commissioned pieces – no more than $2,500.

One piece captures the introspection of 19-year astronaut John Young. Another documents the chaos of a mission control room.   The show also features images of the planet Mercury and the Mars Pathfinder lander, along with a rough sketch of popular artist and musician Moby’s interpretation of life on Mars.    

“The artists are given a back door into how the agency operates,” Ulrich said. “They meet with astronauts, they meet with engineers, they go behind the scenes, and they go to places that the public normally can’t go.”

The agency has also been known to loan artifacts and pieces to the artists, such as a spare wheel from one of the Mars rovers, and tires from one of shuttle Columbia’s early missions, which artist Chakaia Booker repurposes for a piece that invokes the 2003 disaster.

As we bid farewell to the shuttle era, the art program will continue to document NASA.

“It’s another way to reach the public about what lurks behind the doors of NASA and behind the rockets,” Ulrich said.