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Space art

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The Blue Marble, Earth as seen from Apollo 17, 1972

Space art, also known as astronomical art, is a genre that focuses on visual representations of the universe. This genre includes various styles such as realism, impressionism, abstract imagery, and sculpture. Though artists have long produced art with astronomical elements, the genre of space art itself began only when technological advancement allowed for more detailed observation of the night sky. Space art also attempts to communicate ideas related to space, often including an artistic interpretation of cosmological phenomena and scientific discoveries. In some cases, space artists use more than illustration and painting to communicate astronomy or works depicting space. Several space artists work directly with scientists developing spaceflight technology in attempts to expand the arts, humanities, and cultural expression relative to space exploration.

For many decades, visual artists have explored the topic of space using traditional painting media, followed recently by the use of digital media for the same purpose. Science fiction magazines and picture-essay magazines were one of the first major outlets for space art, often featuring planets, spaceships, and dramatic alien landscapes. Chesley Bonestell, R. A. Smith, Lucien Rudaux, David A. Hardy, and Ludek Pesek were some of the prominent artists in the early days of the genre, actively involved in visualizing topics such as space exploration. Astronomers and experts in rocketry played roles in inspiring and informing artists in this genre.

NASA’s second administrator, James E. Webb, created the space agency's Space Art program in 1962, four years after its founding.[1] Bonestell's work in this program often depicted various celestial bodies and landscapes, highlighting both the destinations and the imagined technologies used to reach them.

Astronomical art[edit]

Trouvelot, The great nebula in Orion (1875).

Astronomical art is a genre of space art that focuses on visual representations of outer space. It encompasses various themes, including the space environment as a new frontier for humanity, depictions of alien worlds, representations of extreme phenomena like black holes, and artistic concepts inspired by astronomy.

Astronomical art was largely pioneered in the 1940s and 1950s by Chesley Bonestell, who was known for his ability to solve perspective problems, paint with the eye of a matte artist to create visual impressions and seek out experts in fields that fascinated him. To this day, artists often assist in visualizing ideas and concepts for the space community, such as portraying theoretical capabilities for interstellar travel, to illustrating hypothetical objects in deep space.

Astronomical art is the most recent of several art movements that have explored ideas emerging from the ongoing exploration of Earth. Finding its roots in genres such as Hudson River School or Luminism, most astronomical artists use traditional painting methods or digital equivalents in a way that brings the viewer to the frontiers of human knowledge gathered in the exploration of space. Such works usually portray things in the familiar visual language of realism extrapolated to exotic environments, whose details reflect ongoing knowledge and educated guesswork. An example of the process of creating astronomical art would be studying and visiting desert environments to experience something of what it might be like on Mars and painting based on such experiences. Another would be to hear of something likely to be amazing to watch up close, then seek out published articles or experts in the field. Usually, there is an artistic effort to emphasize the favorable visual elements, just as a photographer composes a picture. Notable astronomical art often reflects the artist's interpretation and imagination regarding the subject portrayed.

Science fiction magazines such as Fantasy and Science Fiction, Amazing, Astounding (later renamed Analog), and Galaxy served as major outlets for the work of space and particularly astronomical artists in the 1950s. Several picture essay magazines of the time, such as Life, Collier's, and Coronet, were other major outlets for such art. Today, astronomical art can be seen in magazines such as Sky and Telescope, The Planetary Report, and occasionally in Scientific American. The NASA fine arts program has been an ongoing effort to hire artists to create works generally specific to a particular space project. The program documents historical events in recognizable form for professional artists. The NASA Fine Arts Program operated in an era of forward progress under its first head director, James Dean.[2] Even then, pictorial realism seemed a subset rather than a dominating visual influence.

The works that document space flight situations, such as those referenced above, are similar in concept to government efforts during World War II to send artists to battle zones to document things as they saw them, much of which appeared in contemporary Life magazines. Most of today's widely published space and astronomical artists have belonged to the International Association of Astronomical Artists since 1983.

History [edit]

Early history[edit]

Land Grant to Ḫunnubat-Nanaya Kudurru. Susa, Babylonia. (ca. 1186-1172 BC), limestone, 83 cm (32.6 in) x 42 cm (16.5 in) x 33 cm (12.9 in), Louvre.

This is an early depiction of Venus (the star of Ishtar), the lunar crescent, and the solar disk (12th century BC).

Albrecht Altdorfer's painting The Battle of Issus (1529) is probably the earliest painting to show the curvature of the Earth from a great height.

Galileo's sketches of the Moon from the ground-breaking Sidereus Nuncius (1610) were published among other early descriptions of the Moon's topography.

In 1711, Donato Creti painted a series of astronomers viewing other planets of the Solar System through a telescope to interest the Vatican in establishing an astronomical observatory.

19th century[edit]

In 1858, Comet Donati was recorded in numerous paintings of the time.

James Carpenter and James Nasmyth's work The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite (1874) contains photographs of sculpted models of Lunar features, influential to future space artists in the marked vertical exaggeration of the actual relief of the Moon.

In the 1870s, Étienne Léopold Trouvelot published a series of Chromolithographs of his pastels of astronomical subjects.

In 1877, Paul Dominique Philippoteaux and engraver Laplante illustrated Jules Verne's story Off on a Comet, including an imaginative view looking up at the rings of Saturn from the planet itself.

20th century[edit]

In 1918, Howard Russell Butler deliberately made use of the dynamic range of human vision in painting a total eclipse based on direct observation.[3]

In 1927, Scriven Bolten created lunar landscape images for the Illustrated London News using painted photos of plaster models.

In 1937, Lucien Rudaux painted many works for Sur Les Autres Mondes[4][5]

In 1944, Chesley Bonestell's paintings of Saturn seen from its different moons appears in Life magazine, introducing astronomical art to a wide American audience. Books featuring Bonestell's art include The Conquest Of Space (1949), The Exploration Of Mars (1956), and Life's The World We Live In (1955).

The second Hayden Planetarium Symposium on Space Travel, held in New York in October 1952, resulted in a series of widely read space flight articles in Colliers magazine, illustrated by Bonestell and others.

In 1963, Ludek Pesek's paintings filled the large volumes The Moon And the Planets, and the 1968 volume Our Planet Earth-From The Beginning.

The 1980 Cosmos PBS television show and book used the work of many space artists. Host Carl Sagan used such art in several of his books.

21st century[edit]


The first photographs of the entire Earth by satellites[6] and crewed Apollo missions[7] brought a new sense of our world as an island in empty space and promoted ideas of the essential unity of humanity.[8] Photographs taken by explorers on the Moon shared the experience of being in another world. The famous Pillars of Creation[9] Hubble Space Telescope and other Hubble photos often evoke intense responses from viewers, for example, Hubble's planetary nebula images.[10]


Space artists may work closely with space scientists and engineers to help them visualize and develop their scientific and technological concepts of space exploration. Other forms of pictorial space art bring the viewer to inner visions inspired, directly or otherwise, by the fruits of the expanding vision of humanity. Some aspects of such art pay visual homage to outer space and popular ideas of life on other worlds, including alien visitation visions, dream symbolism, psychedelic imagery, and other influences on contemporary visionary art.

Artists have experienced free-fall conditions during flights flown with NASA, the Russian and French Space Agencies, and the Zero Gravity Arts Consortium. Early efforts by artists to have art pieces placed in space have already been accomplished with painting, holography, micro-gravity mobiles, floating literary works, and sculpture.[11]

Art in space[edit]

Golden olive branch left on the Moon by Neil Armstrong (Apollo 11) as a symbol of peace.

First art created in space[edit]

The first active artist in space was Alexei Leonov, producing the first drawing in space onboard Voskhod 2 in 1965, depicting an orbital sunrise.[12]

First original oil paintings flown in outer space[edit]

An art conservation experiment from Vertical Horizons,[13] founded by Howard Wishnow and Ellery Kurtz, was flown aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia STS-61-C on January 12, 1986. Four original oil paintings by American artist Ellery Kurtz were flown in one of NASA's GetAway Special (G.A.S.) containers mounted to a bridge in the shuttle cargo bay. These original works of art are the first oil paintings to enter Earth orbit. This NASA GAS canister, designated G-481, was the 46th such canister flown aboard a Space Shuttle. The Space Shuttle Columbia orbited the Earth 98 times during its mission duration of 6 days, 2 hours, 3 minutes, and 51 seconds. Columbia was launched from Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida, on January 12, 1986, and landed at the Kennedy Space Center on January 18, 1986.

Zero-g space art[edit]

Fallen Astronaut, left on the Moon by David Scott during the Apollo 15 mission

Small art objects have been carried on several Apollo missions, such as gold emblems and a small Fallen Astronaut figurine that was left on the Moon during the 1971 Apollo 15 mission. Visual observations have been recorded in drawings and commentary by earlier cosmonauts and astronauts of difficult-to-photograph phenomena such as the airglow, twilight colors, and outer details of the solar corona. An able and observant artist can record aspects of their surroundings beyond the design limitations of any particular camera system.

Another work, later brought to Earth orbit sometime in the mid-80s, was a study of the golden sunlight on a Soviet space station by Russian artist Andrei Sokolov, carried aboard the Soviet Mir space station starting with modules in February 1986. In 1984, Joseph McShane and Lowry Burgess had their conceptual artwork flown aboard the Space Shuttle utilizing NASA's 'Get Away Special' program.[14] The first sculpture specifically designed for a human habitat in orbit was Arthur Woods' Cosmic Dancer[15][16] which was sent to the Mir station in 1993. In 1995, Arthur Woods organized Ars ad Astra, the first art exhibition in Earth orbit.[17] consisting of 20 original artworks from 20 artists and an electronic archive also took place on the Mir space station as a part of ESA's EUROMIR'95 mission. In 1998, Frank Pietronigro flew Research Project Number 33: Investigating the Creative Process in a Micro-gravity Environment, where the artist drew, created 'drift paintings' and danced in micro-gravity space. In 2006, the artist returned to micro-gravity flight to create three new works, one in collaboration with Lowry Burgess, Moments in the Infinite Absolute, Flags in Space!, and a new form of micro-gravity mobile.

The Slovenian theater director Dragan Živadinov staged a performance called Noordung Zero Gravity Biomechanical during a parabolic flight organized through the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center facility in Star City in 1999. The UK arts group The Arts Catalyst, with the MIR consortium (Arts Catalyst, Projekt Atol, V2 Organisation, Leonardo-Olats), organized a series of parabolic 'zero gravity' flights for artistic and cultural experimentation with the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, as well as with the European Space Agency, between 2000 and 2004, including Investigations in Microgravity,[18] MIR Flight 001,[19] and MIR Campaign 2003.[20][21][22][23] Artists who participated in these flights and visits to Russia and ESA have included the Otolith Group, shortlisted in 2011 for the Turner Prize, Stefan Gec, Ansuman Biswas and Jem Finer, Kitsou Dubois, Yuri Leiderman, and Marcel.li Antunez Roca.

Entrepreneur and astronaut Richard Garriott visited the International Space Station, via the Soyuz TMA-13 on October 12, 2008, where he displayed an art exhibition Celestial Matters, during his 12 days in orbit. Celestial Matters included works by ten American artist as well as work Garriott created himself while in orbit, honoring his heritage in art and science. The art was later exhibited at the Charles Bank Gallery in New York City in October 2011.[24] Garriott also exhibited Astrogeneris Mementos, two small works, somewhat reminiscent of memento mori or hairwork, containing locks of hair from Richard Garriott and Owen Garriott sealed in chambers by Steve Brudniak, the first assemblage sculptures exhibited in outer space.[25][26][27]

The Mexican artist and musician Nahum directed the art and science project Matters of Gravity (La Gravedad de los Asuntos in Spanish), a project reflecting on gravity in its absence. The first mission consisting only of Latin American artists was executed in a zero-gravity flight at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in 2014. The participating artists include Tania Candiani, Ale de la Puente, Ivan Puig, Arcángelo Constantini, Fabiola Torres-Alzaga, Gilberto Esparza, Juan Jose Diaz Infante, Nahum, and Marcela Armas. The project included the participation of Mexican scientist Miguel Alcubierre and curators Rob La Frenais and Kerry Anne Doyle.

Performance art has also occurred in space, as with Chris Hadfield's 2013, edited performance of David Bowie's 1969 song "Space Oddity."[28]

Sojourner 2020 project onboard the International Space Station[edit]

In the Sojourner 2020 project from MIT, the Space Exploration Initiative took nine selected artists to develop art projects on board the International Space Station. Sojourner 2020 was a 1.5U size device (100mm x 100mm x 152.4mm) that was launched into low Earth orbit between March 7 and April 7 during the COVID-19 pandemic. It featured a three-layer telescoping structure that simulated three different "gravities": zero gravity, lunar gravity, and Martian gravity. Each layer of the structure rotated independently. The top layer remained still in weightlessness, while the middle and bottom layers spun at different speeds to produce centripetal accelerations that mimicked lunar gravity and Martian gravity, respectively. Each layer carried six pockets that held the projects. Each pocket was a container with a diameter of 10 mm and a depth of 12 mm. The artist proposed and accomplished artworks in a variety of different mediums, including carved stone sculptures by Erin Genia, liquid pigment experiments by Andrea Ling and Levi Cai, sculptures made of transgender hormone replacement medicines by Adriana Knouf, and living organisms, like marine diatoms of the genus Phaeodactylum Tricornutum, by Luis Guzmán.[29][citation needed]

The nine artist groups selected onboard Sojourner 2020 were:

Moon Gallery viewed from the ISS Cupola
Moon Gallery viewed from the ISS Cupola

· Luis Bernardo Guzmán - bio architectures (Cosmo biology) - Chile

· Xin Liu, Lucia Monge - Unearthing the Futures - China and Peru

· Levi Cai & Andrea Ling - Abiogenetic Triptych - USA, Canada

· Kat Kohl - Memory Chain: A Pas de Deux of Artifact - USA

· Henry Tan - Pearl of Lunar - Thai

· Janet Biggs - Finding Equilibrium - USA

· Masahito Ono - Nothing, Something, Everything - Japan

· Adriana Knouf - TX-1 - USA

· Erin Genia - Canupa Inyan: Falling Star Woman - American Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate[30][citation needed]

Artworks launched into outer space[edit]

Recontextualization in space[edit]

Humans have engaged in many cultural activities in space, particularly on space stations, recontextualizing terrestrial culture and art.[33]

Space art organizations[edit]

ISS crew watching a movie in orbit.

International Association of Astronomical Artists[edit]

The premier organization and only guild in the world dedicated to the creation of space art is the International Association of Astronomical Artists (IAAA). Composed of over 120 members, artists of the IAAA depict the wonders of the universe in ways to inspire the greater human population and raise awareness of space. Members of the IAAA have been creating space art in all of its myriad forms since its founding in 1982, from traditional painting to digital works to 3-D zero-gravity sculpture. Numerous book and magazine covers, movie effects, or artistic images illustrating the newest astronomical discoveries are done by an IAAA member.[citation needed]

KOSMICA Institute[edit]

KOSMICA is an institute that runs poetical, artistic, cultural, and critical projects about outer space activities and their impact on the Earth. KOSMICA's central activity is a series of festivals worldwide, with over 20 editions in various countries. KOSMICA also constantly develops other activities like educational programs, and publications. It has local offices in several cities as well as partner organizations.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "NASA Art Program". NASA: The Art of Air and Space. 2016-08-04.
  2. ^ "A Different Perspective – Remembering James Dean, Founder of the NASA Art Program - NASA". 2024-05-06. Retrieved 2024-06-25.
  3. ^ Lawrence, Jenny; Richard Milner (February 2000). "A Forgotten Cosmic Designer". Natural History. Retrieved 27 March 2012.
  4. ^ Miller, Ron (17 January 2012). "The first science artist to draw accurate pictures of Mars and the Moon". io9. Retrieved 2019-04-17.
  5. ^ "Authors : Rudaux, Lucien : SFE : Science Fiction Encyclopedia". www.sf-encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 2019-04-17.
  6. ^ NASA.gov
  7. ^ "Apollo 8 View of Earth". Archived from the original on 2007-05-14. Retrieved 2007-04-16.
  8. ^ "Stewart Brand Interview. March 2, 2004". Archived from the original on 2007-05-03. Retrieved 2007-04-16.
  9. ^ 'Pillars Of Creation'
  10. ^ Planetary Nebula
  11. ^ Malina, Roger (1991). "In Defense of Space Art: The Role of the Artist in Space Exploration". Light Pollution, Radio Interference, and Space Debris. 17 (ASP Conference Series, IAU Colloquium 112): 145–152. Bibcode:1991ASPC...17..145M – via Astrophysics Data System.
  12. ^ Brown, Mark (31 August 2015). "First picture drawn in space to appear in cosmonauts show in London". the Guardian. Retrieved 26 August 2021.
  13. ^ "Home". verticalhorizons.biz.
  14. ^ "Art into Space" Archived 2011-07-17 at the Wayback Machine by Robert Horvitz, Whole Earth Review, fall 1985, pages 26-31.
  15. ^ "Cosmic Dancer: A space art project by Arthur Woods". outer-space-art-gallery.com. Retrieved 18 November 2014.
  16. ^ "Home". cosmicdancer.com.
  17. ^ "Home". arsadastra.com.
  18. ^ Investigations in Microgravity
  19. ^ MIR Flight 001
  20. ^ MIR Campaign 2003
  21. ^ "Ars Astronautica - AstroArtist Arthur Woods - Space Art Interventions".
  22. ^ "Art, Science and "the True Mistakes ofMetaphor"" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-24. Retrieved 2011-04-24.
  23. ^ HighBeam
  24. ^ Chow, Denise. 2011. Space Art Launching from NYC Gallery This Weekend. NBC News, Oct. 14, 2011, 11:48 AM CDT (Source: Space.com). Accessed June 15, 2024.
  25. ^ Gupta, Anjali (editor), 2013. The Science of Surrealism - Assemblage Sculpture of Steve Brudniak. Merrid Zone. Austin, Texas. 198 pp. (see pages 159-162) ISBN 978-0-615-75370-6
  26. ^ Brannon, Mike, 2018. Profile, Steve Burdniak: Psychedelic Surrrealism Texas Style. 71 Magazine, Jan/Feb 2018: 66-75 pp. (see page 71). Accessed June 15, 2024.
  27. ^ Challenger Center, Youtube: Richard Garriott Space Video Blog, 2009: Conservation of Momentum. (Brudniak’s Astrogeneris Mementos [two black squares framed in silver] can be seen at the top of the green bulletin board on the left). Accessed June 15, 2024.
  28. ^ Fleishman, Glenn (22 May 2013). "How does copyright work in space?". The Economist. Retrieved 29 May 2013.
  29. ^ Liu, Xin. "Sojourner 2020 | An international art payload to ISS". MIT Media Lab. MIT.
  30. ^ Liu, Xin. "Sojourner 2020 | An international art payload to ISS". MIT Media Lab.
  31. ^ a b "The artworks floating above the Earth". BBC. 14 December 2018. Retrieved 18 March 2021.
  32. ^ Robert Z. Pearlman (2022-02-21). "'Moon Gallery' prototype arrives at space station with 64 works of art". Space.com. Retrieved 2022-09-05.
  33. ^ Maldonado, Devon Van Houten (2018-12-14). "The artworks floating above the Earth". BBC Home. Retrieved 2024-03-28.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]