Illustrating Space-Age History and Hopes

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The space program is about dreams and opportunities, and the art helps express hope for the future of a vibrant America," says Daniel Goldin, NASA administrator and head cheerleader of the agency's art program.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration started its art collection in the early 1960s to document its history through paintings, drawings and other media. (Other federal agencies do likewise and boast formidable collections.) Today, NASA keeps more than 800 works, most of them commissioned, on display or in storage at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida; another 2,100 works had been donated earlier to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

Nearly every aspect of the agency's work is portrayed in these collections -- liftoffs and splashdowns and planetary exploration -- but individual portraits are less prominent. Team effort is emphasized, as well as the majesty and mysteries of the great beyond. Artistic styles range from the nostalgic realism of Norman Rockwell to the pop sensibilities of Robert Rauschenberg.

"There are parallels between artist, scientist and astronaut," says Bertram Ulrich, NASA's art curator. …