Academic journal article Intertexts

Art, Technology, and the American Space Program, 1962-1972

Academic journal article Intertexts

Art, Technology, and the American Space Program, 1962-1972

Article excerpt

Going to the moon was not just a technological endeavor, but an artistic one, like Michelangelo's frescoes on the Sistine chapel ceiling. The same kind of imagination that allowed Michelangelo to produce the crowning achievement of his era helped NASA's engineers build their moon ships. Just as Michelangelo needed faith in his own abilities to sustain him during the long years of effort, so faith was at the heart of what it took to put men, and their shoes and socks, and pictures of their children, on the surface of the moon. (Hanks vii)

Tom Hanks's recent characterization of the first decade of the American space program as a creative and spiritual endeavor, rather than simply a display of mechanical might, deserves our attention. As Leo Marx and others have demonstrated, Americans have long responded to the machine with the special praise reserved for our most respected creators--including the divine. Hanks's quotation epitomizes the characteristics with which the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) came to associate itself during its quest for the moon, precisely through the mode of artistic representation. In the early 1960s, NASA established an art program to convey its accomplishments to an American--and an international--audience. The art program filled both practical and symbolic functions for the space agency, providing illustrations for publications while simultaneously communicating NASA's political philosophy. However, as a detailed examination of the images and the assumptions underlying the program reveals, the significance of the NASA Artists' Cooperation Program extends far beyond its utilitarian purpose. A study of the first decade of the art program, implemented in the early years of the space race, provides insight not only into how NASA wished to portray itself, but also, perhaps even more importantly, into American attitudes toward technology and space exploration during this period.

NASA and the Space Race

The adoption of an art program by an agency built largely in response to perceptions--the American public's impression of Soviet dominance in space--is intriguing. The symbolic status of images made art a particularly appropriate tool for NASA to put to use in shaping its own identity. NASA owed its creation to the American response to Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that inaugurated the space age on October 4, 1957. In the wake of this major psychological victory for the Soviet Union, which capitalized on American fears of global Soviet domination, Senator Lyndon Johnson called for the creation of a new government agency to oversee American efforts in space. In Johnson's view, "The reason the United States fell behind Russia in satellite development in the first place is because we neglected the relation between scientific achievement and international relations" (quoted in Launius 29). As Vice President, Johnson would make his point even more explicit: "One can predict with confidence that failure to master s pace means being second-best in the crucial arena of our Cold War world. In the eyes of the world, first in space means first, period; second in space is second in everything"(quoted in McDougall 320). On October 1, 1958, nearly one year after the launch of Sputnik, the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 established NASA as a civilian agency charged with, among other things, "the preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes." Significantly, the act also required the agency to "provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof" (quoted in Launius 154-58). In the politically charged atmosphere of the Cold War, one of NASA's official duties was to spread word of its own triumphs, just as the Soviet Union had broadcast word of their victorious foray into the heavens with Sputnik.

President Kennedy was well aware that in the symbolic arena of the ideological battle between the United States and the Soviet Union, public opinion would be influenced most effectively not through military action, which carried the threat of nuclear conflict, but rather, by creating the perception of both cultural and military superiority. …

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