Story: NASA’s chief historian charts the beginnings of the agency in the midst of the Cold War, the race to orbit and then to the moon against the Russians, and the evolution of manned spaceflight from Mercury to the Mir/shuttle docking missions. The text is accompanied by artwork from NASA’s archives, ranging from photorealism to abstract impressionism.
Review: Ah, that NASA artwork. With the marvels of real photography and computer animation, some of this book’s paintings, sketches, charcoal drawings and other works may seem a bit dated. But once upon a time, they were the only way you’d ever get to envision a spacecraft as it appears in orbit. Even now, it’s often still the best way to go, and stirs the imagination more than anything else. And when we’re looking at a space program that is, at the time this review was written, stalled until further notice, stirring the imagination would seem to be an absolutely vital thing.
The history text of the book is very informative, and even a space fan like myself can learn a few things he or she didn’t already know in the course of reading it. Even though there’s a lot of space to cover, some of the text is surprisingly cursory on key missions. It also splits the histories of manned and unmanned missions down the middle, not dealing with remote-controlled space exploration until the end of the book. I’m not sure if it’s better to do it that way, or to weave it all into a single tapestry. Then again, a case can be made that seldom have those two distinct halves of the American space program interacted; the only example I can think of would be the reliance on the unmanned Lunar Orbiters and Surveyor probes of the 1960s to map potential landing sites for the manned Apollo missions. With that in mind, maybe it is best to separate those two histories. I’m just torn because I’m a big fan of both of those stories.
As for the artwork, I’ve long been a fan of space landscapes and NASA artists’ renderings. But of all the pieces in this book, my favorite is still Norman Rockwell’s moving montage of the people behind the Apollo 11 mission. Depicting the primary crew, their backup astronauts, their wives, NASA researchers, designers, and ground crew members, all grouped in threes and gazing toward the upper left of the picture toward the moon, Rockwell’s painting is a beautiful metaphor of what space exploration used to mean to this country. Indeed, the book’s emphasis on the pre-shuttle era of NASA is a testament to that lost sense of national will. These days, someone has to attack us to stir that same unity. But enough of my political commentary there. Ludek Pesek’s inimitable landscapes-from-other-worlds and Paul Calle’s elegant Gemini-era charcoal sketches are also high on my list of favorite art pieces in these pages.
Overall, it’s an excellent book, and a good candidate for grabbing some interest on the coffee table. I seldom buy or recommend “art books,” but this one’s worth seeking out.
Authors: Roger D. Launius, Bertram Ulrich
Publisher: Stewart Tabori & Chang
Pages: 224 pages