How Concept Art Helped Sell the U.S. Space Program

To most Americans in the early 1950s, a period of post-war optimism but down-to-Earth practicality, the idea of manned space flight seemed solidly in the realm of science fiction.

At the time, commercial aircraft were still prop powered; widespread use of jet airliners was several years away. Movies like Destination Moon and Rocketship X-M, and a growing market for science fiction stories, sparked a bit of interest in the idea of space travel, but to both the general public and the government, real rockets were just experimental weapons, and not particularly interesting ones at that.

That perception would begin to change when a series of illustrated articles appeared in the popular magazine Collier’s, starting in March of 1952 and running through April of 1954, that outlined a vision for rocket-powered manned space travel under the title “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!”

Rocket powered missiles had been used as weapons by the Germans in World War II, and experimental V2’s had crossed the defining 100 km Karman line, arcing briefly into space, but those tests were just intended to extend the missiles’ range of Earth-bound targets.

At the end of World War II, a group of German rocket scientists who worked on the V2, led by Wernher von Braun, surrendered to the Americans. They were put to work reworking V2’s and creating a new generation of rocket powered weapons for the U.S., but their projects were generally not given high priority in the early post-war years.

Von Braun, as he had while working on rocket powered weapons for Germany, continued to dream of manned space flight while working on weapons for the U.S., but his suggestions to further a U.S. space program were not well received by the military brass who oversaw his programs. Frustrated, von Braun began to contribute articles to popular magazines suggesting that space travel was a real possibility.

In 1952, prompted in part by a symposium that delved into the growing concern about Communist power and the possible use of space as a launching point for weapons, the editors of Collier’s tapped the knowledge and vision of von Braun, science writer Willy Ley and other experts in rocketry and related fields, to create a case for going into space.

Collier's spread, Chesley Bonestell

The articles showed a grand plan for manned space travel, not in the far future, but in the near term—backed up with extensively thought-out descriptions of how this could be accomplished with current, 1950s technology, carefully avoiding any assumption that future technology would be developed to solve basic problems. Manned space flight was presented as an issue merely of the investment of time and resources, and the will to proceed.

The articles made great use of a talented team of illustrators, including Fred Freeman and Rolf Klep, and led by pioneering space artist Chesley Bonestell.

The illustrations, highlighted in many cases in dramatic two-page spreads across the magazine’s large format pages, served a purpose beyond merely adding visual interest to the text. Their realistic visualizations of space stations, spacecraft and the surface of other worlds made the possibility of space travel seem immediate and real. They were also intended to fire the imagination, instill wonder and spark the desire to go into space.

The illustrations were, in essence, concept art—meant to show what manned space flight would be like.

Chesley Bonestell was already well known for his visionary portrayals of spacecraft and the surfaces of other planets and moons, having illustrated numerous science fiction books and speculative articles. He had worked on the designs for Destination Moon, and produced matte paintings for several other movies. His striking images of what it would be like to stand on the surface of other worlds earned him wide admiration and left not a few jaws dropped in the process.

In the Collier’s articles, Bonestell’s visions of space travel were painstakingly realistic and scientifically accurate, but no less jaw-dropping. They were based on extensive discussions with von Braun and the other writers, and a series of sketches on graph paper by von Braun (who recalled that Bonestell often called him to account on details he had overlooked, or aspects of the technology that needed to be worked out better in order for the illustrations to be accurate). Bonestell’s paintings, combined with fascinatingly detailed cut-away illustrations by Freeman and Klep showing how a space station and several spacecraft would function, made space exploration seem palpably real—as though the blueprints were ready.

Collier's, Rolf Klep

Most of all, the illustrations by all three artists were stunning. They captured the imagination of the public, and their detailed realism helped turn the general impression of manned space flight from the stuff of fanciful fiction to “we can do it” practical reality. Public opinion, in turn, helped sway members of congress who were on the reluctant side in a debate over whether a space program was worth funding. It has also been suggested that seeing the images directly helped convince members of congress, not generally noted for their visionary imaginations, that manned space flight was indeed doable.

Collier's, Fred FreemanThe issues of Collier’s that contain the articles are being reproduced in the Horizons newsletter of the Houston chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Downloadable PDF files of the newsletters, in both low-resolution and high-resolution versions, are available from this page.  The first issue in the “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” series is reproduced in the July/August, 2012 issue of Horizons. Others are in September/October and November/December, 2012 issues, and the January/February, March/April and May/June, 2013 issues. The reproductions of the Collier’s issues usually begin about half-way through the newsletters.

There is a slide show of some of Wernher von Braun’s original sketches on Scientific American.

Von Braun went on to collaborate with Walt Disney on a series of television movies that popularized some of the same ideas. The articles from Collier’s were later collected in a series of books. Von Braun, of course, played a major role in guiding the U.S. space program through its triumphant landing on the moon.

Chesley Bonestell continued his successful career until his death in 1986, and is generally acknowledged as the father of space art. His work has been tremendously influential on subsequent generations of space artists and science fiction illustrators. The prestigious Chesley Awards for excellence in science fiction and fantasy art are named in his honor, as is an asteroid and a crater on Mars.

The hypothetical space program suggested in the Collier’s articles was deliberately cast on a grand and awe-inspiring scale, beginning with a great wheeled space station (that would be the model for Kubrick’s later vision in 2001: A Space Odyssey), and culminating in a trip to Mars in 10 ships manned by 70 astronauts. Though the reality was much scaled down, the actual U.S. space program—accelerated by the panic inspired by the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 in 1957 and the resulting space race—took us to the moon in under 20 years, not the 50 year span that von Braun had projected as a reasonable target at the time.

It’s difficult to say, however, how long it might have taken to overcome initial resistance, and generate popular support for the first steps, had the path not been envisioned so convincingly and dramatically by Bonestell, Freeman and Klep.

Images above: Chesley Bonestell (cover and initial two page spread); Wernher von Braun (sketch) and Chesley Bonestell; Wernher von Braun (sketch) and Rolf Klep, Fred Freeman, Chesley Bonestell. Chesley Bonestell images are ©Bonestell LLC

Charley Parker is the author of the visual arts blog Lines and Colors and the creator of the interactive webcomic, Argon Zark!


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