In 1936 the physicist Arthur Eddington claimed to have calculated the precise number of protons in the universe:
Although the figure, for Eddington at least, was useful data, it eludes the layperson's cognitive grasp. Looking at the 77 digits, they seem more like an image of the cosmos than anything else, a numerical portrait of 'out there' at once huge and hugely incomprehensible.
The images commissioned as part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Art Program aren't as maniacally ambitious as Eddington's computation. They represent the universe, sure, but for the most part only the bits of it that border our own, backwater world. Established in 1962 by NASA administrator James Webb - and documented in the book NASA and the Exploration of Space (1998) - the programme set out to commemorate the most significant moments in America's exploration of space. Over the past 40 years a number of artists - some of them famous, some of them obscure - have been invited to work alongside the agency's astronauts, scientists and technical staff, creating a collection of over 800 works exhibited in NASA bases, visitor centres and the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. Like most art collections, NASA's is more than just a jumble of loosely themed odds and ends. As one might expect, its history mirrors, in part, the USA v. USSR space race and its attendant politics. (Predictably, NASA commissioned an image of the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, pilot of the first manned spacecraft, Vostok 1, only after the trump-card triumph of the first, American, moon landing.) This, though, is only one of the tales the collection tells. It also speaks of the way in which science fiction inflects the representation of science fact, the peculiar tastes of its curators and, in a weird way, a deep belief in the importance of painting.
The large number of paintings and pen-and-ink studies in the NASA collection is striking, although not nearly as striking as its near-complete lack of photographic works (the celebrity snapper Annie Leibovitz is a notable exception). The space race, of course, was made for photography, an art form that offers both high-resolution visuals and the politically important aura of veracity. NASA's publicity people understood this well: in 1959 the Mercury 7 team, America's prototype astronauts, signed a Hello!-style picture deal with LIFE magazine some two years before any of them had let slip the bounds of gravity. At their early press conferences these 'instant heroes' received a response that, while rapturous, also verged on the Pavlovian, as Tom Wolfe describes in his book The Right Stuff (1973): 'Reporters rose to their feet, applauding as if they'd come for no other reason [...] Even some of the photographers straightened from out of their beggar's crouches and let their cameras dangle from their straps, so that they could use their hands for clapping. But for what?' This 'But for what?' attitude prevails in the work of the artists who, during their spell in the NASA Art Program, chose to depict the slow decline in press interest in the agency's work. Mitchell Jamieson's Press Conference at Cape Canaveral, May 19, 1963 (1963) is a sombre affair in which a bouffanted TV producer glances distractedly at her watch while the Mercury 7 crew spout dull, square-jawed homilies from behind a desk. Similarly Bill Morrow Jackson's Time Space Columbia (1981) describes the banality of yet another shuttle launch - here a group of hacks sit in the control centre doodling, smoking and looking about as excited as if they were witnessing a third-rate Super Bowl play-off. This, I guess, is why painting is so central to NASA's collection: photographs of NASA's activities are wearyingly over-familiar, whereas painting - in this context at least - still has the power to surprise and awe.
Of the artists represented in NASA's collection, the best-known are an odd mix of conservatives and virulent envelope-pushers. Norman Rockwell's paintings of all-American jocks sit alongside Robert Rauschenberg's brainy collages; James Wyeth's soggy watercolours share wall space with Vija Celmin's vast and lovely starscapes. While it's hard to think of another collection of postwar art that's simultaneously so catholic and so narrow in its concerns, in truth it's not the big hitters that make the NASA art collection swing. Rather, it's the oddball likes of Greg Mort, whose Earth and Moon (1983) resembles a Prog-rock LP sleeve designed by Carl Andre, or James Cunningham, who painted Uranus as if it were the home planet of the Kraftwerk robots. By contrast, one of the most muted pieces in the collection is Alan Chinchar's Baikonur: A Kazakh Sunrise (1991), a Photorealist painting of the expiring Soviet launch complex where, in 1958, the Sputnik satellite made its first foray into space. In a tricksy bit of post-Glasnost bargaining, Chincar takes the slick technique of Philip Pearlstein and turns it, through his crumbling subject matter, into something elegiac.
A number of NASA artists have seen tragedies happen on their watch. Joseph C. Chizanskos' drawings and paintings of the Apollo 13 astronauts have a straightforward Ron Howard heroism, but Robert A. M. Stephens' commemoration of the 1986 Challenger disaster Hail to the Long Distance Voyagers, In Loving Memory (1986) is a lot more complex. The painting is a view across a calm blue bay of an empty launch pad beneath a pluming purple sky. It owes much to the 19th-century Hudson River School, whose members (Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, the wonderful Asher B. Durand) glimpsed manifest destiny in the American landscape. Here that same pioneer spirit is referenced with sadness but is not, in the final analysis, found wanting. It's difficult to approach the painting with anything resembling objectivity. Yes, it's mawkish, yes, its politics make me uneasy, but - for all its problems - I can imagine that it might give somebody comfort, like a bad but heartfelt poem read out at a funeral. How this year's Columbia shuttle disaster will be commemorated by the NASA's Art Program is not yet clear, but - given America's present, embattled unilateralism - something along the lines of Stephens' painting seems likely.
Following a now largely forgotten 1975 mission to test the compatibility of US and USSR space technologies, Robert McCall painted Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, Johnson Space Center (1975), a beautiful image in which two space stations, one American, one Russian, approach each other with their metal mouths wide open, as though they're anticipating a kiss. But for all its blunt symbolism McCall's painting is NASA's Art Program at its very finest. Its style is satisfyingly odd (half Blake's 7, half Marc Chagall), it couldn't care less about art-historical protocol and, best of all, it demonstrates that 'out there', among the innumerable protons, anything might happen - anything at all.