The Importance of the Arts in Aerospace

Linda Grimm | February 24, 2021

Linda Grimm | February 24, 2021

The Space Mural – A Cosmic View, at the National Air and Space Museum, painted by Robert McCall.

Within the aerospace industry, there is an understandably strong focus on science, technology, engineer, and math (STEM) education. Knowledge and experience in these subjects are among the critical skills needed by those aspiring to design the next rocket, calculate orbital flight paths, or analyze data from future missions to explore the universe.

These technical fields have an obvious link to advancements in aerospace, but there is another important, if less recognized, field of influence: the arts. Photographers, painters, illustrators, and writers are among the many artists whose creations have contributed to the aerospace industry’s rapid innovation and success. That is why there is a new push to promote science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) education in K-12 schools.

Throughout our history, the arts have played a variety of critical supporting roles in the aerospace industry. Perhaps most crucially, creative works have captured the public’s imagination and inspired their interest in aerospace by giving people a sense of what it is like to be in and explore space. Some of those inspired by aerospace art have gone on to become the industry’s leading scientists and engineers.

Low Earth Orbit – Mars Fleet – Earth Orbit Assembly artist illustration.
Credit / James Vaughan

“Art for aerospace allows both scientist and citizen to see, be and feel that which would normally be unreachable,” says James Vaughan, a noted photo-illustrator with an extensive aerospace portfolio. “Aerospace illustration is a vital servant of imagination and the freedom to dream, and therefore is vital to progress.” Vaughan also points to the arts’ role in winning public support for aerospace initiatives. “Historically, we can see art has been at the core of sparking imaginations as well as selling programs to the taxpayer,” he says.

Photography and illustration are often emphasized as dominant art forms in aerospace, with Vaughan’s chosen medium – illustration – resurging in recent years due to advances in computer software that allow artists to create more accurate and detailed depictions. But many different types of art have helped to inspire dreams of space.

Science fiction writing – whether for books, TV shows, or movies – has clearly contributed to public interest in aerospace. This includes both early science fiction, such as Jules Verne’s classic From the Earth to the Moon, which inspired early interest in outer space, but also more modern science fiction like Star Trek that has kept that interest in exploration alive, even amid lulls in the U.S. space program. Many textual works of science fiction were also supported by stunning visuals created by artists such as Chesley Bonestell, a leading architectural designer turned painter who produced cover art and illustrations for science fiction books and magazines. Bonestell took the science available in his time and filled in the gaps with his imagination to portray the surfaces of other planets, helping others to imagine what it would be like to go there and see it for themselves.

A cover illustration created by artist Chesley Bonestell for April 1970 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Credit / The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

Music is another medium that has provided inspiration. Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, Gustav Holst’s The Planets, and the theme to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey are just a few well-known examples. More recently, composer Amanda Lee Falkenberg created The Moons Symphony, a visual and musical experience comprising seven movements that were inspired by seven moons in our solar system. Falkenberg consulted with NASA astronaut Nicole Stott and Cassini Mission Project Specialist Linda Spilker, as well as NASA scientists and those in academia, to compose the symphony, which she says “dramatizes past, present and future moon explorations, and highlights discoveries that have been made in our search for other worlds.” Music and aerospace have been intertwined in other ways, as well: Voyagers I and II each famously carried a Golden Record which included musical selections from different cultures and eras. And elements of NASA missions have found their way into musical compositions, too. Max Richter, composer of the Ad Astra movie soundtrack, used plasma wave data collected from the Voyager probes as an element in his writing.

Each Voyager spacecraft flew with a copy of a Golden Record filled with Earth’s sights and sounds, including images, music and audio clips of people and animals. Credit / NASA

The arts have also been used to help translate highly technical and sometimes abstract information into something more visual and accessible for those within and outside of the aerospace industry. Artist models and renderings are crucial to conveying engineering design and development according to aerospace engineer and artist Aldo Spadoni, who says that “Envisioning what advanced air and spacecraft concepts might look like facilitates the systems engineering process.” In some instances, NASA has relied on illustrations and other graphics to educate the public about key aspects of its missions, including an infographic and dramatic video trailer detailing Curiosity’s “Seven Minutes of Terror.” Astrophotography is another art form that brings the farthest reaches of space to the masses, both because it is possible for amateur astronomers to engage in this art form and because it allows people to see things like nebulae and galaxies – even black holes.

Furthermore, the arts help to communicate the history of aerospace and the United States’ experience of space exploration. Famed illustrator Robert McCall served as NASA’s visual historian for decades, creating illustrations of major U.S. space achievements from Alan Shepard’s first flight to the space shuttle program. Apollo 12 lunar module pilot and Skylab 3 commander Al Bean became a full-time painter after leaving NASA in 1981, and spent his days painting his experiences on the moon.

Robert McCall’s 1974 painting depicting the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project for NASA.
Credit / NASA

These important connections between the arts and aerospace present interesting opportunities for those who may wish to work in or contribute to the industry but do not have a background in technical subjects. STEAM education – not just STEM – can lead to a promising career that makes a direct and lasting impact on the aerospace industry’s trajectory.

Linda Grimm is a professional writer-editor from the Washington, D.C. metro area. She writes for publishing companies, trade and professional associations, and academic institutions, among others.