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January 25, 2006

The Painting that Launched Spaceships

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Sometimes art has consequences.

Rather than attempt a survey of paintings or posters that might have inspired this revolution or that architectural style, I want to focus on a painting reputed to have struck a chord with folks including some who became involved with space exploration.

Certainly the painting struck a chord with me.

Not long ago I posted on what I considered to be silly-looking Seattle buildings, one of which was the Experience Music Project (EMP). Besides a rock music museum, the building contains a science fiction museum. After posting the article, I remembered that I had been meaning to visit the Sci Fi museum, but hadn't gotten around to it. So I went.

I have nothing to say about the interior of the building at this point except that, aside from exhibition decor, it struck me as being stark and haphazard. Sorry if those terms aren't helpful. Below is a picture of an exhibit, which doesn't quite give one a sense of the interior spaces, but it's the best I can come up with. [Note to self: Once I've sold my children into slavery to pay this year's income tax, set aside a few bucks and buy a digital camera to take pix for the blog.]

Exhibit in Science Fiction Museum.

The museum also has a Science Fiction Hall of Fame exhibit. One of the 2005 Hall of Fame inductees was Chesley Bonestell (pronounced bon-es-tell; born 1888, died 1986 aged 98) who painted conjectural views of the solar system and space exploration that were widely seen in the 1950s.

Bonestell received architectural training and found work as a delineator. During the Depression he went to one economic bright-spot, Hollywood, and became a matte painter. In the 1940s he produced a series of paintings of planets as viewed from their moons. Some of these were published in Life magazine and later appeared in the 1949 book The Conquest of Space, illustrated by Bonestell and with text by science writer Willy Ley.

The outstanding painting of the series was one of Saturn as seen from its moon Titan. Titan was thought to have an atmosphere (since confirmed by space probes) so Bonestell showed the planet and rings as sunlit highlights with shadows merged into the blue sky of the moon. Here it is:

Bonestell Saturn from Titan.jpg
Saturn Seen From Titan by Chesley Bonestell. (Downloadable image copyright Bonestell Space Art.)

This link has a good article about Bonestell and the Saturn painting can be found by scrolling down. A site with a lot of Bonestell material is here -- click on the blue button labeled "Gallery" and then to "Next Gallery Page" three times. This puts you on the fourth gallery page, which includes the Saturn painting; keep exploring because there is a lot of good stuff to be seen.

The sites assert that the Saturn painting influenced people to either become interested in space exploration or even make space-related fields career choices.

The painting hit me hard for sure. I was 10 years old, browsing the book section at the Bon Marché department store in Seattle's brand-new Northgate shopping center (one of the first in the USA) when I saw a hot-off-the-press copy of The Conquest of Space. I thumbed through it and was immediately transfixed by the Saturn painting. I kept returning to the book section for weeks and finally persuaded my parents to buy it for me: I still have it.

Bonestell did the best he could, given the information available in the mid-40s. Sadly, one will never see Saturn as he depicted it. True, Titan is large -- second largest moon in the Solar System and bigger than the planet Mercury. And yes it has an atmosphere. But we now know that clouds obscure the surface so that Saturn cannot be seen from there. For information on Titan, click here.

The Science Fiction Museum does not have the Saturn painting, but has others by Bonestell. Other space and Sci-Fi art can be seen there as well.




The image above has okay resolution, but is too dark. I'm adding another image, below, that has less resolution but colors more faithful to the original painting.

posted by Donald at January 25, 2006


The Bonestell painting reminds me of a musing I've had that we live in a remarkable Age of Discovery, and perhaps most of us are too engrossed with our daily lives to realize it. But for those of us in our 50s and older, who came of age with the Space Age, our lifetimes have seen the exploration of the Solar System.

When we were children, our first books about space showed the planets as blurry discs for the nearer ones, blobs of light for the ones further out. Ground-based telescopes could only show so much. A lot was known about the planets' physical characteristics even then, of course, but there was still much that was mysterious and even romantic. Since then, space probes have surveyed all the planets out to Neptune, and a probe to Pluto was launched just the other day.

After several landers and rovers, Mars has turned from a red beacon in the sky on which any mad romancer could project his wildest fantasies to a real place that is now pretty familiar. (In broad outlines, anyway. Scientists will be studying the details for centuries to come.) I think somebody has said that Mars is now more of a subject for geologists and meteorologists than it is for astronomers.

Jupiter and its moons have been surveyed. A probe is out at Saturn now sending back astonishing pictures and a lander was set down on its largest moon just over a year ago. The Voyager mission sent back close-up pictures of Uranus and Neptune as long ago as the '80s. The sparse back pages of the books about the Solar System we read in the '50s have been filled out.

The work isn't done by any means, and there's also the matter of putting boots on the ground on Mars, at least. But the initial exploration of the Solar System could only happen once, and it's all happened entirely within our lifetimes of people like Donald and me. The manned space program choked after the first few landings on the Moon and hasn't been out of orbit around the Earth again yet, but the robot planetary probes went on more or less continuously over the decades and ended up with a photographic survey of our entire neighborhood that would have been pure fantasy before 1960 or so.

The painting of Saturn seen from Titan that Donald reproduced suggests that I should salute the vision of Chesley Bonestell, who did his best to imagine what space scenes would look like... and inspired others to find out for themselves and the rest of us what they really do look like.


Posted by: Dwight Decker on January 26, 2006 12:47 AM

I looked at Bonestell's bio, and was a bit stupefied to realize that the space paintings were his third or fourth 'career':

Though he never earned a degree he quickly found jobs as a designer and renderer with some of the top architects of the day. For William van Alen in New York he designed the façade of the Chrysler Building, including its famous gargoyles, and while working for Joseph Straus in San Francisco he contributed to the design of the Golden Gate Bridge. Bonestell also designed the Plymouth Rock Memorial and co-designed the famous 17-Mile Drive along the Monterey coast.

If I understand the chronology right, he only began doing the astronomical illustration for which he is now known in his early fifties. How many middle-aged people think their greatest contributions (artistic or otherwise) still lie ahead of them?

An inspiration to all of us, ahem, greybeards.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 26, 2006 12:58 AM

You might be interested to know that ASFA (the Association of Science Fiction & Fantasy Artists*) presents a series of yearly awards called the Chesleys.

The Chesley Awards website is here.

My wife runs several well-respected SF&F art shows with a friend of ours. If you like the subject matter, you can get very nice art for prices that are a small fraction of gallery prices for comparable work. You can also get ... crud ... to use Theodore Sturgeon's term; that's way cheaper than in a gallery, too. 8-)

" more of a subject for geologists...."

Pedantic note: I believe the term is areologists rather than geologists.

* Yes, that should be ASF&FA. But hey, they're artists, words are not their medium.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on January 26, 2006 1:44 AM

As to the "pedantic note" above... admittedly, my status in the sciences is something like "interested layman." But everything I've seen would seem to indicate the term "geology" is used in an extended sense for studying the physical characteristics of other planets. I just did a search on "planetary geology" and found lots of instances of that in use, along with rather fewer instances of the more exotic terms "astro-geology" and "exogeology."

It makes sense in that Earth and Mars in particular are enough alike that the many of the same processes have shaped both their surfaces (one example being the "channeled scablands" of the Pacific Northwest turning out to have counterparts on Mars), so dividing studies between "areology" and "geology" would needlessly and arbitrarily separate two aspects of the same overall field. Not to mention the fact that every darned planet would have to have its own darned name for what could be conveniently termed "geology" for all of them.

I also did a search on "areology," and my impression was that it was used for studies of Mars in general, and not just the geology.

But I could be wrong. Like I said, I'm not an expert. Would like to see something authoritative on the matter...


Posted by: Dwight Decker on January 26, 2006 2:20 AM

A sci-fi museum? God, that must be Dweeb Central :)

Posted by: Peter on January 26, 2006 11:05 AM

Fine post, Dwight. One salient -- and frustrating -- difference from the previous Age of Discovery is precisely the distinction between seeing/sensing and "boots on the ground."

We already know the "layout" of the solar system (although not the worlds' worth of fascinating detail) with more completeness and precision than we knew the terrestrial globe before the 20th century. There'll be no equivalent of Siberian migrants, Norsemen, Portuguese cod fishermen, or whatsisname (the Genoese guy) stumbling onto entire freakin' *continents.*

OTOH, getting people there -- let alone frequent travel or colonization -- is still many decades away (and no, it's not because NASA has gone astray or because we haven't Unleashed Free Enterprise on the challenge). So the Voyager and Cassini and Mars Rover photos will be tantalizing us, as Bonestell did, for a long time to come: it's a marathon, not the sprint of the Sputnik->Apollo years.

I'm working on a book about this discrepancy between reach and grasp in space; for the moment, Howard McCurdy's _Space and the American Imagination_ is a fine place to start.

Posted by: Monte Davis on January 26, 2006 12:32 PM

My sci-fi fascination was in the fifties and was words at first, but I remember vividly seeing these fabulous extrapolations and then the satisfaction of seeing what's basically Heinlein's world in the beginning of "Star Wars."

It seems to me that these images plus the photograph of earth from space plus the photos of gestating babies in the womb were deeply transformative in terms of religious ideas, esp. the concept of the human being. It helped displace us from our pre-Copernican world centered on us -- not so much by pushing us out as by luring us to places more gorgeous than images of the Biblical Heaven.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on January 26, 2006 12:45 PM

Monte Davis,
so what in your opinion is the reason for space exploration being decades away?

BTW, the Private Enterprise doesn't need permission to be unleashed; it'sdone already. Reading Dale Amon articles about SpaceShipOne at Samizdata convinced me otherwise, namely - we're at the beginning of the era of private space travel industry.

Posted by: Tatyana on January 26, 2006 3:05 PM

I seem to have more tolerance for high contrast imagery than most people, but I'd vote for the larger, darker version of "Saturn Seen From Titan" than the more accurate one you posted below.

Of course, I am a big fan of Caravaggio and the Tenebrists...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 26, 2006 4:47 PM

Friedrich -- On my ancient monitor at home (it came with the computer before my current one), the image is so dark you can hardly make out any detail in the shaded areas. Plus the sky is mostly brown, not blue. It looks much better on a new flat-panel monitor at the office. I decided to post the alternative just so some readers with equipment like mine wouldn't be turned off unnecessarily and wonder what the fuss in the post was about. Too bad I can't find a really good image on the Web.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 26, 2006 5:21 PM

That painting was part of my childhood too. When I was about 7 or 8 years old my grandmother started a subscribtion to the Life Nature Library. She wasn't able to finish the series but one of the books I got was The Universe. That painting and a few others are in it.

Posted by: Lynn S on January 26, 2006 7:59 PM

Tatyana: I summarized the challenges online last summer. Go to and look under "Recent Headlines" for the four-part essay "Thinking Clearly About Space."

I admire those behind Spaceship One and wish all success to Virgin Galactic and other private space ventures, but (1) they've got a long way to go even to low earth orbit, and (2) the movement has a strong ideological component -- arguing that space is hard and expensive only because Big Bad Government isn't doing it right. Would that it were so... but the rocket equation doesn't care whether you're a bureaucrat or a lean, mean entrepreneur.

Posted by: Monte Davis on January 27, 2006 12:15 PM

I appreciate the self-effacing intelligence, taste, and measured judgments of the contributors to this blog. At least a few posts motivate me to do further reading every time I visit, which is why I never read 2blowhards at work.

My uninformed opinion is that the failure of the West to fund manned space exploration since the 1970s is proof that we are a spent civilization. The private sector is as likely to engineer interplanetary spacecraft as Thomas Edison was to generate electricity from nuclear fision.

Posted by: pete on January 27, 2006 10:04 PM

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