NASA’s Art Rides the Rails

A rolling exhibit brings space exploration to small-town America.

It was one of those in-between moments: I was surveying the scene in the parking lot next to the railroad crossing in Taneytown, Maryland, an unspoiled pre-Revolutionary War town of about 5,000 souls. For a while I chatted with Chief Melvin Diggs, who had pulled up next to me in a patrol car to see if I was up to no good. He’d been keeping an eye on the open tents behind me filled with work by local artists. But the main attraction was stretched out behind him on the tracks, raked by the late afternoon sun—the four windowless cars and caboose of Artrain.

Inside the train was an exhibit—78 works of art commissioned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the people who took us to the moon. This was the first stop of a three-year, 48-state tour, and the big track-side opening was to be in a couple of hours. But now the place was deserted. Even the shaved-ice vendor, who’d handed out bright red and purple cones to the local artists while they set up their displays, had taken off. Everybody, it seemed, was home getting ready.

Like many of the 600 communities that Artrain has visited since its birth in Michigan 28 years ago, Taneytown does not have its own art museum. So folks throughout Carroll County—from the local merchants and the owner of Maryland Midland Railway to the arts council and the students of nearby Bowling Brook Academy—had pulled together to make the five-day visit of the non-profit rail-riding museum a success. Even the docents who would welcome visitors to the train were local—all are volunteers taught by an Artrain staff member.

It’s a great idea—using a train to bring art to people who might not otherwise see it. And in fact, “The Artistry of Space”—the exhibition now on board Artrain—was sparked by a similar populist vision. In 1962, NASA Administrator James Webb decided to make artists a part of the space program. For a modest honorarium, they were invited to come to Cape Canaveral or one of the other NASA facilities, bring their drawing or painting tools, have the run of the place with the help of a guide, and then somehow re-create their experiences in art. In the 37 years since, more than 250 artists have documented the Space Age, climbing the huge red gantries that so fascinated them in the early years, trudging through meandering wetlands that surround the launch pads in search of the perfect vantage point, and sitting around with suited-up astronauts in the last minutes before final word to board—all the while sketching, painting, or reflecting on what they’d seen.

Now, with the support of current NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, and under the national sponsorship of Daimler-Chrysler, a selection of these works has been loaned by NASA and the National Air and Space Museum for this rail tour. The traveling collection depicts the Soviet-American race to the moon,  voyages to the planets by unmanned spacecraft, and the flights of the space shuttles.

Some of the artists—Norman Rockwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol—are well known; some are not. Some works are in the grand 19th century landscape tradition, such as “The Light Ship” by Attila Hejja, which portrays, amid dramatic billows of steam and a blazing trail, the first night launch of the shuttle Challenger in 1983. Other works are abstract meditations on Saturn’s rings, Neptune’s surface, the Amazon basin as seen from space. There are simple still lifes, such as a graphite rendering of an astronaut’s glove lying palm-down, its subtle wrinkles evidence that space exploration is hard work. There is even a dress, to be viewed with 3-D glasses, by fashion designer Stephen Sprouse, its pattern derived from imagery of the Mars Pathfinder mission. In short, there is—as was James Webb’s intention—something for everyone.

And, judging by the long line that stretched along the tracks the morning after the opening, everyone was there. On the train, people of all ages, some with school-age kids, stood in front of the artworks, talking, pointing, reminiscing.

A retired biologist, Robert Thomas, with whom I had talked earlier, buttonholed me, pulling me over to “The Light Ship.” “That’s what we remember—the impression of power, the steam,” he said with passion, “not the hardware.”

Nearby, an elderly man examined two works for a long time—the still life of the astronaut’s glove and a pencil sketch by Henry Casselli of astronaut Shannon Lucid pulling on a glove, perhaps while training for her tour on the Russian space station Mir. Hanging the two works side by side was one of many inspired groupings by the show’s curator, Susan Lawson-Bell. “Sort of brings it all alive, doesn’t it?” he remarked to me.

In the first car, devoted to the race to the moon, Susan Heck and her two teenage daughters stopped in front of Robert McCall’s “Splashdown.” In this celebratory lithograph, the capsule carrying the Apollo 11 astronauts back to Earth after the successful moon landing has just fallen into the deep-blue ocean. Above the capsule, billowing red-and-white-striped parachutes slough off air; on the far horizon, a ship waits. Heck, who recruited the docents for the exhibit, pointed to the capsule, then to the ship. A few moments later she explained to me, “My kids were asking, ‘What’s that?’ and they didn’t even notice the ship waiting in the background. They only remember the shuttle.” She laughed. “I’m surprised how much I could explain to them. I mean, I lived through this!” As the three of them moved on, Heck said to me over her shoulder, “They want to see the paintings with the backpacks again.”

That would be the MMUs, Manned Maneuvering Units. To my surprise, there was a docent on the train, Shirley Prutch, who knew a great deal about them. Her remarks as people came on board were spirited (“…we were not only going to the moon, we were going to land on the moon, and we were going to return from the moon, and yes, we were going to do it before Russia…”). Turns out that Prutch had headed the division “at Martin” that developed the software for the maneuvering units. (“My dad worked for Martin before I did,” she told me, “and I don’t say ‘Martin Marietta’ or ‘Lockheed Martin’; it’ll always just be Martin to me.”) With the help of two paintings portraying extravehicular activity—“Working in Space” by Linda Draper and “Premiere Flight of Endeavour” by Howard Koslow—she explained to me how the MMUs worked. I realized then that the “Artistry of Space” exhibit would probably reach a lot of the people who had worked in the space program and that, like Prutch, they would see the art, remember their careers, and explain what they did to friends and neighbors, all across the country.

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