How NASA Marketed Its Space Program With Fantastical Depictions of the Future

When it came to exploring the stars, Americans had to see it to believe in it

painting of an extraterrestrial colony
A mid-1970s painting by illustrator Rick Guidice depicts an extraterrestrial colony designed by Princeton University physicist Gerard O'Neill. NASA

Long before scientists and engineers could send astronauts into space, they had to convince the public—and the officials who would fund these first forays—that such a wild undertaking was possible. “You couldn’t just say, ‘We’re going to build rockets,’ and ask people to believe it—you really had to show them how,” says Piers Bizony, a British journalist and author of the lavishly illustrated book The Art of NASA, out this month. It reveals how the agency and its contractors sold many of their otherworldly ideas to a sometimes skeptical nation. From cutaways of lunar modules and landing capsules, to fantastical depictions of life on Mars in far-off 2020, these images represented NASA’s first steps in the space race and helped build congressional support for ambitious projects like the space shuttle.

Today, Bizony believes, they offer not only visions of a glorious American past but also hope for a future that could still be ours. “Getting into space for peaceful purposes—everybody looks up to America for that,” he says. “Speaking as an outsider who loves the USA very much, I think the United States needs to be reminded what it has been capable of.”

The Art of NASA: The Illustrations That Sold the Missions

Culled from a carefully chosen reserve of approximately 3,000 files deep in the NASA archives, the 200 artworks presented in this large-format edition provide a glimpse of NASA history like no other.

Russ Arasmith depicts an astronaut maneuvering unit (AMU), which was carried during Gemini IX in 1966 but encountered problems and was never used. NASA
An illustration by Paul Calle reveals the inner secrets of the A7L spacesuit worn by Apollo lunar astronauts. Chris Calle / Family of Paul Calle
This promotional illustration was just one of many presented in the 1950s by corporations keen to play a role in space exploration. The Boeing Company
A 1954 illustration for Collier’s magazine by Rolf Kelp depicts a reusable space plane atop a rocket designed by Wernher von Braun. Ron Miller / Nova Space

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This article is a selection from the October issue of Smithsonian magazine