March 2, 2010
Just inside the entrance to the National Air and Space Museum is a multi-story mural. In its center, a fully suited Apollo astronaut gazes out at museum-goers, lunar dust suspended in the air around his boots. To the astronaut’s left, is the artist’s swirling depiction of the Big Bang Theory on the creation of the universe. And to his right, is a lunar rover and the Apollo lunar lander, its gold foil glimmering.
The sprawling mural is a preview to what awaits. Peer around the corner and you’ll see an actual Apollo lunar module. Visit the Apollo to the Moon gallery and you’ll see the original space suits worn by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon.
“The Space Mural – A Cosmic View,” as the painting’s called, has become an important piece in the museum, and its maker Robert McCall, one of the world’s best space artists. But the sad news of McCall’s death is spreading throughout the air and space community. Last Friday, the 90-year-old artist suffered a fatal heart attack in Scottsdale, Arizona.
McCall’s career really kicked off in the 1960s, when he illustrated for the Saturday Evening Post, Life and Popular Science. His interest in space came from an early interest in science fiction. (I bet he was pleased when sci-fi author Isaac Asimov once described him as the “nearest thing to an artist in residence from outer space.”) And one of his most visible projects might have been the advertising posters he created for director Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 cult classic “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
McCall attended every major shuttle space launch for decades and was praised for his futuristic views of space, and how they pushed space exploration forward. In his 60-year career, the prolific artist produced more than 400 paintings. He had such wide range as an artist—making everything from patches worn by astronauts and 21 space-related postage stamps, to the six-story mural at the Air and Space museum, which he painted over the course of eight months in 1976.
Margaret Weitekamp, curator in the museum’s space history division, was able to show me the proposal for the mural that McCall submitted to the museum in 1975. The document provided some insight into McCall’s intentions. In it, he wrote that the goal of his “Space Mural” is “to inspire in those who view it, a sense of awe in the majesty of the universe, a feeling of pride in man’s achievements in space, and a profound optimism about the future.”
According to Weitekamp, the mural continues to meet McCall’s measures for success. “There’s such life to it. It’s so dynamic and colorful,” says the curator. “He was famous for having these highly imaginative canvases but then also for getting all of the technical details right, which does a space history curator’s heart good. I really hope that it gives visitors some sense of what we do here at the museum, of that scope of space history and the hopes for the future.”
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