Some say art imitates life. But when it comes to the modern space age, life imitated art. That’s because years before the first human rocketed into orbit, before a spaceship landed on the moon, before a rover traversed Mars, before a probe imaged Saturn’s rings, Chesley Bonestell painted it. His imaginative astronomical art depicting unexplored worlds — and the spacecrafts necessary to go there — stirred the collective awe of 20th century space enthusiasts. In the book, “The Art of Chesley Bonestell,” authors Ron Miller and Frank C. Durant, III, relate how some of the most famous science popularizers, like cosmologist Carl Sagan and science fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke, lauded Bonestell. Joseph Chamberlain, director of Chicago’s Adler Planetarium from 1968 to 1991, said that without Bonestell, the NASA era might not have happened at all.
The Father of Astronomical Art
For all the accolades Bonestell received for his astronomical art, his legacy began with a child’s curiosity and the simple act of looking up. He was born in San Francisco in 1888, and by the age of five had already begun sketching the people and things around him. At age 10, he became obsessed with Venus, but wasn’t until age 17 that he merged his love of art and his fascination with space. That’s when he and friend visited Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose, California, and viewed the sky through telescopes. “That night I saw for the first time the Moon through the 36-inch refractor, but most impressive and beautiful was Saturn through the 12-inch refractor. As soon as I got home I painted a picture of Saturn,” Bonestell said in an interview, according to “The Art of Chesley Bonestell.”
Years later, Saturn would become the center of dozens of Bonestell’s works. His iconic piece, “Saturn as Seen from Titan,” puts the viewer on Saturn’s moon, Titan. The Ringed Planet hangs on the horizon, appearing both colossal and delicate, thinly lit by a setting sun, depicted on Bonestell.org. The image’s mesmerizing beauty roused the emotions of so many young people, it was dubbed “‘the painting that launched a thousand careers,'” said Gizmodo.
From Architect to Space Artist
Although Bonestell eventually became famous for his space art, he began his career as an architect. He contributed to dozens of well-known structures, including the Chrysler Building, the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C., and the Golden Gate Bridge. It was his work in architecture, drawing precise renditions, that made his paintings realistic. For every drawing, he would calculate the dimensions of the landscape and the angles of light in order to turn a fictitious world into a realistic scene. For instance, for a piece he created later in life, called “Lunar Landscape,” he “positioned the viewer on a spot 1300 feet up the south wall of an imaginary lunar crater (‘similar to Albateguius, but smaller’), located seven degrees from the Moon’s North Pole and five degrees to the left of the center of the lunar disc,” wrote Tom Crouch for Air and Space magazine.
In 1938, Bonestell quit architecture and began working in Hollywood as a special effects artist, painting matte backgrounds for movies. He created scenery for “Citizen Kane,” “The Fountainhead,” “War of the Worlds,” “When Worlds Collide” and more. Around this time, he became friends with Willy Ley, a science writer and former member of Germany’s Spaceflight Society. Ley imparted his knowledge of aerodynamics and rockets on Bonestell, and soon the artist began adding spacecraft to his paintings. The two eventually collaborated on a 1949 book, “The Conquest of Space,” which depicted a possible future of astronauts exploring the solar system in rocket ships. It became an immediate bestseller, according to Gizmodo.
The Birth of the Space Age
Bonestell’s talent caught the attention of Wernher von Braun, the German aerospace engineer, who helped organize the First Symposium on Space Flight in 1951. Von Braun asked Bonestell to create illustrations that turned the advanced scientific ideas presented at the conference into tangible concepts. The papers, along with 48 illustrations, were published between 1952 and 1954 in “Collier’s” magazine as part of the series, “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” The Cold War had just begun, and Russia had just launched the world’s first Earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik. Americans craved space, and the series helped ignite the government’s efforts to start the space program, according to the New Mexico Museum of Space History.
Chesley Bonestell lived to see several of his renditions come to life. Humans traveled into orbit, and men walked on the moon. He continued working until he passed away in 1986. In 2014, at an Adler Planetarium exhibit honoring Bonestell, Forbes reported that Geza Gyuk, the planetarium’s vice president, said, “‘Bonestell’s work was seminal in the birth of the Space Age. His paintings invoked a sense of location, causing a generation to grow up thinking of the worlds of our solar system as real places to which we could journey.'”
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