Even by the early 1950s, space travel was hardly a new idea. Many great scientists and science fiction authors had written weighty volumes on the subject. After all, space was there. It was up there, just waiting, and by the mid-20th century Earth held few mysteries for man. The exploration of space seemed to be the logical evolution of our exploratory nature. It piqued our curiosity, but for centuries space travel had been exactly that: a curiosity. Even after the Wright Brothers took to the air at Kitty Hawk, Earth’s atmosphere stood as an impenetrable barrier, one that may as well be hewn of concrete. While theorists might endlessly debate the probable methods of space travel, for most our atmosphere was not a door, but a window; one from which we could peer out into the starry expanse beyond.
Then came World War II. The war spurred innovation, as others before it had, and among those innovations was a sudden leap forward in rocketry. By the time the smoke cleared and the guns were lowered, two nations stood above the rest. Equipped with deep pockets and the knowledge to breach Earth’s atmosphere, mankind at last possessed the means to make a fond dream a reality. Suddenly, such lofty ideas as wheeled space stations and bases on the Moon were thrust into the realm of possibility, and space travel moved from the stuff of science fiction into scholarly debate.
And so, by 1952, the concept of space exploration had entered the public zeitgeist for the first time. It was a bold cause, one championed by the booming voices of some of the greatest minds our species has produced. Great scientific minds the likes of Wernher von Braun, Willy Ley, Fred Joseph Whipple, and Joseph Kaplan worked tirelessly to sell the dream of space travel to a generation weary of war, and eager to embrace a new age of exploration. They had the concept, they had the expertise and the vision. All they needed was a vehicle: a means of presenting their dream to the world, in a way everyone would understand.
This dream culminated in a series of articles in Collier’s Weekly, entitled Man Will Conquer Space Soon! Running from 1952-1954, these articles welcomed the public to a world of boundless possibilities: space stations with artificial gravity, reusable spacecraft that took off and landed as easily as airplanes, men in sealed spacesuits, sealed habitats on the Moon. To many, these were wild ideas, and far beyond what any could visualize. How could such outrageous notions be presented?
While the names of the authors in Collier’s are well known today, there’s one important name that’s easily missed: Chesley Bonestell. Bonestell wasn’t an astronomer. He wasn’t a physicist, or a geologist. He wasn’t a scientist. And yet, this pivotal series of articles might never have happened without him.
Chesley Bonestell was an artist, and he painted the image above.
An illustrator with a lifelong passion for astronomy, Bonestell was one of several artists hired by Collier’s to illustrate its series of articles on space exploration, and it was Bonestell who was responsible for perhaps its most breathtaking artwork. Drawing upon his experience as a special effects artist, including work in photography and miniature modeling, he had made a name for himself with several series of paintings depicting celestial bodies, including images showing Saturn from its various moons published in Life magazine in 1944. In Man Will Conquer Space Soon! he expanded upon his earlier work to bring Wernher von Braun’s work to life. And the results were stunning.
Images like the one shown above depicted wheeled space stations, spaceplanes, and interplanetary spacecraft with almost photographic realism. Dr. von Braun and his colleagues might have made such concepts possible, but it was Bonestell who made them real. Among such great minds, he was the real communicator, presenting mankind’s future in space in a way that truly captured the imagination, and inspired a generation to aspire to the stars.
Chesley Bonestell’s pioneering work has been credited for inspiring the U.S. space program. Its enduring brilliance continues to captivate all those who truly believe in space exploration, and informed the works of later space illustrators, including Don Davis, who worked with Bonestell as an illustrator for Gerard K. O’Neill’s The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space.
By the time of his passing in 1986, Bonestell was hailed as the “Father of Modern Space Art”. Through his work, a generation of Americans had witnessed the boundless possibilities of space travel, and in those possibilities had found a purpose. Over the course of his lifetime, he’d witnessed the fulfillment of many of the dreams he’d put to paper: man had indeed gone to the moon, launched space stations into orbit, even explored Mars and launched probes toward the outer planets. Perhaps most poignant was the Voyager 2 probe’s encounter with Saturn, which provided mankind with its first glimpse of the views Bonestell had depicted in Life magazine, nearly a decade before his work in Collier’s.
Perhaps the greatest lesson to be taken from Chesley Bonestell’s legacy is this: one need not be a scientist to be brilliant. While von Braun and the other scientists responsible for the articles of Man Will Conquer Space Soon! boasted a small library of degrees and impressive accolades, Bonestell had dropped out of Columbia University’s architecture program during his third year. He toiled in obscurity with several architectural firms before landing in Hollywood, working as a special effects artist. Had he not found his passion in astronomy, his greatest accomplishment in the 1950s might have been minor design credits for It Came from Outer Space.
Fortunately, Bonestell had something to set him apart from the average set designer: a passion for a higher purpose. That passion, combined with his unique mix of skills, made him one of the great communicators of the spaceflight community. It was his belief in mankind’s future in space that placed his work in Life and Collier’s, and many later works. His passion landed his paintings in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. It led to a multitude of honors for his work in furthering the cause of space exploration, including a bronze medal from the prestigious British Interplanetary Society, and a place in the International Space Hall of Fame. It even led to his induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, making him one of a handful of non-literary inductees.
The field of space travel is, to say the least, complex. It represents an amalgamation of lofty concepts and the most advanced technology known to man, all vitally important to allow man to survive in the most hostile environment possible. Those without the benefit of a background in science or engineering can find it impenetrable, yet their support is vital to the laborious process of securing public support for projects that tend to be extremely expensive and incredibly dangerous, requiring exacting precision and a commitment that spans years or even decades, often yielding results that offer no direct economic benefits.
While there are those among us who easily grasp the long-term benefits to our species, many others find it difficult to see the value of space exploration, especially when weighed against the pressing concerns we face on our own planet. Selling the value of space exploration to the public at large requires more than just concepts and calculations: it requires communicators. Space travel needs passionate advocates capable of bridging the gap between scientific theory and the public zeitgeist. It needs people like Chesley Bonestell capable of translating the jargon into imagery the public can grasp, appreciate, and behold with wonder. It needs more than just doers; it needs believers.
And while not everyone can fully grasp the finer points of astronomical theory, anyone can appreciate the inherent value of exploring the stars. With our intelligence comes the imperative to stretch beyond the confines of our tiny world; we were never meant to stay on Earth forever. The conquest of space is imperative, and stands as our greatest and noblest undertaking. And that is something all of us can, and should, believe in.