Sunday, August 17, 2014

Lunacy: Norman Rockwell's views and questions about the space program

"Grissom and Young" by Norman Rockwell, 1965. Oil on canvas.
Norman Rockwell was a member of the Monday Evening Club from 1961 until his death in 1978. This paper is transcribed from a typescript with handwritten marginal notes in the collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. The title "Lunacy" is written on the envelope in which the paper was originally stored, along with the notation, "Monday Evening Discussion Group paper delivered Monday, March 24, 1969." This dates the paper about four months before the first landing on the moon, which was on July 20, 1969.

The original typescript may be viewed here at the Norman Rockwell Museum's digitized archives. Also in the collection of the museum is a manuscript, in outline form, of Rockwell's notes that evolved into this paper.

The Club is grateful for the assistance of Corry Kanzenburg and Jessika Drmacich of the collections staff at the museum for providing access to the manuscript of this and other papers Rockwell presented to the Club, to the museum's director, Laurie Norton Moffatt, for alerting us to their existence (via a Facebook comment!) and to the Norman Rockwell Licensing Company for permission to publish the papers. Licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing, Niles, IL.

According to an account of Rockwell's involvement with the space program by Anne Collins Goodyear ("On the Threshold of Space: Norman Rockwell's Longest Step"), "Rockwell's desire to represent accurately the new Gemini G3C suit led to an unprecedented con­cession from the space agency: in response to his repeated requests, NASA permitted the top-secret suit to be brought to Rockwell's Stockbridge, Massachusetts, studio under the protection of [Joe W.] Schmitt, the elder of the two suit technicians portrayed in the painting."*

The Club's late secretary, Rabbi Harold Salzmann, recalled that in late 1964 or early 1965, at another meeting a few years before the delivery of "Lunacy," Rockwell also spoke about the space program. This meeting took place at Salzmann's house, and Rockwell had arranged for Salzmann's son Josh to enter the gathering at some point during the reading, fully attired in an actual NASA space suit — presumably the one lent to him for the Grissom and Young painting. Rockwell sometimes brought his own paintings to Club meetings, as well, and may also have brought the Grissom-Young painting along with the space suit to that meeting.

The NASA technician, Schmidt, was no doubt diligent in his duty, but would not have been able to watch the suit 24 hours a day. So perhaps, after they locked up the studio at the end of a work day and Schmidt went to his lodgings, Rockwell snuck back into the studio and hauled the space suit up to the Club meeting at the Salzmann home.

The Salzmann family recalls that while Josh was supposed to wear the suit, it turnout out be be too big for him, so his sister Ariel, about 11 years old at the time, modeled it for the Club. It's quite likely this made her the first child ever wear a NASA space suit. 

*Published in 2001: Architecture and Design for Space, Vision and Reality, exhibition catalog, 102-7, Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2001: New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001.

Topic is space program. [sic]

My wife Molly, after hearing my fumbling start on this paper, suggested the title, "Lunacy."  I thought that was fine but went to the dictionary to look up the definition of the word.  Webster says it is “The condition of being a lunatic, or intermittent insanity as formerly attributed to the changes of the moon”. This was perfect but should I add a question mark to it [?]

I am sure you all know the debatable question I am bringing up — is the space program a lunatic idea now, when we in America are confronted with the problems of poverty, racial unrest, national security and the Vietnam War?

I am not at all sure of the answer and look forward to the ideas and comments of you men.

I hope you will pardon my telling you of some of my experiences of, and reaction to, visits to Cape Kennedy and Houston.

Well, here goes.

[marginal note: Show Grissom and Young Print]  Back in 1964 Look Magazine (God bless them) asked me to go to Cape Kennedy to paint Grissom and Young as they prepared for their space flight.

Let me interpolate here, that all pictures about space exploration are very difficult because they, of necessity, have to have a most inartistic but terrific amount of technical machinery that has to be painted in accurate painstaking detail.  No artistically inspired glorious generalities!  Maybe some later day, some greater artist than I, will be able to transcend these artistic difficulties.  To me, scientific detail diminishes artistic results.

Then again in 1966 Look sent me to Houston to paint a prophetic picture of the hoped for landing on the moon.  Believe me, it was a real challenge.  Look sent along with Molly and me, and my photographer, their science editor and Pierre Mion, the science artist.

Man on the Moon (United States
 Space Ship on the Moon),
1967, oil on canvas
[marginal note: Show Prints of Prophetic Moon Landing] When we arrived we had a number of talks with the space scientists who spoke a language I did not know.  They even went so far as to attempt to get through my thick skull the effect of the sun lighting the earth when seen from the moon’s surface.

They finally strung up an apple as the moon and a small balloon as the earth in the correct positions and used a lighted electric bulb to impersonate the sun.  Still I cannot understand what they call lunar light performance, but I painted it as they told me.  Look received a lot of letters from self-styled experts that my version is wrong, but the science editor says they were all wrong and the scientists were right.

Well!!! I only paint what I’m told.

In Houston NASA had constructed a large simulated surface of the moon with a life size landing module.

[marginal note: Show Modul Model][sic]

We went out  there and photographed the module on the moon surface and they sent along a technical worker who wore the astronaut’s space suit as they then believed it would be.  Of course the outfit is greatly changed but essentially it has the same basic elements.  That is a complete system of scientific apparatus that will create livable atmosphere within the suit, excluding all foreign penetration from without.

Even so, they told me the two astronauts who will land on the moon surface will be isolated completely from everything and everyone when they return to earth until the doctors and scientists can be positive the astronauts will bring no contamination from the moon.  This isolation will last 2 months.

This seems awfully cruel but necessary.

I can hardly believe it, but my moon landing picture of 1966 is in the broader sense quite accurate as it will appear in the 1969 July Project, except there is one great unpaintable change.

The surface of the landing module will be completely covered with a strange material that will make its details almost unrecognizable.  It will look like an object covered with strange Christmas-like tinsel which will protect it from the intense heat and cold on the moon.

About two months ago Look told me they wanted me to paint yet another series of pictures to celebrate this proposed actual landing on the moon.

They told me they would give these pictures more pages and more color than the other space exploration subjects.

After all, they said, this is the culmination of all the effort and expense so far.  The great event!!!!

What should I paint? I had no definite idea when we arrived at the Cape Kennedy Space Center.  I say “we”, because we were now a team of five:

Will Hopkins, new art editor of Look.
Pierre Mion, a very fine science artist from National Geographic Magazine.
Brad Herzog, my friend and fine photographer.
And Molly, who is a darn good photographer herself and brings back a lot of color shots that are a wonderful help.

We were met by Gatha Cottee, the Cape Kennedy public relations man who had guided us before, on the Grissom-Young project.

[marginal note: Show pictures Saturn Building] Cape Kennedy was now even more impressive.  The most striking new development was the massive, and I do mean massive, vehicle assembly building.  It is the largest building in the world and taller than any other building in the world not on an island.

The main door would allow passage of 1 ½ U. N. buildings.

The high bay of the building has vertical cells for preparation of four great Saturn rockets at a time.

Each operation in the building includes the combined rocket and missile: a three-hundred-and-eighty-foot all red steel tower also called the umbilical tower with seventeen platforms, nine swing arms and a crane on top! And a four-hundred-and-two foot steel service structure with bays that swing around and enfold the missile so that workers can reach it at any level. This thrust service structure, itself, weighs nine million eight hundred thousand pounds and has three hundred and sixty degree access.

[marginal note: show pictures Door + Tower] When the complex is ready, a mammoth mobile transporter carries it out the giant door and over a specially built road bed at the rate of a mile an hour, being always kept absolutely vertical even when going up the slight hill to the pad from which the rocket is to be launched.

[show picture: This shows the rocket in place with the umbilical tower]

After receiving all this information and listening to endless statistics, talking to workers, scientists and astronauts, I decided to try to paint a picture that would somehow express the complexity and the terrific effort, intellectual, physical and financial, involved in this great historic event of human history.


The Look editor agreed. I am sorry to say I am laboring but I am bringing forth a mouse.  This is a job for Michelangelo.

[final pictures]

Now we come back to my original question.  Is all this lunacy or is it not?

Here are some facts to take into consideration.

The total program is run by a government-industry team.

The man-power involved in the total space program is three hundred thousand men.

I do not know the total cost in money but the following figures will give you some idea.

At Cape Kennedy alone the total budget for the fiscal year of 1969 is four hundred and eighty-five million dollars.

The expense of the development and completion of the landing module alone is about two billion dollars, and please remember that all parts of all the landing modules will be jettisoned in space..

Those are some of the facts and these some of the questions I hope you will discuss.

First, why do we do it?
Is it to keep up with Russia, or to find new worlds?
Is it because of humanity’s instinct to aspire?

Second, would it be better to put all this thought, energy and money into improving conditions here on earth?

[handwritten: large question mark and:]

What happens if we lose moon [illeg] kids and Public Relations
Astros all to Mars
Tax payer
Right or wrong what subject

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful talk! Norman's wit, intelligence and humor shine through. Thanks for sharing this important piece of history on your blog.