Space City: Photographs from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

As we approach the 50th anniversary of several important dates in the history of space exploration, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston presents this selection of photographs from our permanent collection celebrating our fascination with space and the exploration that has become possible since the last half of the 20th century.

Early Observations and Impressions of Celestial Phenomena
In the mid-nineteenth century, Scottish engineer and amateur astronomer James Nasmyth made plaster models of the moon and photographed them in raking light to faithfully reproduce the lunar effects of light and shadow he had observed through his telescope.  To promote his conviction that the moon's surface was formed by volcanoes, he emulated steam by using his fingerprints on the reproduction plate before printing it.

From the moment of photography's invention, the staff of the Paris Observatory recognized the medium's unique ability to record and advance studies of the moon, the planets, and the stars.

The first daguerreotype of the sun was made by Jean Bernard Leon Foucault (1819-1868) and Hippolyte Fizeau (1819-1896) at the observatory in April 1845.

Other distinguished astronomical photographs were made by the astronomers Prospere Henry (1849-1903) and his brother, Paul-Pierre Henry (1848-1905), and slightly later, by Maurice Loewy (1833-1907) and Pierre Henri Puiseux. The Henry brothers were not only skilled astronomers but also "optical geniuses" who designed a special camera for the observatory telescope. Between 1896 and 1910, Loewy and Puiseux published seventy-one photographic plates in a twelve-part atlas of the moon, which remained the most comprehensive work on the subject for fifty years.

When Edward Sheriff Curtis made this photograph in 1915, he wrote "The Qagyuhl people thought that
an eclipse is the result of an attempt of some creature in the sky to swallow the luminary: In order to compel the monster to disgorge it, the people dance round a smouldering fire of old clothing and hair, the stench of which, rising to his nostrils, is expected to cause him to sneeze and disgorge the moon."

First Flights of the Twentieth Century
On December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright, best known as the Wright brothers, achieved the first powered, sustained, and controlled airplane flight. By 1905 they had built the world’s first practical engine-powered airplane. By 1910, there were airplane producers in France, England, Germany, and Russia, as well as the Wright brothers’ company and others in the United States. Although commercial air transportation did not gain acceptance for another decade, the idea of human flight had captured the public’s imagination. 
The NASA Program
The Soviet Union's Sputnik, launched in October 1957, and Yuri Gagarin's orbit in April 1961, forced the United States to undertake major adventures in space. As Russia's chief rocket engineer, Sergei Korolev, announced after launching Sputnik, "Today, the dreams of the best sons of mankind have come true. The assault on space has begun." The "space race" became a fateful test and presage of the Cold War conflict between the superpowers. During President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established, and the first American manned space flights were planned. After President John F. Kennedy's inauguration, Alan B. Shepard, Jr. became the first American to fly in space in May 1961, followed by Gus Grissom and John Glenn. President Kennedy escalated the assault to compete in space on May 25, 1961, when he recommended to Congress that the United States should achieve manned exploration of the moon before the end of the decade. "No single space project," said Kennedy, "will be more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish." With less than six months left in the decade, Kennedy's challenge was met on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. 

May 5, 1961, the United States launched Alan B. Shepard, Jr. in a successful suborbital flight.

Florida, Texas, and California
There are three primary sites of NASA explorations: the launch facilities at John F. Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida; the Lyndon Baines Johnson Space Center in Houston; and Edwards Air Force Base in California. The choice of Houston as the home of NASA’s mission control center can be attributed to the combined political clout of then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and Representative Albert Thomas, a key member of the House of Appropriations Subcommittee. Although Houston had the required advantages of highway, rail, water and air transportation, and had been on the short-list of sites for the Apollo program, the city could not have secured the winning bid for NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center (later Johnson Space Center) without the critical lobbying of Johnson and Thomas. In Texas, the American frontier of the nineteenth century—the legendary Wild West—merged with the American frontier of the twentieth century—Outer Space, which previously existed only in our imagination. The first operational flight controlled from the new center was Gemini 4 in 1964. 
Project Gemini
On June 3, 1965 Edward H. White II became the first American to step outside his spacecraft and let go, effectively setting himself adrift in the zero gravity of space. For 23 minutes White floated and maneuvered himself around the Gemini spacecraft while logging 6500 miles during his orbital stroll. White was attached to the spacecraft by a 25 foot umbilical line and a 23 foot tether line, both wrapped in gold tape to form one cord. In his right hand White carries a Hand Held Self Maneuvering Unit (HHSMU) which is used to move about the weightless environment of space. The visor of his helmet is gold plated to protect him from the unfiltered rays of the sun.
Orbiting the Moon and Earth
Upon seeing the Earth "rise" above the lunar horizon, Frank Borman (Apollo 8) told mission control in Houston, and the listening world, "This is the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life." The spectacular view of the whole planet Earth that the Apollo astronauts captured in photographs is credited with giving tremendous momentum to the then-nascent environmental movement. The power of seeing the Earth as one planet, rather than as separate nations and regions, has been cited again and again by the returning astronauts as among their most unforgettable experiences. Alan Shepard (Apollo 14) wrote that he understood how "the Earth seemed almost limitless to its people with its vast oceans and upheaving mountains, where there was always a distant horizon and changing dawns and sunsets. But from here, from the moon, it is, in fact, very finite, very fragile ... so incredibly fragile. That thin, thin atmosphere, the thinnest shell of air hugging the world-it can be blown away so easily! A meteor, a cataclysmic volcano, man's own uncaring outpourings of poison..." Byron K. Lichtenberg (Shuttle 9) acknowledged, "Your perspective really changes .... You don't see any of the borders, you don't see any of the cultures, you don't see the different there's the sense of no difference, just a subtle gentle blending from one region to the next."

Apollo 9 Command/Service Modules (CSM), collectively nicknamed "Gumdrop", and Lunar Module (LM), nicknamed "Spider", are shown docked together as Command Module pilot David R. Scott stands in the open hatch. Astronaut Russell L. Schweickart, Lunar Module pilot, took this photograph of Scott during his EVA as he stood on the porch outside the Lunar Module. Apollo 9 was an Earth orbital mission designed to test docking procedures between the CSM and LM as well as test fly the Lunar Module in the relative safe confines of Earth orbit.

Photographs of the Moon from Unmanned Spacecraft
American lunar photography was planned as three flight projects called Ranger, an impact (crash) craft; Orbiter, a moon-orbiting craft; and Surveyor, a soft-landing craft. This image was taken by Surveyor 1, the unmanned probe that orbited the Moon in 1966. Thousands of photographs were taken either by traditional photographic systems or by television cameras, which were modified to work in space. All the pictures were electronically transmitted to Earth. The Orbiter spacecraft obtained high-resolution information of the lunar surface that proved essential to selecting landing sites for the Apollo missions as well as to studying the moon's surface.
Project Apollo
At 4:17p.m. Eastern Standard Time, July 20, 1969, Neil A. Armstrong informed mission control: "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." Eight years after President Kennedy's challenge, the crew of Apollo 11's lunar module, Eagle, climbed down its ladder to the moon's surface. Both Armstrong and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr. discovered that being on the moon and moving in one-sixth gravity was an exhilarating experience. Aldrin described himself as "buoyant and full of goose pimples." Because the moon's surface is fine and powdery, both Aldrin and Armstrong were able to leave clear footprints, which Armstrong recorded as unprecedented scientific and historic information.
Apollo-Saturn Missions on the Surface of the Moon
Alan B. Shepard, Jr. was the first to exult, "I'm free!," when he first experienced weightlessness. Similarly, when speaking of his partner Alexei A. Leonov, who had just returned from the first space "walk," Cosmonaut Pavel I. Belyaev said, "He looks like a man who has just been reborn, a man who has just come back from another world." Edgar Mitchell said that walking on the moon was a "peak experience" for him, in which the "presence of divinity became almost palpable." 

The astronauts are supposed to make photographs of a purely scientific value, but their human experiences and observations appear on the picture discs from each flight. Charles Duke and Charles J. Precourt incorporated their families into their missions by arranging family portraits in the unique surroundings of space.

Project Skylab
This image presents an overhead view of the Skylab Orbital Workshop in Earth orbit as photographed from the Skylab 4 Command and Service Modules (CSM) during the final fly-around by the CSM before returning home. During launch on May 14, 1973, some 63 seconds into flight, the micrometeor shield on the Orbital Workshop (OWS) experienced a failure that caused it to be caught up in the supersonic air flow during ascent. This ripped the shield from the OWS and damaged the tie downs that secured one of the solar array systems. Complete loss of one of the solar arrays happened at 593 seconds when the exhaust plume from the S-II's separation rockets impacted the partially deployed solar array system. Without the micrometeoroid shield that was to protect against solar heating as well, temperatures inside the OWS rose to 126 degrees fahrenheit. The gold "parasol" clearly visible in the photo, was designed to replace the missing micrometeoroid shield, protecting the workshop against solar heating. The replacement solar shield was deployed by the Skylab I crew. This enabled the Skylab Orbital Workshop to fulfill all its mission objects serving as home to additional crews before being deorbited in 1978.
Projects Space Shuttle
The United States's space shuttle is the world’s first reusable spacecraft, designed to fly like a rocket in space and like a glider in the atmosphere. Once the shuttle is in orbit, the astronauts can open the doors of the payload bay to perform experiments and tasks, such as retrieving, repairing, and/or launching satellites. A fifty-foot long remote manipulator arm assists in payload procedures. The approximate size of a DC-9 airliner, the shuttle can carry a crew of nine as well as eighteen tons of cargo. Shuttle missions can last seven to ten days. The shuttle is also the first spacecraft designed to carry its crew back to a runway landing. If possible, shuttles land at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, but Edwards Air Force Base is also available, as are other bases worldwide. Then the shuttle is ferried to Florida on the back of a Boeing 747. 

Joseph P. Allen captured the experience of "parking" one's food in midair while eating. There are also photographic documents of space high jinks, such as a picture of Elvis in a space suite, and a "For Sale" sign held aloft in space.

Mae Carol Jemison was the first African-American woman to be admitted into the astronaut training program. She spent 190 hours in space between September 12 and 20, 1992, on board the Endeavor. She conducted experiments on weightlessness and motion sickness.

Beyond the Moon: Mars Pathfinder
Mars Pathfinder was designed to be a demonstration of the technology necessary to deliver a lander and a free-ranging robotic rover to the surface of Mars in a cost-effective and efficient manner. Pathfinder not only accomplished this goal but also returned an unprecedented amount of data and outlived its primary design life.   From landing until the final data transmission on September 27, 1997, Mars Pathfinder returned 2.3 billion bits of information, including more than 16,500 images from the lander and 550 images from the rover, as well as more than 15 chemical analyses of rocks and soil and extensive data on winds and other weather factors. Findings form the investigations carried out by scientific instruments on both the lander and the rover suggest that Mars was at one time in its past warm and wet, with water existing in its liquid state and thicker atmosphere.   This is an aerial image looking down at the surface of the planet Mars. A landrover has evidently recently rolled down a yellow ramp and has hit a nearby rock. A large black circle dominates the center of the image.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Credits: Story

The majority of the text in this exhibition appears in Anne Tucker’s “Quest for the Moon and Other Stories: Three Decades of Astronauts in Space” (The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1994).
Information about Skylab Mission is quoted from Information about Mars Pathfinder is quoted from

Thanks to Anne Wilkes Tucker, Jason Dibley, Kim Pashko, Margaret Mims, Caroline Goeser, NASA and the Google Cultural Institute.

Design: Flora Brooks and Matthew Lawson

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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