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Artists capture the spirit of space

Norman Rockwell

A Norman Rockwell oil painting shows astronauts John Young and Gus Grissom as they're suited for the first flight of the Gemini program in March 1965. NASA lent Rockwell a Gemini spacesuit in order to make this painting as accurate as possible. Click through highlights from the "NASA | ART" exhibition.

Space visions from well-known painters, photographers, sculptors and astronauts — dating back to the beginnings of NASA's spaceflights in the 1960s — go on display this weekend at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum after a three-year national tour. The exhibition of more than 70 works from the NASA Art Program, titled "NASA | ART: 50 Years of Exploration," comes as the latest chapter of spaceflight history, the 30-year space shuttle program, is nearing its end.

The NASA Art Program was set up in 1962 to show space exploration from a perspective that launch cameras couldn't capture. "The artists were given pretty much free rein to do anything they wanted to do," Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian, told The Washington Post. And what artists! The lineup included Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, James Wyeth, Alexander Calder, Annie Leibovitz and William Wegman.

For this exhibition, the curators added works by Norman Rockwell, the classic Americana illustrator; and Alan Bean, the Apollo 12 moonwalker who's an accomplished artist as well. DCist's Heather Goss says the exhibition is "pretty damn spectacular." She calls particular attention to Paul Calle's pen-and-ink sketches of the Apollo 11 astronauts as they were suiting up for their historic 1969 moon landing.

What masterpieces can we expect from future flights? The Post reports that no artists were commissioned to document the shuttle Endeavour's launch on May 16 due to budget cuts, but it says a "world-famous photographer, who declines to be named right now," will be on hand when Atlantis lifts off on July 8 to close out the space shuttle program.

Check out the exhibition, which is on display on the second floor of the National Air and Space Museum on Washington's National Mall through Oct. 9. And if you can't get to the exhibit, you can sample some of the highlights in our "NASA | ART" slideshow.

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