Browse some of McCall’s paintings in the slideshow.
NASA’s little known artist program has drawn the likes of Annie Leibovitz, Norman Rockwell and Laurie Anderson. But if the agency had a favorite, it was the painter Robert McCall. Once described by author Isaac Asimov as the “nearest thing to an artist in residence from outer space,” McCall’s glorious sci-fi paintings first attracted the public’s attention in the 1960s on the pages of LIFE, illustrating the magazine’s series on the future of space travel. Stanley Kubrick would ask McCall to paint what would become his most well-known work: “Orion Leaving Space Station,” which shows a space vehicle darting from the lit bay of a wheel-shaped space station, was featured on the posters for “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
And then his opus: the six-story “The Space Mural – A Cosmic View,” which greets visitors to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. Painted over the course of eight months in 1976, McCall’s depiction of the creation of the universe leading to astronauts walking on the Moon is seen by an estimated ten million annually.
Other large murals of his can be found at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, at the Dryden Flight Research Center in Lancaster, California, and at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson. A number of his paintings decorated the walls of the former Horizons pavilion at Walt Disney World Resort’s Epcot in Florida, and one remains on display at the entrance to the park’s iconic “Spaceship Earth” attraction.
But his paintings weren’t just for selling space operas or decorating exhibits. They stand for what’s so exciting about science-fiction: that impulse to take what’s possible and imagine what could be and what if. Between the subtlety and realism of his paintings and their more fanciful imaginations, he was drawing colorful maps for the future of science and space exploration.
What he couldn’t have imagined was the decade’s long retreat from deep space exploration, and recently, from NASA’s mission to the moon and Mars. McCall dies alongside the nebulae of space age dreams that his fantastic, technicolor artwork celebrated. The art just got a lot more nostalgic and more quaint too, like an old MVP card for a baseball player who ended up broke, in rehab.
More than ever, the art asks what could be—or perhaps what could have been.
“I think when we finally are living in space, as people will be doing soon, we’ll recognize a whole new freedom and ease of life,” McCall was quoted as saying. “These space habitats will be more beautiful because we will plan and condition that beauty to suit our needs. I see a future that is very bright.”