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100 Years Ago: Space Artist Robert McCall Born


John Uri |
January 2, 2020

Dec. 23, 2019, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of space artist Robert T. “Bob” McCall. Born in Columbus, Ohio, McCall combined his early interest in astronomy and aviation with an innate artistic talent that he nurtured with a scholarship to the Columbus Fine Art School. Working in a sign shop to earn extra money, McCall read science fiction magazines and journals about science and technology in his spare time.

With the outbreak of World War II, McCall joined the Army Air Corps, stationed at Kirtland Field (now Kirtland Air Force Base) outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. There, he met and married his wife Louise, and they soon had two daughters, Linda and Catherine. After the war, the McCalls moved to Chicago, where Bob took a job as an advertising artist. Three years later, they moved to New York so he could paint illustrations for magazines such as Life, The Saturday Evening Post and Popular Science. The advent of the space program provided a natural next step in his career and, in 1963, NASA selected McCall as one of the first artists in its new Art Program, joining other famous artists like Jamie Wyeth and Norman Rockwell.

As much as McCall loved painting technically accurate images of the evolving space program, he also relished letting his imagination wander into futuristic space scenes. In 1967, this caught the attention of director Stanley Kubrick, then working with noted science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke on a film eventually titled “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The film’s studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., asked McCall to produce promotional art for 2001. Eventually, his paintings of the pinwheel space station and the lunar base graced movie posters, advertising the release of the ground-breaking science fiction film in 1968.

Bob McCall’s artwork for the promotion of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Image Credits: mccallstudios.com

McCall’s work continued to alternate current space programs with visions of the future. He not only produced large paintings—eventually moving on to paint giant murals—but he also went to the opposite end of the size spectrum by painting stamps for the U.S. postal service. In 1971, he produced First Men on the Moon, a 7-by-9-foot oil painting of the Apollo 11 astronauts on the Moon, as well as the first stamp cancelled on the Moon by the Apollo 15 astronauts, depicting them in their lunar rover.

Left: First Men on the Moon. Image credit: mccallstudios.com. Right: McCall’s first stamp depicting the Apollo 15 astronauts on the Moon. They cancelled the stamp while on the lunar surface. Image credit: University of Arizona Museum of Art

In 1974, about a year before the actual event, McCall painted his impression of what the docking of an American and a Soviet spacecraft would look like during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). In February 1975, while training at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for their historic mission, the five ASTP crew members posed in front of McCall’s art. He later painted a different version of the docking to commemorate the mission on a postage stamp.

Left: Apollo-Soyuz Linkup. Right: The five ASTP crew members stand in front of Apollo-Soyuz Linkup at Kennedy Space Center.

Michael Collins, former Apollo 11 astronaut and then director of the Smithsonian Institution’s new National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., asked McCall to paint a mural for the facility. For his first mural, McCall spent eight months working on the 146-foot-long uniquely L-shaped artwork, six stories tall at its highest point, completing it in 1976. The painting depicts McCall’s interpretation of the Big Bang, as well as the Apollo astronauts on the Moon. The larger-than-life depiction of an astronaut holding an American flag on the Moon is, according to McCall, based on Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene A. Cernan. Because of its very public location, an estimated 10 million visitors view the mural every year.

The Space Mural – A Cosmic View, at the National Air and Space Museum. Image credit: mccallstudios.com

To commemorate 30 years of aircraft testing and operations at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in Lancaster, California, later renamed Armstrong Flight Research Center, McCall painted his mural The Spirit of Flight Research in 1977. The 10-by-20-foot painting depicts the aircraft flown during the center’s first 30 years of operation. For the center’s 50th anniversary, McCall painted a smaller 8-by-10-foot work entitled Accepting the Challenge of Flight.

Left: McCall’s artwork at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, The Spirit of Flight Research. Right: Accepting the Challenge of Flight. Image Credits: mccallstudios.com

The next major project for McCall took him to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Christopher C. Kraft, director of Johnson at the time, commissioned McCall to paint a mural on the outside of the center’s auditorium, later named after Congressman Olin E. Teague of Texas who served on committees that oversaw NASA’s activities. In 1979, McCall spent several months at Johnson painting the mural entitled Opening the Space Frontier – The Next Giant Step, illustrating NASA’s human spaceflight program—past, present and future. He painted several center employees in the mural and used astronauts John W. Young and Judith A. Resnik as inspiration for two of the painting’s central figures. Astronaut Alan L. Bean, a budding space artist, contributed by painting the astronaut pin in the mural. Dedication of the mural took place on June 19, 1979. And, since at the time the building housing the auditorium also housed the JSC Visitors Center, the general public was able to view it.

Left: McCall putting the finishing touches on his mural outside Johnson’s auditorium. Right: McCall gets help from astronaut and fellow space artist Alan Bean.

Left: McCall with Johnson Director Christopher Kraft at the dedication of his mural. Right: McCall with astronaut Judith Resnick at the mural dedication ceremony at Johnson. 

Opening the Space Frontier – The Next Giant Step mural at Johnson.

McCall’s interest in aviation led him to design a mural for the 75th anniversary of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Painted in 1992, the painting entitled Expanding the Frontiers of Flight illustrates the contributions that Langley made in the field of aviation. It hangs now in the Virginia Air and Space Center in Hampton.


Expanding the Frontiers of Flight, at the Virginia Air and Space Center, commemorates the 75th anniversary of NASA’s Langley Research Center. Image Credit: mccallstudios.com

In addition to his murals and postage stamps, McCall famously designed patches for space missions as well as institutions. His first mission patch, for the Apollo 17 final Moon-landing mission, uniquely incorporated the profile of the second century Roman statue of Apollo Belvedere, along with more traditional symbols such as an American bald eagle (in outline form) and stars and stripes. McCall designed several space shuttle patches, among them STS-1, the first mission, and STS-71, the first Shuttle-Mir docking. With the help of artists Tim Gagnon and Jorge Cartes, the crew of STS-133, the final flight of Space Shuttle Discovery in 2011, completed their patch based on sketches McCall had drawn prior to his death, the final creations of his long and prodigious career.  

A selection of mission patches that McCall designed. From left to right: Apollo 17, the last Moon-landing mission; STS-1, the first flight of the space shuttle; STS-71, the first Shuttle-Mir docking; and STS-133, based on McCall's sketches.

For the first group of shuttle astronauts, the “Thirty-Five New Guys” Class of 1978, McCall worked with astronauts Resnik and Guion S. Bluford to design a patch that incorporated a space shuttle, with engines blazing, during ascent. In 1973, McCall designed a patch for the mission control team at Johnson, with the Latin phrase RES GESTA PAR EXCELLENTIAM, meaning “Achieve Through Excellence,” written across the top to accent the team’s dedication to doing outstanding work in human spaceflight. Symbols for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs along the bottom rim recalled the first three American human spaceflight endeavors. Over the years, the patch has required modifications as new spaceflight programs came into being and with organizational changes in mission operations, but McCall’s overall design has withstood the test of time.

Left: The patch of the Astronaut Class of 1978. Middle: McCall’s original 1973 sketch for mission control. Right: Today’s patch of Johnson’s Flight Operations Directorate.

A longtime resident of Arizona, McCall often included images of his adopted state in his paintings, such as the Grand Canyon or sunrise state flag. However, visions of space and the future remained hallmarks of his inspiring work.

McCall died on Feb. 26, 2010, but his work lives on.

The Spirit of Arizona. Image credit: mccallstudios.com

Read McCall’s oral history with the JSC History Office.