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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
oral history with the JSC