Fly me to the Moon – and back!

“The determinative event on this lunar journey was not the destination, but the starting point ... not the Moon, but the Earth.“ Günther Anders

Fig. 1. Leimer

On 4 October 1957, the satellite Sputnik (Russian for “companion“) was the first artificial object successfully put into Earth’s orbit. At the same time it was the starting signal for the space race between the US and the Soviet Union. The event known as ‘Sputnik Shock’ in the West subsequently led to the founding of NASA in 1958. On 12 April 1961, the USSR upped the ante by successfully launching Yuri Gagarin into space in the capsule Vostok 1 as the first human and, after one orbit around the Earth lasting 108 minutes, actually bringing him back to Earth unscathed. This event was the obvious reason for US President John F. Kennedy to programmatically proclaim on 25 May 1961, in his Moon speech to the US Congress: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind […].” This speech was well received and met with acceptance, since the 1950s as a so-called cultural space age had already prepared large sections of the American population for what was to come. Symptomatic for the latter was a popular but for our contemporary taste also curious TV-program with the future NASA chief engineer Dr Wernher von Braun as narrator, A Man in Space, which aired on 9 March 1955, actually a Walt Disney production. Many, sometimes unspectacular spheres of life addressed space travel, such as the seemingly all but forgotten vase design which aesthetically celebrates the structure of the lunar surface and has become the focus of attention in an installation by visual artist Sonia Leimer (fig. 1).

Fig. 2. Wang

While in the 1950s space travel was glorified ideologically on both sides of the Iron Curtain, the competing powers in the 1960s gained momentum with training and test runs, the US – with a staff of 400,000 engineers and scientists – expended a budget of $24 billion to transport the massive rocket Saturn V to its presidentially declared destination. The state-funded manned space flight entered, after its (also medial) peak on 20 July 1969, a gradually progressing crisis of confidence triggered by the civil rights movement in 1968, which then manifested itself at the latest with the Challenger disaster witnessed in real time on TV by millions of people some 33 years ago. And yet, in 2005, George W. Bush did nonetheless announce plans to establish a permanent manned moon station by 2020. It would, however, come to pass quite differently, as we know. In the meantime, the use of the moon has become much more pragmatic – space law has turned the celestial body from an entity to be annexed into a matter of negotiation within the framework of the UN Office for Outer Space and ESA, among others. In view of the growing danger of a military and commercial use of orbital space by various types of satellites, and the accumulation of space debris as a consequence, space law has become an integral part of an attempt at a cooperation within the international community, at least in theory. The work of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space has produced five international treaties to date. An important though not quite uncontroversial resolution for the purpose of updating and developing the treaties, particularly with a view to avoiding the commercialization and militarization of space, was passed in 2002 at the UN General Assembly in New York. The commercial use of the moon, however, has increasingly evolved into a subject of controversy instead of being solved, as ironically addressed by artist Zhen Wang in a short film (fig. 2).

Astronomy and Gestalt

Fig. 3. Galilei

For centuries the lunar surface has engaged countless thinkers from the fields of astronomy, literature and philosophy. With his purposeful look through a Dutch telescope and his notes, Galileo Galilei set the course for a new era of our understanding of the world. The volume Nuntius Sidereus, first published in 1610 in a rather large edition of 550 copies, was soon widely known (fig. 3). As long as a flight to outer space was impossible there was no other option than to resort to scientific magnifying apparatuses to map the surface of the moon. This mapping activity was kept going by the continuous evolution of observational tools, and had been revolutionized in particular by the advent of photography in the 19th century. From his rooftop in New York City in 1865, Lewis Morris Rutherfurd, using an 11-inch camera lens, succeeded in capturing the first precise image of the lunar surface, which remained the norm for over three decades and was printed and distributed globally, including in Camille Flammarion’s popular reference work Les terres du ciel (1877). As for the early photographic coverage of the lunar surface from ‘close proximity’, James Nasmyth and James Carpenter came up with something rather ingenious: since photographing details of the lunar surface was not yet possible, the engineer Nasmyth completed drawings of what he saw through the telescope. He then made plaster models of the lunar surface on the basis of size calculations that the astronomer Carpenter had made with the help of the initial drawings. The resulting plaster models were then photographed. The deception is astonishing; scientific ingenuity and artistic beauty meet here in exemplary fashion (fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Nasmyth

Although water is considered to be the source of all life, it is primarily rock that explains the origins of the universe and therefore of life. In this sense, the greatest merit of the lunar missions – our ‘self-encounter with the Earth’ (Günther Anders, 1969) – is that they brought back to Earth approximately 380 kilograms of stone samples for research purposes … along with countless photographs. Nowadays this trove of images is publicly accessible and free to use by indicating the NASA-entry. On its website, NASA continuously uploads and shares images of its missions; the keyword search Apollo 11 yields 1009 results. The fact that the photographs of the missions always had an individual creator (the respective astronauts) and that they used high-quality camera material, such as the Hasselblad 500EL and 70mm films during Apollo 11, raises the question of the whereabouts and further use of the original prints. Incidentally, the Soviet space missions were much less aggressive and productive in terms of publicizing imagery legitimizing its work, not least because it wasn’t deemed necessary to convince the citizens of the usefulness of their work. A delightful aspect of the prints, which were printed on photographic paper and hallmarked with the NASA stamp, is that their dissemination enabled them to function as advertisements for the space agency, and that they now allow conclusions to be drawn about governmental selection criteria.

Moonlight and -shadow

The enigmatic nature of the cool, indirect moonlight has long been the focus of painters in particular, such as the romantic painters Johan Christian Dahl, Albert von Keller and Friedrich Nerly, the expressionists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Edvard Munch, Marianne Werefkin, as well as the surrealist Max Ernst. At a time when the moon landing was still in the distant future, though the term space age was already in use, Max Ernst examined the physical and mystical effects of the moon on earth dwellers. Earth and moon are eternally interconnected celestial bodies that quite specifically affect our everyday life; one need only think of the tides for instance. The painting The Twentieth Century (1955) is both a tribute to technological progress and a warning call to a century already battered by two world wars and genocide. The ruins of a self-destructive civilization to viewers appeared rather similar to “lunar landscapes“, and this conclusion does indeed have its reasons: the cool moonlight, emitted indirectly from the lunar surface, makes night landscapes appear much more dramatic and accentuates features such as monumentality and silhouette, which otherwise might be experienced as less precise – a startling assessment, given that sunlight is three million times brighter than moonlight.

Fig. 5. Schamoni

Furthermore scientists, astronauts, and astronomers who had to deal with unimaginable dimensions and therefore often remained misunderstood, time and again served as examples for the fine line between genius and madness – such as Ernst Wilhelm Temple (1821–1889), who was greatly revered by Max Ernst. In many cases it did later transpire though that the presumably crazy researchers were correct, and had to be rehabilitated. In Peter Schamoni’s film The Illegal Practice of Astronomy (fig. 5), Ernst emphatically symbolizes this lack of understanding through the development of a new typeface that initially seems cryptic, but can be comprehended when deciphered according to the criteria of basic research. On the other hand, Pierre Mennel’s astronaut in his film of the same name draws the impressive portrait of a person whose experience of the moon and space travel gradually plunges him into an ever-greater and ultimately barely sustainable existential crisis, since he does not succeed in satisfactorily communicating the essence of his borderline experience—comparable to a drug trip or religious epiphany—to his immediate environment, let alone an expectant public. Communicating the experience of flying to the moon and transmitting it medially to the world was, from the outset, a declared goal of both the Soviet and American space programs; offering evidence was essential for the legitimacy of the efforts and expenditures of the space race.

Space Race

It has been repeatedly mentioned that artists of all genres were mostly critical of the billion-dollar moon landing project. There were too many social issues of much greater urgency on the agenda, such as racial segregation, the Vietnam War, the brutal crackdown on student revolts, and Watergate. At the time of its cessation, the cost of the Apollo program amounted to $25.4 billion, according to Congressional records from 1973 that are now accessible online. Bear in mind that President Kennedy, in his famous 1962 moon speech – his phrase "for all mankind“ at the time announced NASA’s project as a humanistic project – originally estimated the cost at $7 billion, whereby he drew the comparison (in today’s terms hardly meaningful) that the per-capita tax expenditure was still lower than the average expenditure on cigarettes per person. However, the legitimacy of the most expensive American research project was successfully vindicated by its completion. With the arrival in the space business of other major powers such as India and China during the last 15 years, and the prompt upgrade reaction by the Trump administration, Gil Scott-Heron’s poem Whitey on the Moon (1970) appears rather timely, which, like a battle cry, rejects the hegemonic claims of white people to the moon. Much less is known about the budget of the Soviet and later Russian space program, which is, of course, due to their continuous restraint in publishing such data. Data already released by the CIA in 1985 showed that between 1965 ($8 billion) and 1984 ($23 billion), costs had also skyrocketed beyond the Iron Curtain, highlighting again the competitive dynamic of the space race.

Fig. 7. Rauschenberg

What is less well known: as soon as it was founded in 1958, NASA had already considered the involvement of artists as an integral part of their media strategy, as illustrated by NASA administrator James Webb’s statement at the time about “what NASA should do in the field of fine arts to commemorate past historic events, such as Shepard’s and Glenn’s flights, as well as future historic events that we know will come to pass“ (James Webb to Hiden Cox, 16 March 1962, copy at NASA Art Program History files, Aeronautics Division, National Air and Space Museum, Washington). Yet, although the art program benefited from expert advisors such as John Walker, director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, there was a flaw in his basic idea: affirmative logging of facts and critical thinking are mutually exclusive. It might therefore appear today as if this irresolvable contradiction was reflected in the selection of artists by NASA, which contains a large majority of art that is of rather inferior historical relevance. In the more than five-decade-long program, however, some names stand out, such as Laurie Anderson, Vija Celmins, Nam June Paik, Terry Riley and Andy Warhol, and the most productive of all, Robert Rauschenberg. As one of the great representatives of Pop Art, Rauschenberg was able to go along with the moon landing from the perspective of mass culture due to its iconic character, and he also wasn’t going to miss out on the personal NASA invitation (along with ten other artists) to the launch of Apollo 11. Years later, Rauschenberg described the collaboration as follows: “In one day Apollo 11 had digested me. I was some of its muscle. Photographic files open to me. Thousands of photos further reaffirming and informing awesome details. […] Apollo was airborne. Lifting everyone’s spirits with it. Nothing will already be the same.“ (Rauschenberg, Robert Rauschenberg Archive, New York 1981.) According to art critic Donald Karshan, the approximately 33 lithographs that Rauschenberg produced in the years that followed under the title Stoned Moon Series (fig. 7) are among the best and most “avant-garde“ ones that had been created in printmaking at the time.

In the post-Soviet era, critical reflection on the space race changed. This has been demonstrated rather concisely and not without self-irony by Moscow-based artist duo Vladimir Dubossarsky and Alexander Vinogradov. One essential characteristic of their work is the connection between socialist realism on a formal level and western consumerism in terms of content. In Cosmonaut No. 1, the painters combine two icons of the warring factions: a Barbie that had debuted on the world market on 9 March 1959, and Yuri Gagarin, who went down in history with his space flight on 12 April 1961. It is remarkable and typical of so-called Sots Art that the artists remain impartial, but instead mock the commercial exploitation of either. Although the twelve astronauts who touched the surface of the moon were all white, male and American, it must be pointed out for the sake of completeness that the “Miss Astronaut Barbie“ did actually precede Neil Armstrong at least in advertising terms—after all, she already set foot on the moon in 1965.

Heroes and Antiheroes: Mediatization of Space Travel

Fig. 9. van Hoeydonck

We ought to keep in mind that bringing forth all these space heroes requires quite a lot of sacrifices: there are many people standing behind or in support of the few who are in the limelight. Together with the Moon Museum initiated by Forrest Myers and sent to the moon on the Apollo 12 mission, Paul Van Hoeydonck’s figurine Fallen Astronaut is the only work of art so far to be found on the moon itself (fig. 9). The latter was commissioned by NASA in 1971 to produce a small statuette to commemorate as heroes those eight astronauts and six cosmonauts who had put their lives in the service of space exploration and had directly or consequently lost their lives, including the crew members Virgil I. Grissom, Roger B. Chaffee and Edward White II of the Apollo 1 mission (27 January 1967), as well as Yuri Gagarin (27 March 1968). The result is the Fallen Astronaut, a small aluminium figurine of 8.5 cm in height representing a stylized, ethnically neutral astronaut. On 1 August 1971, during the Apollo 15 mission, the small sculpture was installed together with a metal plate engraved with the names of the deceased astronauts by David Scott and James Irwin at the landing site on the moon. Forty-eight years later, with the rediscovery by Pica, the small astronaut, “fallen“ like an angel rather than a soldier, celebrates its entry into the contemporary art world, radiating brightly in the spotlight. This list of names though does have its pitfalls since, despite all good intentions, it becomes increasingly inadequate as time progresses in view of additional accidents – although it had already been incomplete at the time of its creation. It fails to mention Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. (1935–1967), for instance, the first African-American astronaut, who lost his life on a test flight on 8 December 1967. It was not until 1997 that a commemorative plaque was dedicated to him at the Kennedy Space Centre, a late tribute that the Bahamas-born artist Tavares Strachan admonishes in his monumental neon-text work Invisibles (2018).

Colonization versus Projection Screen for New Utopias

Fig. 10. Attia

In his standard work on the cultural history of the moon, Joachim Kalka points to the remarkable fact that in most languages the moon is female, except in German where it is male. In the course of its “colonization“ a whole series of objects was left behind on the moon, including most symbolically the US flag, which was rammed into the ground during the Apollo missions 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17 respectively, and that accordingly has remained there in sextuplicate. In view of the 1967 UN Space Treaty, which stipulates that the exploration and use of space may only be practiced in the interests of all nations, this hoisting of the flag must have seemed like a provocation to many. The gesture appeared rather ambivalent, since the age of decolonization had progressed significantly, though, if not culturally and economically, at least politically. Against this background, it is not surprising that especially the young nations concerned deliberately integrated the motifs of the moon landing and space travel into their political communications, albeit with a different kind of message than the Americans. In contrast to the latter, the nations struggling for independence were not involved in proxy wars, as the US was, with the invasion of the Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam War and the coup in Chile, for instance, which coincided with the Apollo missions. Kader Attia, a French artist of Algerian descent, discusses this in a series of paintings depicting the cosmic motifs symbolizing the dawn of independence on old stamps from Djibouti, Chad, Liberia, Burundi and Tanzania, and other countries (fig. 10).

Fig. 11. Bodomo

A particular segment of the discourse are works that can be summarized under the term “Afrofuturism“. Turner Prize Winner Yinka Shonibare MBE reflects on the issue of colonization on and beyond Planet Earth, and thus generally moves alterity into focus by uncovering analogies in the lunar hegemonic aspirations of white people and terrestrial colonization, and then in turn challenging these, rather ironically using “Afronauts“ dressed in so-called Motown prints reminiscent of African wax prints. Today only a few people are aware that in addition to the American and Soviet space programs, there was also a Zambian lunar program, which artists Cristina de Middel and Frances Bodomo respond to in formally quite different ways, with documentary and fantastic elements (fig. 11). It is clear that such a program in Zambia, though no less inspired by the concept of competitiveness, is today still politically explosive in nature, in spite of or perhaps because of the much lower financial resources available; after all, large projects always start out as ideas.

Fig. 12. Keune

Since the moon landing, the term “lunar landscape“ has become an integral part of our vocabulary. It is commonly used to describe landscapes that in their inaccessibility (the Alps or more generally mountains that extend beyond the tree line) and misanthropic appearance (rocky and barren) resemble the moon, as meticulously documented in the photographs by Guido Baselgia, but also exemplified in the postcard series Moonwalk (Piz Glina) by Hugo Keune (fig. 12). The notion of “lunar landscape,“ however, already starts to appear in the literature of the 19th Century, epitomized by Jules Verne’s famous novel. Ironically, we use the descriptive notion of “lunar landscape“ more often for earth than for the moon itself, a place that none of us has ever seen in reality and therefore is described by a blurring rather than a sharpening term. On the reverse side of Keune’s postcards, a sentence asks “Where Is Moon?“ – a question of perpetual ambivalence since the moon is so close and so far at the same time. The range of possibilities with physical contact to the moon are extremely restricted, but not in our imagination. To relocate a landscape on earth to the moon is part of this strongly suggestive, almost transcendental process. It is ultimately individual as an experience but collective as an image, a fact emphasized by the slightly anachronistic format of the postcard, though experiencing a comeback in the age of allegedly ephemeral communication traces.

The Blue Planet

Fig. 13. Anders

The iconic image that rocked everything by implicating “Earth’s self-encounter“ is Earthrise from 1968, a photograph taken by astronaut William Anders on the Apollo 8 mission (fig. 13). Quite surprisingly, it was this image that became an icon, especially for the subsequent environmental movement, despite the 1968 protest movement’s skepticism about the moon landing. It graced the Whole Earth Catalog published repeatedly by Stewart Brand in different versions, an impressive alternative list of goods featuring contributions from important architects such as Richard Buckminster Fuller alongside astronomers and farmers. The heavenly view of the earth is – not without a pinch of irony – clearly fixed in the preamble as the starting point for a creative evolutionary leap of man: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.“ With the growing responsibility in the face of the alarming consequences of global warming, this statement regains significant power. Whether the earth will remain habitable for people in the middle and distant future will essentially be up to us. Moon and Mars may provide a fantastic sanctuary, but they do not actually present a viable alternative.

This text is an reworked version of an academic essay published in the exhibition catalogue of Fly me to the Moon on view at Kunsthaus Zürich in Spring 2019 and at the Museum the Moderne in Salzburg from July 20 until November 3, 2019, see