In the late 1940s and early ’50s, the U.S. “space program” consisted of little more than a few captured German V-2s, and trips to the moon were still popularly regarded as the idle dream of adolescent boys. But a number of rocket engineers were already busy designing the spaceships of the near future. When their new ideas began to appear in general-interest magazines like Life and Collier’s, it was the illustrations of Chesley Bonestell that helped bring them to life.

A former architect who’d worked on the Golden Gate Bridge and New York’s Chrysler Building and designed sets for Hollywood movie studios, Bonestell worked closely with rocket designers and astronomers who provided him with photographs, models, and other information. His audacious paintings of multistage rockets roaring into space, wheel-shaped space stations orbiting the earth, and fleets of spaceships arriving on the moon not only inspired an entire generation of aerospace engineers and influenced the direction of the space effort, but also helped convince many lay people that space flight was a practical possibility. “It was an inspiration for a lot of writers at the time,” says Mark Paternostro, an artist and designer at the Adler Planetarium. “It brought the whole idea of space travel to the general public.”

Though Bonestell strove painstakingly for scientific accuracy, he was limited to what information had been gathered from earth-based observatories. Reasoning, for instance, that lunar landforms would not be subject to rain or wind erosion as are mountains on earth, he envisioned the moon as a craggy, dramatic landscape with high, jagged peaks. This conception–which appeared not only in his paintings but also in his set designs for George Pal’s 1950 film Destination Moon–seemed perfectly sensible given the moon’s craggy appearance in a telescope. It also turned out to be wrong; Bonestell’s jagged peaks look nothing like the low, rounded mountains visible in photographs brought back from the moon years later by Apollo astronauts. Like most astronomers at the time, Bonestell had failed to anticipate the extent to which the moon’s lack of an atmosphere would allow it to be slowly worn down by the bombardment of tiny meteoroids over billions of years.

Nowadays, much of the pleasure of looking at Bonestell’s work comes from noticing the mixture of prophetic accuracy and quaint mistakes. His winged spacecraft bear an uncanny resemblance to today’s space shuttles, but they float against the backdrop of an almost cloudless earth with continents much more easily recognizable than the ones we strain to make out in modern weather-satellite photos. Likewise, Bonestell’s arid Martian landscapes depict that planet’s appearance rather accurately but for the color of the sky; photographs taken by soft-landing robots show a Martian sky that’s pink, not blue. In the end, however, it’s the amount of detail he got right that’s startling.

The imaginative power of his paintings is even more impressive. With a natural sense of pictorial drama that bordered on kitsch, Bonestell offered a subjective, even lyrical view of landscapes and panoramas that for all their strangeness might actually exist somewhere. For instance, in his 1972 painting of Saturn as seen from a mountain valley on its moon Titan, he invites us to imagine ourselves in space suits, tramping through a field of eerie haze as we look up to see the ringed planet looming hugely above us in the dark sky. Pictures like this not only tweak our sense of wonder but also vividly document the excited anticipation many felt in the giddy rush of the space age. “As more information becomes available, it still doesn’t take anything away from the painting as a work of art,” says Paternostro of Bonestell’s work. “The piece becomes a nice time marker: this is the way we thought things were at this point.”

Bonestell’s paintings highlight the Adler Planetarium’s current exhibit Imagining the Universe, which also features the work of six other illustrators, including Paternostro, who have followed in his wake. Also on display are Stephen Luecking’s sculpture series “Vessels for Kepler” and items from the Adler’s historical collection, including star atlases from the 17th through 19th centuries and engravings by Honore Daumier and George Cruikshank poking fun at excitement over such 19th-century events as the discovery of Neptune and the appearance of the Comet of 1853. Imagining the Universe continues through October 20 at the Adler Planetarium, 1300 S. Lake Shore. Hours are 9 to 6 Saturdays through Wednesdays, 9 to 9 Thursdays and Fridays. Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for children and seniors, and free for children under three. Tuesdays are free. Call 922-7827.

–Renaldo Migaldi


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Saturn See From Titan, Its Largest Moon,” painting by Chesley Bonestell.