Visual Culture

How NASA Used Art to Shape Our Vision of the Future

Michelle Santiago Cortés
Jan 25, 2019 10:43PM

Artist rendering of The Toroidal Colony by Rick Guidice. Courtesy of NASA Ames Research Center via Flickr.

In Earthrise (1968), the first color photograph of Earth captured by a human being, our planet humbly peeks through the dark expanse of outer space. Thanks to the Space Age, humanity could finally see a full picture of its home; seven years later, it was beginning to imagine a future among the stars.

In 1975, scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, dreamt up ideas for habitats that could house human civilization in space. Rick Guidice was a freelance illustrator with a background in architecture when NASA tasked him with creating the artistic renderings. The Mountain View team conceptualized three designs over the course of a 10-week study: the Toroidal Colony, the Bernal Sphere, and the Cylindrical Colony—each one a massive structure with sloping interiors and glistening exteriors.

The Apollo missions of the 1960s and early ’70s launched small spacecrafts carrying a handful of astronauts at a time. But in Guidice’s mid-1970s illustrations, he brought to life, in vivid colors and deep shadows, the diagrams that were designed to house up to 1 million people.

Earthrise-Apollo 8, 1968. Courtesy of NASA via Flickr.

Artist model of The Torus Colony. Courtesy of NASA Ames Research Center.


To depict life in space is to commit to paper one’s hopes and aspirations for humanity’s future. Though Guidice was given diagrams and isometric drawings to work from, he said that “there’s hundreds and hundreds of decisions to be made along the way, and each one is kind of controlled by my vision, my inspiration, and the experience I’ve had as an illustrator.”

Guidice’s career as an editorial and commercial illustrator for clients like Hewlett Packard equipped him with the visual storytelling skills needed to sell the prospect of life in space. He was also influenced by his contemporaries who had already left their marks on our collective understanding of what the future could look like, such as Robert McCall, who illustrated Isaac Asimov’s Our World in Space, and Syd Mead, whose design work would later earn him the role as the concept artist for the film Blade Runner.

While the diagrams Guidice referenced might have envisioned how humans could survive in outer space, his paintings depict a future where humans could thrive. Lush English gardens and glassy ponds fill the floating platforms of cylindrical space colonies. Spherical habitats are flanked by reflective surfaces that mimic sunlight. A cross-section of swirling structures reveal rich layers of agricultural farmland. This was NASA’s modernist fantasy of the future.

NASA’s imagery has had a profound impact on how we picture what’s to come, and Guidice’s illustrations have played a role. They were part of NASA’s widely circulated press releases and became synonymous with lead researcher Gerard K. O’Niell’s vision of the future. They have also been extensively celebrated in art, pop culture, and architecture, from the 2014 film Interstellar’s Cooper Station to the galleries of Paris. “It’s become common culture,” Guidice offered. “It’s become instilled in everybody’s psyche of what the future might look like.”

Interest in futurism is cyclical, and it can be argued that we are, once again, experiencing a new wave of interest in the future. In 2018, graphic designers and visual editors mined Shutterstock’s archive for 1980s retrowave at unprecedented rates, and the stock company has predicted that “yesterday’s tomorrow,” with its penchant for neon and moody synth music, is making a comeback. With the advent of social media, Guidice himself has seen his futurist work resurface as a source of inspiration.

Retrofuturism is setting aside our present vision of the future in favor of one we already imagined. Today, it’s in the stainless-steel accessories branding the necks of Dior’s models as if they were androids walking off of a conveyor belt. It’s in the Blade Runner and Star Trek reboots, and in the aesthetic fixation on the technological design of the 2000s. Our cultural moment seems to be crying out for one of the futures imagined by generations past—anything but the present.

Artist rendering of The Cylinder Colony (interior) by Rick Guidice. Courtesy of NASA Ames Research Center via Wikimedia Commons.

Today, the children of the Space Age have grown up. Guidice’s paintings for NASA likely touched a generation of policymakers and scientists, as well as filmmakers, designers, and artists. He’s seen how his 1970s depictions of the future and of space colonization have resurfaced across visual media to inspire today’s visionaries.

And it’s all part of a natural progression. Decade after decade, the future we once imagined is folded into the present. In the 1950s, Guidice watched Flash Gordon and marveled at how the little ships flew from planet to planet; that fascination carried on as he avidly tuned into Star Trek in the early 1970s, while he was working on his renderings of the space colonies. Our understanding of the past and our conceptualization of the future are in constant flux—adapting to the present that connects them.

Four decades later, Robert Hurt, a visualization scientist who has been working on NASA’s Spitzer mission for over 15 years, has a different task at hand: to illustrate exoplanets as part of the mission’s larger goal to identify potential life-harboring planets outside of our solar system. Most notably, it found seven Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting an ultra-cool red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 system.

With every new discovery, the team’s understanding of these worlds shifts and transforms. Exoplanet 55 Cancri e, Hurt noted, has proven particularly hard to nail down. “I’ve illustrated that one at least five different ways,” Hurt explained, “because every time there’s a new discovery, we change the artwork to reflect our updated understanding of what it might be.” In Hurt’s artwork, this exoplanet has changed from a ball of warm gas into a rocky planet covered in molten lava. At one point, it was thought to be covered in volcanoes that spit out billowing clouds of gas into its atmosphere.

Hurt’s process of illustrating exoplanets runs parallel to humanity’s constant reimagining of the future. “We can make these hypotheses, and then, over time, as we learn more, that might change,” he explained.

After making sure the scientific data is accurately depicted, Hurt works with a former Hollywood special-effects artist, Tim Pyle, to fill in the gaps. Together, they take NASA’s basic understanding of these exoplanets and turn them into beautiful hypotheses—big and wonderful what-ifs to awaken the general public’s enthusiasm for the future.

Today, our media landscape is exponentially more image-saturated than it was in the 1970s, when Guidice first offered his vision of space. “I know that our imagery is competing with the next article on Guardians of the Galaxy,” Hurt said. NASA recently debuted a new app that lets you take a VR excursion to one of TRAPPIST-1’s exoplanets, created using data from the Spitzer team. The need for captivating visual storytelling in science is as important now as it was 40 years ago.

Our visual landscape shows signs of a culture that is oscillating between futurism and nostalgia, hope and despair. While rising tides and temperatures foretell a future where Earth is uninhabitable, private sector companies like SpaceX have made strides in space travel, and government agencies have begun in earnest to research how humans could live beyond Earth’s gravity well. Yet a better life elsewhere still feels largely out of reach.

But Hurt remains optimistic—if not for life in space, then for a future made better with science. “We have the power; we have the intellectual capability; we have the innovation and the cleverness to build the instruments we need,” he said. “We’re not confined to the darkness.”

Michelle Santiago Cortés