Thursday, 5 March 2015

Art in a Vacuum

While I wait for crewed spacecraft naming to catch up with me again, I've finally gotten together another little collection I've been thinking about for a while. Naming a spacecraft is fundamentally very easy, just as easy as naming a person: You just tell people what it's called and then they call it that. But vessel naming - going back to aircraft and watercraft and trains and wossnames - has also had a long tradition of literally spelling out the craft's name on the hull, sometimes with the goal of maximum clarity, sometimes for decoration, sometimes both. Aircraft in particular have a solid legacy of nose art, and since all of the earliest astronauts were pilots (and in particular, military pilots from an era when nose art was especially common), it was almost inevitable that some spacecraft would be decorated in this way too. It serves both as a way for the crew to feel connected with their vessel, and for outsiders to share something of that connection.

Of course, there were already things painted all over rockets, in the even more standard conventions of military bureaucracy and military nationalism. Flags and logos and serial numbers were always there, and corporate logos soon became just as common. Soviet rocket markings were generally much more muted in every way, though recent Russian vehicles have started to reverse this habit.

So, I want to catalogue the pretty things we've added to the things that took us into space. But I'm limiting my selection here in a few ways:

1. First, only stuff on the vehicle, not mission patches and tshirts and shit worn by the crew. Many of those are pretty and/or interesting, and there are many more of them to discuss, but I'm focusing on the vessels, plus mission patches have been studied (and sold) to death elsewhere. I'm also highly amused by highly amusing mission posters, but those are again more about the crew inside than the vessel they're in.

2. I'm only interested in unique and "personal" markings, not generic ones, including national, administrative or commercial markings. We can argue about what that exactly means, but I've got a fairly strong gut feeling.

3. The identity of the vessel is the main focus, though that doesn't necessarily mean a written name. You know, art.

4. I'm only looking at crewed spacecraft that actually got into space.

So, to begin...

The earliest unique hull art/marking was the name on the Mercury 3 capsule, Freedom 7. It wasn't much, very plain and not very big, but it was intended to set a precedent for the astronauts who followed, a precedent that NASA management & PR people would later fight out of existence at least once. As much as the astronauts wanted to mark their territory, the engineers felt it was more their territory, and the political sensitivity of a big government spend in the full glare of the media made a lot of people nervous of faux pas. Given that hostility, it's not surprising that Shepard went with something low-key and easily as nationalisty as anything else painted on his pod.

[Edit: It may be worth noting that the planned but unflown Freedom 7-II spacecraft is painted - presumably at Shepard's own instruction - with the exact same Freedom 7 marking, imposed over a big, yellow Roman numeral II.]

Then there was the very clever Liberty Bell 7. The name was lettered in a similar style to Freedom 7, but with the genius addition of a big painted "crack" along the bell-shaped capsule, mirroring that on the actual Liberty Bell. It annoys the fuck out me that nobody ever seems to have taken an unobstructed photo of this complete paint job.

Next came Friendship 7, first to break out the fancy fonts and non-white paint!

Aurora 7 added even more colour, borrowing the big '7' from Friendship 7, and adding a bunch of multi-hued circles, evidently meant to represent auroras, maybe? I'm personally inclined to call this one the most amateurish hull art on this list; it's got lots of shiny colours, but it is frankly a bit of an incoherent mess, when you really study it.

Returning to the really clever, Sigma 7 took advantage of the Greek letter it was named after to portray its name without actually writing its name out in full.

Last of the Mercuries, Faith 7 had a big, prominent paint job, but I don't really get it. Is the name inside of a big, white star because it's in space? Or because it's American? Or is that some religious symbol I don't recognise? Some combination? It's hard to find a good picture of it, and harder still to find any explanations.

Then the Americans did away with hull art for years, and the replacement concession was the introduction of crew suit patches. It wasn't until the Moon landings that anything got to go on the hull of the vessels, but that was an opportunity to show off that was too hard to miss.

Apollo 11's Eagle got the very first inscribed plaque, rather than paint, spelling out with presumably greater permanence who it was who had left their litter all over Tranquility Base. There's a lot going on there, with all sorts of stuff about who sent it and why, but no actual mention of the vessel or mission name. I suppose it was supposed to be representing all of (the men part of) humanity, not just the one mission. But then sticking Nixon's name on it kind of spoils that (not least because he was bombing South East Asia at the time).

The other vessel of the same mission, Columbia, got its own ad hoc pseudo-plaque, on an interior control panel. Collins added this detail after the mission, and while its beauty is debatable, it is clearly the most personal marking on any spacecraft. (I also find interesting to compare his signature on each vessel.)

Apollo 12's Intrepid got the blandest of the plaques. It doesn't even name the Intrepid directly, and all the global symbolism and fancy prose are gone.

But at the same time, if uncomfirmed reports are true, Apollo 12 also delivered the first pure art to the Moon.

Apollo 13, as always, is a funny exception. It carried two plaques, both intended for the lunar module Aquarius. The first, with Mattingly's name on it, was already packed up and in place when he was removed from the flight, so the second version, with Swigert's name instead, was carried inside with the crew, who intended to replace it once they'd landed on the Moon. Since that never happened, the Mattingly version was lost with Aquarius and the Swigert version was brought all the way back to Earth, never having smelled any vacuum. Either way, it was the first time since Faith 7 that a spacecraft had been marked with its own name. It also marked a compromise in between the very busy plaque of Apollo 11 and the barren plaque of Apollo 12, which would be the style followed by Apollos 14 to 16 too.

Apollo 14's Antares plaque shows the standard form set up by Apollo 13.

Apollo 15's Falcon shows the same, but...

Apollo 15 also delivered the first official space art, the Fallen Astronaut. I like the sentiment, but I do think the piece itself is a bit lame. It's not even as good as a Human Being. Note that the plaque is also in the standard Apollo style.

Orion carried the last of the very standard Apollo plaques.

Apollo 17's Challenger got a plaque that reverted back to the Apollo 11 standard, with vessel identity replaced with human (well, man, at least) unity and achievement. The addition of the Moon map marked with landing sites sort of acts as a full stop on the program.

[EDIT: Adding Apollo-Soyuz plaque.]

The Apollo-Soyuz international mission was largely symbolic (and that was a good thing!), and yet was pretty short on explicit symbols. The crew patch was an interesting reversible one, so that neither state could claim it unfairly favoured the other, but otherwise the craft and crew were kept pretty plain, because, I guess, of political skittishness. This would not have been the mission to unleash Grissomish (let alone Warholic) creativity on. Even so, there was this fairly interesting two-part plaque, completed in orbit, which was more exciting than the very neat Apollo LM plaques. This late addition contradicts my assertion further down that the Soviets didn't engage in space art, but in my defence, this A.) wasn't external hull art, and I only barely decided this counted sufficiently to add to this article at all, and 2.) it took US influence to induce this small step in that direction. Still, I like the result.

With the space shuttle came the opportunity to name new things and repaint them as needed. And initially, they kind of got it wrong, painting Columbia's name on the cargo bay door, so that it wouldn't be visible whenever the bay was folded open. This is the low point in NASA hull art, where they haven't even gone for pure pragmatism and blank hulls. They've put the name on, but somehow not understood what for. I've spent hours looking at shuttle photos and even with the slightly better later arrangement, it's still annoyingly tricky telling one shuttle apart from another. They lacked clear visual identity.

Here's Challenger with the slightly better name placement, just in front of the cargo bay doors.

And Discovery, the same.

And Atlantis with a later update on the general paint scheme. Note in all cases what's most and least visible in each paint job.

One thing I can credit them with on the shuttle is at least repeating the name, so it might (probably not, but might) be visible from multiple angles. Endeavour illustrates the starboard hull and wing names.

SpaceShipOne was the first since Liberty Bell 7, four decades earlier, to consider the entire vessel as a canvas. The white and red were necessary engineering elements, and someone realised that compulsory foundation could be exploited for (rather pretty) nationalist porpoises. I especially like the negative switch between blue and white stars. The gentle curves painted on the carrier plane, White Knight, are actually a very different style, but the matching colours keep the two looking like an obvious pair.

Russia finally got in to proper (by my standards) hull art in 2011, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's flight. After the stark blankness of Soviet-era spacecraft, and a few forays into space advertising (which I won't dignify with further comment), they finally went for this relatively bold double piece. The Soyuz TMA-21 capsule was named Gagarin (individual vessel naming is extremely rare for a Soviet/Russian spacecraft) and this was painted in big letters on the rocket shroud, in the place where the class name is normally painted on contemporary Soyuzes. There was also a stylised picture of Gagarin's helmeted face painted on both the shroud and the capsule itself.

Soyuz TMA-11M got an amazing mosaic of, I guess, traditional Russian art, all over the launch rocket. It's quite a lot of area covered (I count 8 distinct 'rings' of painting, each around 2m high), even though most of the rocket remains conventionally painted. Even so, I'm not quite sure if this one counts, by my standards, because it was really all just an elaborate advert, not a true personalisation of the vessel for its own sake. Worse still, it was advertising the homophobe Olympics at Sochi. I don't think it's coincidence that the actual Soyuz capsule inside was left unchanged, and the flashy exterior was just a facade around that.

Finally, if Soyuz TMA-11M counts, then TMA-14M probably counts too, even though it only featured one smaller art ring around its launch rocket (and I can't even really see what it its, apart from blue and blobby) and another much bigger, clearer ring explicitly advertising the Kazan swimming championships. I'm pretty damn sure I shouldn't include this one, but the slippery slope of TMA-11M's less explicit promotional art creates an annoying segue.

There was a fashion in the '90s for airlines to paint their aircraft from nose to tail in interesting, unusual schemes. This was presumably abandoned due to loss of brand recognition or some shit, but it was really very pretty, for a few years. I think when spacecraft can be painted that freely, it will indicate an important level of maturity in our spacecraft development (in the same way that teenagehood is, technically, a level of maturity).

I mainly can't help thinking that this is a badly under-used medium. Surely there's huge room for creativity when you're literally launching your art into space?