Bonestell, Chesley

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Bonestell, Chesley

American Artist 1888-1986

Astronautics is unique among the sciences in that it owes so much of its existence to literature and art. On the one hand was the seminal influence of Jules Verne (1828-1905); on the other, the work of artist Chesley Bonestell, who inspired an entire generation of astronomers and space scientists and may have been instrumental in jump-starting the American space program.

Born in San Francisco on New Year's Day, 1888, Bonestell studied architecture at Columbia University in New York before dropping out to work as a designer and architectural renderer for several New York and California architectural firms. During this period, Bonestell made significant contributions to the design of American icons such as the Chrysler Building and the Golden Gate Bridge. After a stint as an illustrator in London, Bonestell returned to the United States, moving to Hollywood in the late 1930s as a special effects matte artist and working on films such as Citizen Kane and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Combining the photorealistic techniques he learned from matte painting with his lifelong interest in astronomy, Bonestell produced a series of paintings of Saturn that were published in Life magazine in 1944. Nothing like them had ever been seen before, and Bonestell found himself instantly famous and in demand. More extraordinary magazine appearances eventually led to a book in collaboration with the space expert Willy Ley: the classic The Conquest of Space (1949). More books followed, as well as work on a series of classic space films for the producer George Pal, such as Destination Moon (1950).

Bonestell's greatest influence on public awareness of space travel resulted from his work with Wernher von Braun on a series of articles for Collier's magazine (1952-1954). Those articles outlined a coherent, step-by-step space program from robotic satellites, to a piloted lunar landing, to an expedition to Mars. For the first time Americans became aware that spaceflight was not a matter of the far future but was literally around the corner, that it was much less a matter of technology than one of money and will. This came at the most fortuitous time possible: the very beginning of the "space race," when it was imperative to rally public support for what had previously been dismissed as "that Buck Rogers stuff."

Several more books on the future of space exploration followed, extending Bonestell's artistry into hundreds of magazines and other publications. When most people in the 1950s and early 1960s visualized space travel, it was in terms of Bonestell's imagery. His paintings influenced many careers. Carl Sagan once said, "I didn't know what other worlds looked like until I saw Bonestell's paintings of the solar system." Arthur C. Clarke wrote that "Chesley Bonestell's paintings had a colossal impact on my thinking about space travel." In addition to the scientists, astronauts, and astronomers Bonestell inspired, he helped create the genre of illustration called space art.

see also Aartwork (volume 1); Rawlings, Pat (volume 4); Verne, Jules (volume 1); von Braun, Wernher (volume 3).

Ron Miller


Hardy, David. Visions of Space. London: Paper Tiger, 1990.

Miller, Ron, and Frederick C. Durant III. The Art of Chesley Bonestell. London: Paper Tiger, 2001.

Ordway, Frederick I., III, and Randy Liebermann. Blueprint for Space. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.