Exploring Retro Space Art and Its Inspirations

Published January 11, 2021
Retro astronaut couple on a planet with a rocket background

"Space, the Final Frontier," has captivated young and old minds alike since the dawn of time, and the vintage sci-fi media and retro space art that came out of the mid-century all serve as visual reminders of what people used to envision space was like. From popular television series like Star Trek to the exploits of actual astronauts in NASA's space program, the mid-20th century was rife with ideas about exploration and everything beyond earth. This adventurous period inspired all types of art, many pieces of which are coveted and proudly displayed today.

The Space Age

While humanity's fascination with space is certainly nothing new, the global Space Race that took place in the 1960s made the topic of outer space and its possibilities inescapable. As the USSR and the United States fought to employ the best scientists, mathematicians, and pilots to create the most advanced space agency, filmmakers, artists, and writers were taking outer space out of the skies and placing it into the average person's home. Since this was a truly global phenomenon, art featuring space invaders, asteroids, and space ships were created by countries all over the world, making these pieces of art wildly diverse and imaginative collectors' items.

Spaceship illustration on teal background

NASA and the Arts

Interestingly, the United States' specialized space agency, NASA, understood how investing in the arts could help bolster their popularity and encourage American citizens to support their initiatives - particularly when these initiatives grew to be rather costly. Evidence from as early as 1962 shows that the agency was thinking about using artists to provide a human-connection to the vast coldness of space. This manifested in iconic American artists, like Norman Rockwell, working with NASA to bring the Space Race to life. What resulted was a movement that kickstarted the multimedia sci-fi trend and resulted in a unique visual campaign.

Astronaut and moon unit

Different Types of Retro Space Art

During your search for the perfect retro space art print, you may come across options in a wide range of different media, each of which has varying costs. The most common types you can encounter include:

  • Prints/lithographs
  • Magazine illustrations
  • Film posters
  • Book covers
  • Comic strips

Popular Retro Space Art Creators

Since there was such an abundance of art about space and its wonders during this period, the number of artists who contributed to this movement is endless. However, there were a few distinctive artists whose work dominated this mid-century craze.

Artistic rendition of Apollo 15 subsatellite

Robert E. Gilbert

Robert E. Gilbert was a magazine illustrator that was active primarily between the 1950s - 1970s; he often created pieces of space-based landscapes for science-fiction publications. His pieces often have a bit of a surreal quality to them, with each piece exhibiting a distinctive alienness to it. You can view many examples of his work at the Artisans website, which has acquired most of the contents of his estate.

Davis Meltzer

Davis Meltzer came from a family of artists, and became a well-respected illustrator in his own right, designing postal stamps, book covers, and even partnering with NASA in their space program's propaganda campaign. His popularity peaked during this time, and his illustrations helped the world envision a future in the deepest parts of the ocean and the farthest reaches of space. Although his name isn't remembered in the way that Van Gogh or Monet's are, his matte colors and textbook-precise illustrations have withstood the test of time.

Chesley Bonestell

Nicknamed the "Father of Modern Space Art," Chesley Bonestell was an American painter who worked to help garner support for the mid-century space program through his Collier's series "Man Will Conquer Space Soon!" Encouraged by his obsession with astronomy, his paintings replicate the awe-inspiring enormity of space, and his work has gone on to influence science fiction art and artists long after his death in 1986.

Retro Space Art Values

If you're interested in collecting these aerospace artifacts, you'll find that most of the pieces available either come from science fiction and aeronautical magazines or are full-size prints of these smaller illustrations. Works that are connected to iconic moments in the space race publicity campaign, like Wernher von Braun's archive of Collier's "The Man Will Conquer Space Soon!" edition, have high estimated values, but since this art is rather difficult to track down, other estimates are conditional to the buyer's interest and the pieces' condition. Unfortunately, there is a significant low-cost reproduction market that dominates the digital space; thus, you'll most likely only find vintage space art in the form of old magazines and books on websites like Etsy and Ebay. However, if you're on a budget, you can get these reproductions for around $10 each.

Retro Space Art and Modern Spaces

Unsurprisingly, retro space art's distinctive style is still being replicated by modern artists, filmmakers, interior designers, and businesswomen. Retrofuturism gives contemporary people the opportunity to connect with their particular love of outer space and the past's perspective on it by including these "popping neon colors, svelte steel, and curvy geometric shapes" that have become associated with the style. So, if you can't seem to track down one of these rare historic pieces, you can still outfit your entire living space with, well, space.

Exploring Retro Space Art and Its Inspirations