Washington — It's early dawn. The space shuttle Enterprise, illuminated by hundreds of multicolored pinpricks of light, sits expectantly in its hangar - shining against the indigo Florida sky like ''a beautiful, decorated Christmas tree,'' in the words of the artist who captured the scene on canvas.
Wings, eclipsed suns, and sundry abstract shapes are jumbled together in another painting, which hangs near the first in a Washington gallery. ''The artist,'' a plaque explains, ''has symbolically interpreted the space shuttle era.''
The space shuttle - a technological wonder with the inelegant look of a winged intercity bus - may seem an unlikely artistic subject.
But for the past five years the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has hired small groups of painters to record shuttle tests, launches, and landings. Last week, NASA's shuttle art collection went on display for the first time, at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.
''We're trying to show the historical significance of space flight through the eyes of the artist, who can catch things in a way that cameras can't,'' says Robert Schulman, the NASA official who heads the art program.
NASA first became an art patron during the early missions to the moon, but stopped commissions during the post-lunar landing somnolence in the space program. Mr. Schulman, NASA's graphics chief, (he designs spacecraft markings, among other things) began hiring artists again in 1977, for the first shuttle tests.
About 45 painters, ranging from unknowns to famous names such as Robert Rauschenberg, have since participated in the program. Generally, says Schulman, there are five painters at each launch - one in the suit-up room with the astronauts, the rest at observation points around the pad. Smaller teams cover landings.
Each artist receives a $1,500 honorarium, and in return agrees to give NASA all on-site sketches and one major, shuttle-inspired work.
''We couldn't pay the market value of some of these,'' admits Schulman, whose NASA office - with dozens of paintings leaning against the walls - resembles the back room of an art gallery.
Paintings included in the new exhibit of shuttle art range from the classically realistic (''Morning Thunder'' by Wilson Hurley, which could be mistaken for a shuttle launch as painted by the 19th-century landscapist John Constable) to the whimsical (a work by Clayton Pond which depicts the shuttle acquiring the constellation Orion, for the Smithsonian) to the abstract (''Manned Fury,'' an 11-foot-long panel of swirling forms by Dennis Frings).
''The launch itself was the catalyst for my painting,'' Mr. Frings says. ''It was fabulous.''
Frings says the ''interpretive attitude'' of the artist can help reduce the vast technology of the shuttle to a more human scale, bridging the gap between high science and the public at large.
Some artists humanized the shuttle by focusing on the astronauts, or the natural environment surrounding the craft.
Others focused on small details: an empty spacesuit slumped against a wall like a discarded Halloween costume; a water nozzle next to the launch pad, which spouts a fine spray to muffle the ferocious roar of takeoff, thus preventing damage to the pad from acoustical feedback.
''We're all looking at the same thing,'' artist Jack Perlmutter says, ''but we all get different feelings. The noise, the structure, the patterns - it's been a tremendous influence on me.''
''Those scientists, they have all those lasers and things, they still think they need the artist's (viewpoint),'' Mr. Perlmutter adds proudly.
Of course, if NASA wants a truly complete artistic record of the space shuttle program, the next logical step is to let a painter set up an easel in outer space.
While there are no firm plans yet to fire an artist into orbit on a space shuttle shot, a NASA advisory group has begun considering whether to fill some of the shuttle's seven seats with civilians.
Communicating the experience of space flight to the general public would be ''the purpose for flying passengers,'' says Carl Praktish, a NASA official who is executive director for the study. Artists and writers would thus probably be high on the list of possible passengers, he says.
The advisory group, whose eight members include businessmen, scientists, a historian, and novelist James Michener, is tentatively scheduled to submit its recommendations to NASA by next spring.