Putting into art what engineers put into space

Houston artist Pat Rawlings has an office crammed with the stuff of kids' dreams. Model space shuttles fly from the tops of file cabinets. Tiny passengers in orbiting space stations peer from wall posters. In this office with miniature models of lunar landings and shuttle hookups, Rawlings spends his days sketching space travel of the future.

Ten years as a space artist have not dampened Rawlings's enthusiasm for his fast-growing field, which in the past belonged mostly to science fiction.

''I find it very appealing aesthetically, dealing in the shapes and the sort of ethereal imagery that you get in space artwork,'' he says. ''Structures in space can be very spidery and delicate. They aren't burdened by gravity and the sort of atmospheric constraints that you have here on earth.''

It is Rawlings's job to put into pictures the space modules and systems that engineers have created for future space missions. He is employed by a space-systems engineering firm located just minutes from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The demand for this kind of art has increased as the space industry has grown. But even today, space artists can be counted only in the hundreds.

They have created works that hang in museums and private collections, and they continue to illustrate science fiction books and such films as the ''Star Wars'' series. Their work also has found its way into the corporate conference rooms to illustrate proposed projects to potential investors.

Space art generally fits into three categories: the documentary variety records and interprets actual events of space travel; astronomical landscape art renders scenes on other planets; space-hardware art illustrates the modules used in space travel.

With a background as a technical illustrator for NASA, Pat Rawlings considers himself a space hardware artist. He dislikes what he calls the ''sterile'' and ''mundane'' images often associated with this work, and he tries hard to inject more human elements into it.

''I try to give an emotional feel for the adventure of space travel,'' he says. ''I'm trying to project clients past the realm of engineering facts and figures and into the sensory side of things.''

According to Rawlings, space travel that is rendered with complete accuracy can appear quite dull, because it lacks the atmospheric elements of earth - elements that give rocket blasts color, for instance. To spark his images, he finds himself ''bending the rules'' a little, as in a recent painting of a lunar landing. His rocket plume is a spectacular starburst; in an actual lunar landing, it would be an insignificant blue flame.

Most often, however, he maintains complete accuracy in his paintings. He applies just the right hues to scorched orbiter engines, or the glint of the sun's rays on the pristine shell of a satellite. To know what to show he spends hours huddling with the engineers and scientists who can tell him how much an engine blast - either in or out of the atmosphere - would discolor the paint.

Rawlings, like all other space artists, has never traveled into space. So to create his images he must give his imagination free rein. He begins by viewing the object he will paint, mentally, from all sides. ''Once I get a picture of what the object is, I imagine that I'm in my space suit, floating around the object in orbit, above whatever planet it's supposed to be,'' he says. ''I try to imagine that I have a camera and various lenses, and I decide what the best angle would be from which to paint the object.''

Rawlings credits an astronomy course he is taking with giving him a greater sense of scale in space, as well as a grasp of its magnitude.

Once he has begun sketching, he tries to put both his client and his picture's purpose out of his mind.

''I find that in the long run I can make a picture serve its initial purpose better by doing that,'' he says.

Rawlings likes to think of ''man's interaction with space'' rather than of mere objects, as he sketches them. ''I don't have machines looking at my pictures; I have people looking at my pictures,'' he says. ''And I feel that before space art can be accepted by a wide audience, it will have to appeal to the most basic underlying aspect of art - the human element.''

According to Rawlings, the market for space art has opened up, particularly over the past five years. He thinks it will continue to expand, along with the exploration of space. Some of his most recent subjects have reflected the direction the US space program is taking - huge orbiters that will be built in space to eliminate the effects of gravity on their construction.

Ironically, however, a favorite upcoming project will be that of a very small object. He has been asked by one of the astronauts of the space shuttle's 14th mission to design the mission patch the crew will wear into space.

Rawlings feels that space travel - and the work of space artists - has a particularly strong appeal right now. ''It's man against environment, not man against man. It's a positive risk that people can take.''

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