News & Perspectives

NASA’s Nostalgia for the Future

NASA’s Nostalgia for the Future

Artists' visions of far-off worlds inspire us to “make it so.”
Perspective// Posted by: Michael Shapiro / 1 May 2015

"Wouldn’t it be cool to go there?” That’s a question that has inspired sky-gazing sci-fi authors and space scientists for generations. And that was the driving question behind three travel posters created by a trio of “visual strategists” at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

David Delgado, Joby Harris and Dan Goods, artists employed by the JPL at the California Institute of Technology, fashioned three posters celebrating the potential of visiting recently discovered exoplanets. Harking back to travel posters from the 1920s through 1950s, the images visually capture the unique features of each distant planet.
And they’re fun, with witty slogans. Kepler-16b, a planet orbiting around two suns (like Luke Skywalker’s home planet, Tatooine, in Star Wars) is tagged: “WHERE YOUR SHADOW ALWAYS HAS COMPANY.”

The poster for Kepler-186f, whose dim sun shines in the crimson spectrum, reads: “WHERE THE GRASS IS ALWAYS REDDER ON THE OTHER SIDE.”
 “We show people in spacesuits (in the posters) because it would be amazing to go there. That sparks people’s imaginations,” Harris said. “It’s like a carrot hanging far out in front of you. Maybe it will inspire a young kid to figure out how to get there.”

The posters evoke “futuristic nostalgia,” Goods said. “We love nostalgic things, but combining that with the future is really powerful.”
The underlying mission of this art, Delgado said, is that “imagination and science fiction in some ways lead to science. I think that’s why it’s struck
such a chord.”

But artists hired by a strapped space agency – why is this worth doing? Because they help scientists “think through their thinking,” Goods said. “We ask lot of questions that are maybe not what their colleagues are asking them about, and sometimes that helps clarify what they’re doing.”

Though created for space scientists, the posters have been a big hit with the public. “We talk about sneaking up on learning,” Goods said. When people see art that’s “beautiful and mysterious,” they ask, “What is this?” and that makes them want to know more.

“We had no idea that they would get this popular,” Harris added. “Otherwise we would’ve spent more time on them.”

Maybe it’s good they didn’t. Some of the most successful innovations happen in a flash.

Michael Shapiro is author of A Sense of Place, a collection of interviews with top travel writers, and contributes to National Geographic Traveler. The three posters can be downloaded for free at: http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/exoplanet_travel_bureau