How Sci-Fi Propaganda Art Influenced The US and Soviet Space Race

By Wesley Fenlon

How the United States and Soviet Union faced off in the Space Race and on the covers of magazines like Popular Science, Collier's and Tekhnika Molodezhi.

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. ... in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon--if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.

On May 26, 1961, John F. Kennedy turned the world's growing fascination with space flight into a race--an overt competition with the Soviet Union, which had launched the first man into outer space just one month before. America had reason to rally behind the Space Race against the Soviet Union: Sputnik beat the United States to space in 1957, damaging its national pride and igniting fears of Soviet technology. But for years before Sputnik and the ensuing technological escalation made space flight a reality, something else was fueling the imaginations of the American people: the magazine.

Magazine covers and the articles behind them often painted fantastic visions of future technology, using headlines like "Man Will Conquer Space Soon" and "Flying Saucers for Everybody!" The Soviet Union had its own magazines and artwork, which boldly depicted rockets and cosmonauts reaching for the stars. Every bit of science artwork published in the 50s and 60s served to propagandize one nation's plans for space, but nationalistic pride surfaced in very different ways.

To piece together the cultural history behind magazine illustrations collected from across the Web, I needed to perform a Brain Bug-style knowledge absorption on someone who knew science (and science fiction) as well as they knew art. I found that expertise in two people: Vincent Di Fate, a Hugo award-winning artist who's illustrated for NASA, written a book on sci-fi art, and created hundreds of cover illustrations, and Gavin Rothery, who served as the conceptual designer and visual effects supervisor for the 2009 sci-fi film Moon.

Together, we dissected the cultural influences behind Soviet and American art, compared "science" to sci-fi through mags like Mechanix Illustrated and 2000 AD, and detoured into the weird, weird worlds of Eastern European and Japanese illustrations.

The United States Races to Space

Which came first: the artistic vision of space travel, or the scientist's attempts to break free from Earth's orbit? Before Sputnik, there was no great, unifying national effort in the United States to reach for the stars. But there was a vision for space travel. Illustrator Chesley Bonestell tapped into a nascent interest in space with a series of paintings published in popular magazines like Life in the 1940s, including the incredibly influential "Saturn as Seen From Titan." Those paintings were collected in a book called The Conquest of Space, which paired Bonestell's work with the words of science writer Willy Ley. The Conquest of Space was written as a realistic vision of how man could make it into space. This was the beginning: art began to inspire greater interest in rockets and the stars.

"Illustrators contributed richly to this stuff," Vincent Di Fate told me in a conversation last Friday. "It's hard for people who didn't grow up with magazines a regular part of their home lives to understand how important the magazine was, particularly in that era before television... It kinda hits you in the head like a two-by-four that there was no other way to produce these images other than through the imaginations of the artists."

In 1951, the First Symposium on Space Flight brought together rocket scientist Wernher von Braun with other notable writers, artists and scientists, including Ley and Bonestell. While they talked rockets and space stations, an editor for Collier's Magazine, Cornelius Ryan, set the stage for the space race.

"Ryan got the idea that he would use these scientists as consultants for the development of an extensive series of articles that would begin the following year," Vincent Di Fate explained. "So in 1952 they initiated a series of articles... that dealt with the further development of space travel... In order to team these science writers and scientists with appropriate images, Ryan arranged for Chesley Bonestell to be hired to create much of the key art."

Ryan's coverage of the Symposium foreshadowed the US/Soviet competition that would follow in the next decade. The opening page of Collier's influential "Man Will Conquer Space Soon" series, which presented articles written by von Braun, Ley, and others, leads off like this: "... the U.S. must immediately embark on a long-range development program to secure for the West 'space superiority.' If we do not, somebody else will. That somebody else very probably would be the Soviet Union."

The influence of the Symposium soon spread further into popular culture through television. "In 1955, Walt Disney had this weekly television series Disneyland, which ran on Wednesday nights on ABC," Di Fate said. "That took it a step farther, dealing with animation to show, for a rather naive public, how mankind would deal with issues like weightlessness and breaking away from the Earth's envelope. ... The Tomorrowland segments ... really helped sell to another generation the feasibility and desirability of space development."

The Disneyland space series may have been on television, but it was ultimately the work of illustrators just like the magazine covers of the day. "All of the visualization that they did was artwork," Di Fate said. "Their outline of the mission to Mars is all done in a series of airbrushed paintings on acetate that are slowly moved across the frame to give the illusion of movement."

Mars and Beyond aired in December 1957, two months after Sputnik's launch into orbit. Soon the Space Race was in full swing, but most of the interesting American artwork depicting futuristic technology was published before the development of the space shuttle. In hindsight, some of them are hilarious. Where Collier's had experts like Wehrner von Braun predicting that a space station would orbit Earth "within the next ten or fifteen years"--a guess that was only off by five years--other publications capitalized on the space craze with sci-fi articles masquerading as plausible journalism. An issue of Popular Science published in May 1958, for example, outlines a lunar program that begins with the United States nuking the moon to stir up dust for analysis and ends with a man on the moon around the year 2000.

Gavin Rothery, who posts sci-fi artwork and videos on his blog every day, has previously written about the odd not-science that appeared in the popular magazines of the 40s, 50s and 60s. "The articles aren't really written by scientists, weirdly, especially in the case of Frank Tinsley," Rothery said. "He was writing his own articles, so he was basically just going off on one in his own head, and just coming up with the most fantastic ideas, and then illustrating them, and then writing about them as if it was real science."

Rothery's blog post full of Tinsley's magazine articles and fantastic (though absurd) illustrations put it another way: "This guy was so forward-thinking; he just did not give a single solitary shit. Just look at some of the high-concept thinking going on here in some of his editorial work - it's amazing. Frank Tinsley is the honey badger of the 1950s science fiction editorial."

"With our hindsight now we don't understand where they came from properly, the kind of whimsical nature of it," Rothery told me. These ideas look absurd today, but they were created in a time of enormous technological growth. Within two decades, scientists went from early rocket development to landing on the moon. Artists like Tinsley celebrated that spirit of creativity with outlandish ideas. Before scientists knew what, exactly, would be possible, everything was at least a little bit plausible.

As it turned out, controlling the moon wasn't the key to asserting military dominance over the Earth. The moon is over 200,000 miles away, making any missile launched from the lunar surface far easier to intercept than one fired from, say, Cuba. Beating the Soviets to the moon may not have been the best catalyst for a space program, but it did its job, and for years speculative science art championed the cause.

On the other side of the world, sci-fi magazine art was having a similar effect.

The Soviet Union Races in Silence

The Soviet Union wanted space just as badly as the United States did. Maybe they even wanted it more--while NASA spent years shooting for the moon, the Soviet space program ultimately shifted focus to deep space. As Vincent Di Fate told me, the Soviet Union was still ahead of the US in space exploration years later, despite never having set foot on a foreign body.

"There was a point in the late 60s where the Soviets said 'you want to go to the moon? To hell with you, go to the moon.' And they just focused on deep space exploration. They had already been to Mars long before us. They knew about nuclear winter before we did. Nuclear winter arose from that 1975 Mariner probe that went to Mars that detected this planetwide dust storm. When they looked at the data they realized that the filtering of sunlight on Mars, if something similar had happened to the Earth, would have completely changed the ecosystem. You have to remember that the arms buildup was predicated on the false belief that nuclear war was winnable, number one, and survivable, number two."

Even 20 years after the collapse of the USSR, Soviet artwork from the period remains more difficult to find than the equivalent illustrations from the United States. As more and more of it shows up on the Internet, the Soviet art clearly looks to fill a different role. American magazines paid little attention to astronauts and great attention to ship designs and space stations. Technology was the fascination. Soviet art pays far greater attention to its heroes and furthering the national cause--an image without the CCCP logo is a rarity.

"Extolling the virtues of space development was not really a big thing with them," Di Fate said. "Lionizing their heroes was another story." He went on to explain that a lot of art leaking out today was likely designed for internal exposure and not public consumption--and certainly not for western eyes. That secrecy also extended to the technology that went into the Soviet space program, which is unsurprising. The Cold War was not a time for sharing secrets.

"Almost none of that stuff leaked to the West. I have to tell ya--I lived during that time period, I was a kid during the early space race and an adult when it was still on, I worked on my first NASA mission in 1975 for Apollo Soyuz, the first cooperative venture between the United States and the Soviet Union. I was at Cape Canaveral, photographed the crew and drew concept sketches of the launch for NASA.
The only part of the Soyuz Capule that was intact was the docking port. ... The Soyuz capsule was not a pressurized capsule. The difference between the two was kind of wedding a Tin Lizzie with a Cadillac. ... So what they sent us was a cast iron version of the Soyuz capsule with no internal detail and only the docking port so we could develop the device that would connect the Apollo command module with the Soyuz module."

However Soviet propaganda was disseminated, it packs a visual punch that's rare in American artwork. Heavy splashes of red and vibrant colors lend the skyward-reaching cosmonauts and rockets a unique boldness. Rothery commented that the visual style likely spawned from limitations in technology. "A lot of it's screen prints," he said. "If you've not got any sophisticated photographic equipment, you're basically cutting stencils, and running colors of ink over those stencils ... you're basically working in blocks of color. The photographic equipment wasn't there, so there was a reliance on very bold illustration with very bold blocks of color ... It's given it a really iconic look because of the restrictions of the tools they were using."

That bold propagandistic style didn't extend to all Soviet art of the 50s and 60s--the ongoing magazine Tekhnika Molodezhi (pictured above), which entered publication in 1933, ran beautifully painted covers in a variety of styles. The covers were more abstract than the American counterparts in Popular Science and Mechanix Illustrated, but inside they sometimes went into similar detail diagramming a futuristic rocket.

While the Soviet Union and the United States differed in how they propagandized the Space Race, they shared the common bond of actually having space programs. Other Eastern European companies clearly had an interest in science fiction and Western culture, but that interest manifested in a truly bizarre art style.

Japan and Eastern Europe Let Their Imaginations Run Free

Japan and countries like Czechoslovakia and Poland had no space programs to create propaganda for, so they channeled their interest in science fiction in unique ways. What makes them more interesting than the sci-fi authors and illustrators of the West? Like propaganda art, these creations say something about the cultures they grew out of.

Japanese artist Shigeru Komatsuzaki drew incredibly detailed speculative science fiction art throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s without becoming a manga artist. He focused instead on elaborate two-page magazine spreads of natural disasters or breathtaking futuristic cities. His art also graced the covers of model kits, turning plastic figures into visionary science fiction designs.

Gavin Rothery brought up the bizarre film posters for Western media released in Eastern Europe while we were discussing Soviet propaganda. In a backwards sort of way, they fit into the propaganda discussion; these isolated countries attempted to tie into Western society while using their own artwork to promote foreign films. The resulting art is extremely expressionistic and often bears such a vague connection to the original material that it's hard to tell if the artists actually saw the films they were portraying. These posters were never created for audiences outside Poland or Hungary or Czechoslovakia, but they eventually slipped free of the border thanks to the Internet. For Western eyes seeing them for the first time, those posters are a bizarre form of propaganda that promotes the artistic vision of a truly alien world.

"The artist that did this has obviously seen a picture of a Star Destroyer," Gavin said, describing the Hungarian posters for the Star Wars trilogy. "They've got a reference picture of a Star Destroyer and a TIE Fighter, but the other stuff looks to me like they saw the film or saw bits of the film and then went away and did an illustration based on what they could remember. ... If you look at the Jedi poster, the Star Destroyer is clearly a Star Destroyer, and the Death Star's the Death Star, but what the hell's that green thing down in the bottom? That's not in Return of the Jedi."

Read on for more artwork and propaganda from the US, USSR, Japan, and Eastern Europe.