The History of Fallen Astronaut: Man's First Sculpture on the Moon

By Wesley Fenlon

A man-made sculpture has been sitting on the moon for many decades, but its story has never been told in full.

In 1971, two years after Apollo 11 landed the first men on the moon, Apollo 15 made a lesser-known historical footprint. Astronaut David Scott was the first to drive the lunar rover around the surface of the moon, but that wasn't his only achievement as the commander of the Apollo 15 mission. He also created a small memorial on the moon with a plaque dedicated to astronauts and cosmonauts who had died in service to the quest for the stars. Beside the plaque he places a small aluminum sculpture, three and a half inches tall, a human being in the abstract.

The sculpture came to be known as Fallen Astronaut, and was only briefly mentioned by the Apollo 15 astronauts as a tribute to their comrades when they returned to Earth. For decades, it was all but forgotten--but that was after it became the focal point of a controversy involving David Scott, NASA, and artist Paul van Hoeydonck, who created the Fallen Astronaut sculpture. Slate has the story about this forgotten piece of NASA history, told with interviews with van Hoeydonck and Scott, now in their 80s.

Photo credit: NASA

Fallen Astronaut started with an idea at the Waddell gallery in New York, where van Hoeydonck was exhibiting his work. The gallery's director proposed getting one of the artist's sculptures on the moon, and the idea stuck. Two years later, van Hoeydonck found himself rubbing elbows with astronaut David Scott in Cape Kennedy. Scott was interested in getting a sculpture on the moon, and van Hoeydonck had only two months before the launch to create it.

Perhaps more than most sculptures, Fallen Astronaut was formed by the demands of its environment. "There was the matter of fabricating a sculpture tough enough to survive on the moon, where daytime temperatures can hit about 250 degrees Fahrenheit and nights swing to about 250 below zero," writes Slate. "Van Hoeydonck approached Milgo/Bufkin, a Brooklyn-based foundry that started out making horse carriages but had evolved into a leading fabricator of metalwork for artists, to solve the dual aesthetic and technical challenge.

" 'The sculpture had to be small, and I was told by Scott that it was not allowed to be any race—not black, not red—not male, not female, and able to resist extreme cold and hot. So I had to design a thing like that,' van Hoeydonck says. The retro-futurist and spiritual overtones of his other sculptures mostly got weeded out in the process."

Fallen Astronaut made its journey to the moon in July 1971. But for months after, controversy was brewing.

van Hoeydonck was uncredited for his work, which Scott thought was their agreement--the astronauts intended the sculpture to be a quiet tribute. In 1972, van Hoeydonck talked to Walter Cronkite about his work. The sculpture itself was met with criticism, and when van Hoeydonck and the Waddell gallery later decided to create and sell replicas, the government got angry. At the same time, the space program was losing funding and the public's interest. For 40 years, Fallen Astronaut remained a little-known piece of space history.

On December 12, 2013, van Hoeydonck gave a talk about the history and meaning of Fallen Astronaut at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. To the astronauts, it was a quiet tribute, but to van Hoeydonck, it was a call the mankind to reach for the stars. Slate's story on how it all happened, and how it was forgotten, is absolutely worth a read, especially if you never knew that the first human sculpture to the leave the Earth has been resting on the moon for more than four decades.