By Douglass M. Stewart, Jr.
Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With The Future
Sixty-four years ago this month, the public got its first view of a painting of the Moon that had taken Chesley Bonestell over a year to complete. The Museum of Science in Boston had commissioned him to create an enormous ten-by-forty-foot mural of the lunar surface for their Charles Hayden Planetarium.
Museum of Science, Boston
Chesley Bonestell touching up A Lunar Landscape in Boston in 1957
The mural was created in California with Chesley’s wife, Hulda, serving as his artistic assistant. Due to its size, the painting was made in three sections at Chesley’s studio in Altadena. Bonestell historian and Co-Producer Melvin Schuetz also notes “The canvasses were so large that he had to work on them in his backyard.” The sections were then trucked to Boston and Chesley arrived to touch up the seams so that it all appeared to be one massive painting. Unveiled on March 27,1957, A Lunar Landscape gave museum visitors the experience of what they might see if they were astronauts exploring the Moon. The painting’s stark vistas showed tall mountain ranges with sharp, craggy peaks. In an article by Dr. Tom Crouch, The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum Senior Curator Emeritus, Chesley is quoted as saying, “I tried to make it as dramatic as I could.” The exhibition proved to be quite popular but a drama of another kind began slowly brewing around this painting.
Courtesy Bonestell LLC
A Lunar Landscape (1957)
Click on the picture to see a larger version of this image
At that time, the Soviet Union (known today as the Russian Federation) and the United States were competitors in what was called “The Space Race.” Which nation would be the first to orbit a satellite around the Earth or land a man on the Moon? On October 4, 1957, the Soviets moved ahead when they launched Sputnik 1 successfully into orbit.  We would have Explorer 1 circling the Earth months later. The USSR would go on to achieve additional milestones when its Luna 2 became the first spacecraft to reach the Moon (it crashed there). Their Luna 3 was the first spacecraft to photograph the far side of the Moon. In 1966, Luna 9 became the first spacecraft to perform a soft landing on the lunar surface, soon followed by America’s Surveyor 1. That summer, our Lunar Orbiter 1 became the first in a series of spacecraft to send back pictures of possible landing sites for the Apollo astronauts. The five Surveyors that successfully landed sent back images that showed a different lunar landscape than the one Chesley had painted in his mural. Mountain ranges and crater rims looked soft and rounded-off due to eons of micrometeorite bombardment.
The Moon’s surface from Lunar Orbiter 1.
Photo from Surveyor 1 after landing.
In 1969, the United States emerged as the winner of the Space Race when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon. Historic television images of the two astronauts and the photographs they took, however, made it apparent that Chesley’s painting, while beautiful to behold, wasn’t really what the lunar surface looked like. In our film, Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With The Future, Chesley confides, “I was very much annoyed with what I’d done. I showed all these sharp mountains and craggy things because I thought that they’d be split and broken and all that.”
The Earth rising above the eroded surface of the Moon, as seen by Apollo 11
The fate of his mural was now sealed. A year after the Apollo 11 Moon landing, the Museum of Science decided that A Lunar Landscape had to come down. In 1976, it was sent to the Smithsonian and put into storage. In July 2005, the mural, still in one piece, was carefully unrolled for archival inspection. Space artist and Co-Producer Ron Miller was on hand that day and remembers, “It was in pretty bad shape. Areas of the painting showed blooming and there were a lot of cracks in the surface that were created when it was taken down. It was obviously in need of restoration.”  With no funding available for conservation work at that time, the mural was carefully rolled up again and back it went into storage. Would people ever see this painting again on display?
Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum
 A Lunar Landscape is unrolled in 2005 for inspection and conservation analysis.
The answer to that question came when Dr. Michael J. Neufeld, author and curator of the History Division of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum emailed me with some very exciting news. The mural was now undergoing restoration! It would become part of an upcoming exhibit at the Smithsonian called Destination Moon, a gallery covering the history of lunar exploration, with emphasis on one of the greatest achievements in human history: America’s Apollo program. The restored mural will be installed later in 2021, with the gallery opening roughly a year after that. “We're very pleased to be putting this huge and historic Bonestell masterpiece back on display after being out of public view for over fifty years,” Dr. Neufeld said. You can learn more about Destination Moon in an article written for the February/March 2021 issue of Air & Space Magazine by Dr. Neufeld, who is also lead curator of the Destination Moon gallery. Just click on the image below:
Everyone on the Chesley Bonestell film team was excited to learn of this terrific news about the mural. Both Co-Producers Ron Miller and Melvin Schuetz have often said, “Chesley’s vision of the lunar surface may be inaccurate but he painted the Moon the way it should have looked!” For a further perspective on this subject, click on the picture below to read a fascinating article by Dr. Tom Crouch:
Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum
Dr. Tom Crouch (red shirt) and his team examine the unrolled A Lunar Landscape
You can also see an excerpt from Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With The Future that explores the story of A Lunar Landscape by clicking on the image below:
Museum of Science, Boston
Experience the full award-winning documentary!
Special thanks to Dr. Michael J. Neufeld and the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum for their generous assistance with this article.
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