Episode: The Art that Launched a Thousand Rockets


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The Art that Launched a Thousand Rockets

The adjective “visionary” gets thrown around a lot, but it’s literally true of Chesley Bonestell and Arthur Radebaugh, the two illustrators featured in this week’s episode. Both men used their fertile visual imaginations and their artistic skills to create engaging, influential depictions of human space exploration and our high-tech future. Their work was seen by millions of magazine and newspaper readers throughout the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s—boosting public support for space exploration and industrial R&D at a critical time for the U.S. economy. Now, both men are the subjects of documentary films.

Chesley Bonestell was born in San Francisco in 1888, survived the earthquake and fire of 1906, and went on to become an accomplished and high-paid architect, artist, Hollywood matte painter, and illustrator of book and magazine articles. From the mid-1940s onward, he specialized in painting stunning views of space vehicles and views other otherworldly locations like the Moon, Mars, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. He lived to see humans set foot on the Moon in the 1960s and visit the gas giants via robotic probes in the 1980s, finally passing away in 1986.

Arthur Radebaugh lived from 1906 to 1974 and built on his early career as an illustrator for Detroit-based advertising agencies to become a “funny-pages futurist,” producing the syndicated Sunday comic strip Closer Than We Think for the Chicago Tribune—New York News Syndicate from 1958 to 1963.

In this episode we meet Douglas M. Stewart Jr. and the other producers of Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With the Future, a 2019 documentary about Bonestell, as well as Brett Ryan Bonowicz, maker of Closer Than We Think, a 2018 documentary about Radebaugh. And we hear from veteran science journalist Victor McElheny, who lived through (and documented) the era when Bonestell and Radebaugh were creating their visions of space and the future.

The episode argues that futurist art, done well, can become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. It can teach consumer and citizens what to want and expect—whether that’s moon bases or self-driving cars or talking refrigerators—and it can inspire at least few people to become the scientists and engineers who actually go out and build those things.

For more background and resources, including images by Chesley Bonestell and Arthur Radebaugh and a full transcript of the episode, check out the full show notes at soonishpodcast.org.

Chapter Guide

0:21 Under the Golden Gate Bridge
1:18 A Glimpse Into the Future
3:56 How Come I Never Heard of Chesley Bonestell?
4:37 Meet Arthur Radebaugh
6:45 Round Table Interview with Douglas Stewart, Christopher Darryn, and Kristina Hays
9:43 Mars as Seen from Deimos
11:50 Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future Trailer
13:30 Destination Moon
15:13 Working with Wernher von Braun
17:03 Commercial Instinct
18:03 Romantic Rockets
20:20 Midroll Announcement: Support Soonish on Patreon
22:09 Brett Ryan Bonowicz
25:12 Influencing the Jetsons
26:21 Extremely Fast and Incredibly Closer Than We Think
29:54 Imagining Catastrophe
31:21 Conclusion: Competing Styles of Visual Futurism
32:45 End Credits and Announcements

The Soonish opening theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. All additional music is by Titlecard Music and Sound.

Soonish is a proud founding member of Hub & Spoke, a Boston-based collective of smart, idea-driven nonfiction podcasts. Learn more at hubspokeaudio.org.

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