Thursday, March 05, 2009

Between imagination and reality

I wonder to what extent Chesley Bonestell influenced the person I am today?

Chesley who?

Chesley Bonestell, the artist whose vividly realistic paintings of outer space graced the covers and pages of magazines like Life and Colliers in the late-1940s, just as I reached the age where a boy's imagination is drawn to themes of adventure and exploration. Bonestell worked with Werner von Braun, who lived and worked just down the road from my Chattanooga home, in Huntsville, Alabama. With von Braun's guidance, he gave us paintings of rocket flights to the Moon and Mars. His influence was probably equal to von Braun's in jump-starting the American space program and actually putting a man on the Moon.

Oh Lordy, how I poured over those paintings (click to enlarge). And when I wasn't looking at the paintings, I was looking up at the stars. I may have got my love for the night sky from my father, who taught me the constellations at an even younger age, but it was Bonestell who turned points of light into worlds meant to be explored. I've been learning about and writing about the night sky ever since.

Bonestell was the bridge between Buck Rogers and John Glenn, between Flash Gordon and Neil Armstrong, between imagination and reality. That may be the trickiest bridge in the world to cross -- to get to firm, reliable knowledge on the other side without leaving behind the child's sense of wonder. Negotiating that bridge has been the great theme of my life as a teacher and writer, and of this blog.

The bridge, of course, is science, the empirical way of knowing, the most reliable way humans have yet invented to separate what we wish to be true from what is real. Chesley Bonestell took me by the hand and walked me onto the bridge.