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Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1969 moon landing at the Norman Rockwell Museum

Norman Rockwell was likely entrenched in his daily routine on that long-ago summer afternoon, one that included riding his bike down Main Street and observing passersby from the expansive northern-facing windows of his second-floor studio in Stockbridge.

Stockbridge — It was 10:56 p.m. EDT July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong became the first human to step foot on the surface of the moon; 240,000 miles from Earth, with an audience of more than 650 million people watching from home, Armstrong radioed the words that, if only for a moment, made America pause: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” he said after stepping off the lunar landing module Eagle while co-pilot Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. looked on. A scant seven hours prior, at 4:17 p.m. EDT, gatherings across America were interrupted to report the touch down of Apollo 11’s lunar module: Major League baseball was suspended momentarily, and a crowd of 31,174 heard the news at Fenway Park where the Orioles were playing the Red Sox—when a public address was made two minutes later, the crowd began an ovation that lasted 57 seconds.

Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. walks on the surface of the moon July 20, 1969. Photo: Neil Armstrong, courtesy National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Norman Rockwell was likely entrenched in his daily routine on that long-ago summer afternoon, one that included riding his bike down Main Street and observing passersby from the expansive northern-facing windows of his second-floor studio in Stockbridge. He had already painted 323 covers for the Saturday Evening Post—a relationship that spanned 47 years—including the 1927 celebration of Charles Lindbergh’s crossing of the Atlantic. When Rockwell ended his relationship with the Post in 1963, he began doing covers for Look magazine; it was at this time that the focus of his work shifted as well. Rockwell turned his attention to the social issues facing America, and his work centered on themes surrounding poverty, race and the Vietnam War. It came as no surprise that capturing the dusty imprint of Neil Armstrong’s feet upon the surface of the moon would have captivated the 75-year-old illustrator’s attention in the summer of 1969; it was, after all, yet another slice of life Rockwell had become synonymous with capturing.

Shortly after the safe return of the astronauts and their Eagle capsule (which took place July 24), Rockwell was invited to the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas. It was August 1969, and the Berkshire-based illustrator had been tasked with conducting research and taking photos for the commissioned illustration “Moon Landing.” Rockwell had already worked with the NASA Art Program team twice before, creating imagery that included a 1967 “precursor” painting of what the moon landing might look like, titled “Man’s First Step on the Moon.”

Rockwell was a stickler for minute details; in each of his commissions with NASA, he went so far as to meet the astronauts and tour mission control, training grounds and full-size lunar test modules. For his 1965 painting “Grissom and Young,” he even pleaded for access to the actual space suit. According to the history of NASA’s art program, Rockwell “desperately wanted a spacesuit” so he could get all the details in his painting of Grissom and Young suiting up for the Gemini 3 mission. But NASA officials refused on the grounds that there was a lot of secret technology in the suits and they couldn’t release one. Dean (James Dean, director of NASA’s art program) worked as the go-between. “I had Deke Slayton mad at me on one side and Norman Rockwell aggravated at me on the other,” Dean recalled. “The compromise was that a technician accompanied the suit up to Rockwell’s studio and sat with it every day as Rockwell worked. The technician’s reward was to be included in the piece as one of the people helping the astronauts.” (Rebecca Maksel, airspacemag.com. May 27, 2011)

The iconic poster for the 1969 Woodstock festival, designed by Arnold Skolnick, is part of the Norman Rockwell Museum’s ‘Woodstock to the Moon: 1969 Revisited’ exhibit. Image courtesy Norman Rockwell Museum

Rockwell ultimately created a stunning depiction of Armstrong standing on the moon’s surface, with Aldrin descending from the lunar module. His 1969 painting titled “The Final Impossibility: Man’s Tracks on the Moon” captures the historic moment when Armstrong uttered the garbled words into his radio that were beamed to Houston and would become etched into the minds of millions. The piece was commissioned for Look magazine’s Dec. 30, 1969, issue and by special arrangement with NASA. Thanks to a special loan from the collection of the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Rockwell’s original oil painting—rife with a deeply textured, inky background punctuated by glittering globs of paint stars—is currently on view in Stockbridge. The Norman Rockwell Museum’s exhibition “Woodstock to the Moon: 1969 Illustrated” includes numerous objects related to the moon walk including a photograph taken by Armstrong of Aldrin walking on the moon, a NASA lunar lander from the 1960s, and many illustrations. Furthermore, the exhibit immerses visitors in a historic year that saw the Woodstock Music Festival unfold in Bethel, New York; aired the debut of “Sesame Street” on public broadcasting television stations; and marked the publication of two iconic children’s books: “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle and “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble” by William Steig. And a replica 1960s-era living room—complete with plaid love seat and wood-paneled television console—evokes the space in which millions of American families must have watched the Apollo 11 mission unfold, with proverbially bated breath, over the course of nine summer days in 1969.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019, the Norman Rockwell Museum is dedicated to education and art appreciation inspired by the legacy of Norman Rockwell. The museum holds the world’s largest and most significant collection of art and archival materials relating to Rockwell’s life and work while also preserving, interpreting and exhibiting a growing collection of art by other American illustrators throughout history. The museum will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1969 moon landing Saturday, July 20, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a special gallery talk at 2 p.m. that focuses on Rockwell’s painting “The Final Impossibility: Man’s Tracks on the Moon.” Visitors can experience “one giant leap for mankind” through original art, photographs and archival footage on display at the museum through Sunday, Oct 27, 2019.


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