• 12.10.12

Making The Impossible Approachable: The Amazing Illustrations Of NASA’s Storyboarder

What if your job was to make sweeping, cinematic images of planned NASA missions? Pat Rawlings, professional space artist, gives us a lesson in finding the story in science.

So there’s a project you’re excited about, but you lack funding. You go to the money people, ready to pitch them your idea. There’s just one little hump: Your project costs billions of dollars.


This is a problem that NASA actually faces. And for a pitch meeting like that, you need serious firepower to get people excited. That’s where Pat Rawlings comes in. For 30 years, Rawlings has made, for NASA and others, beautiful illustrations intended to capture the excitement and drama of outer space. He is, in a real sense, NASA’s storyboarder. Co.Create caught up with Rawlings for a little retrospective on his career, and to find out what lessons in creativity we might draw from his curious line of work.

(“First Response,” 1992)

Think Cinematically

“To help convince these people they want to buy what my client is selling, my job is to become a visual storyteller. If you look through my artwork, I try as much as possible to make the pictures look like they’re one climactic part out of a movie. ‘First Response’ has a whole story embedded in it. This is a picture of a couple physicians or flight surgeons on the moon, and they’ve been called out to an emergency where a person was assembling an antenna up on a crater rim on the upper right, and he fell over, a 90-foot drop. In 1/6 G that’s like a 17-foot drop on Earth, enough to break a femur. One flight surgeon is looking at a heads-up display with the broken bone projected on the inside of the helmet, while the other is giving the guy an injection through a resealable bladder in the arm of his suit. There’s a whole little story I had to think of, that I had to capture that in one still image.”

“First Light,” 1988

To Make the New Familiar, Tap Tradition

“This image [“First Light,” which depicts the first human travelers to Mars exploring the enormous Noctis Labyrinthus canyon system] is based on topographic maps, and is very accurate. But I was able to turn it into what looks like one of the romantic Hudson River Valley paintings. The Hudson River School is a school of artists that has heavily influenced space artists. They worked in the 1800s when the West was just being explored. When you start a space picture, you try to think of historical or terrestrial analogues. You think of all the explorations that have gone before, back to Lewis and Clark and the pioneers that followed the Oregon Trail. What I do is shockingly different to people, but if you can incorporate elements of familiarity in it, it can keep people from keeping it at arm’s length, and it can make them a little more comfortable with the future.”

“2020 Vision,” 1997

Escape the Engineer’s Mindset

“That’s my wife; I used her as a model. This painting [“2020 Vision”] tries to show the moment of discovery, the first time a human being visually sees evidence of life on Mars. That rock had fallen out of the side of the cliff, and she picked it up. She’s an exobiologist, and she knew enough to read the shapes, to see it was actually stromatolites or something. An engineer might have told this story by showing a microscopic picture of a Mars rock and a microscopic picture of Earth rocks that are similar, and by showing orbital aerial views of where we might find those rocks. But I felt that in order to get the message across, I needed to show the powerful human response to it.”


“Twilight Rendezvous,” 1991

Be Steeped in Your Subject Matter

“This [“Twilight Rendezvous”] is one of my first ‘blue moon’ pictures. One challenge I have is that the moon is gray. A white craft in front of a gray moon is not as eye-catching. I got to thinking: If you look up at the moon at night when it’s a thin sliver, you can still see the rest of the moon, because the Earth is bouncing its blue light back. Later I showed this to John Young, the pilot of the lunar lander on Apollo 14, and he said that the Earth’s light was so bright on the moon he could have landed by earthlight alone. If you specialize long enough, you can kind of put yourself into those places, and your brain starts making connections because you’re kind of virtually there. When I’m doing this artwork, I go into a trance. I’m in these other locations, wandering around, picking up rocks, looking around. People would walk in my office and I’d jump a foot in the air–because I wasn’t even in the room.”

“Circle of Life,” 2004

Don’t Be Governed by Statistics

“I did this illustration for the New York Times science section. This particular exosolar planet was ‘tidally locked’ to its star, meaning one face of the planet always faced the star, and the other always faced away. One side was terribly hot and the other was almost cryogenic, but there was a very thin band that potentially had life-supporting temperatures. We started discussing, could I show life or vegetation or greenery? The authors said no, that probably wouldn’t happen. I said, is it impossible? I did some digging around the Internet and found other people talking about the same subject, and sent that information to the editor, and I ended up being able to paint life around it.”

“Rocket’s Red Glare,” 1996

But Constraints Can Set You Free

“I was talking to one of the head engineers with the Mars Pathfinder, and I said, ‘What time of day will it land?’ He said, ‘3 a.m., Mars time. It’ll be pitch black.’ I said, ‘Is there anything in the course of its final landing sequence that gives off any light at all?’ He said, ‘As the aeroshell pulls back, three solid rockets fire.’ That light of the rockets gives a campfire sort of lighting, an almost spotlight effect. It ended up being more dramatic by delving deep into the facts of the landing. The truth will usually give good images. My job is just to find the subset of beautiful stuff out of the truth.”

Rawlings currently works for Eagle Applied Sciences and lives in Austin, Texas. His comments have been condensed and edited. For more images, click through the slideshow at the top of this story, and check out Rawlings’s site.

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.