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Chris Foss and the Art of Spaceships
(Note: This essay was drafted in response to a request from BBC journalist Virginia Brown to ask me some questions about artist Chris Foss and his spaceships. A few passages were quoted in her article for BBC Online, "What Should Spaceships Look Like?").

As a general rule, rocket scientists and engineers are familiar with science fiction stories and artwork, and as a general rule, science fiction writers and artists are aware of the work of rocket scientists and engineers. Over the decades, one can sometimes find evidence of an ongoing dialogue, as science fiction predictions influence actual designs, which in turn inspire updated visions of future developments. (In an article for PBS's NOVA Online website, "Inspired by Science Fiction," I discussed such a dialogue involving space stations.)

When he first emerged as a major science fiction artist in the 1970s and 1980s, it is unlikely that Chris Foss was involved in this sort of dialogue, because his paintings appeared almost exclusively on British science fiction books that were never seen by American scientists, or Russian or Chinese scientists for that matter. To be sure, a few Americans (like me) did obtain the American edition of a book he illustrated, Space War, Worlds, and Weapons, and his design of the spaceship Nostromo for the film Alien (1979) possibly influenced some of the highly speculative designs for starships that periodically surface in the media. But almost all of the people who worked on actual space vehicles during that period were undoubtedly not familiar with Foss, and not affected by his visions.

In a way, it is highly unfortunate that NASA engineers of the 1970s were not aware of Foss's artworks, because at the time, they were engaged in designing the space shuttle, a project that was heavily influenced, in my view, by the spaceships of earlier science fiction; these were almost invariably thin, streamlined vehicles that flew into space, landed on other worlds, and returned to Earth to be prepared for their next flight. Although NASA in the 1960s had perfected a different and more workable approach involving smaller, disposable space capsules attached to special landing vehicles, the dreams of science fiction were driving them to what proved a highly impractical design. Indeed, getting the space shuttle to function properly would require the awkward addition of attached, disposable fuel tanks to get the vehicle into orbit, an array of precisely shaped ceramic tiles to protect the vehicle upon reentry, and an array of five computers to achieve a landing, since no human could handle the task. Invariably, this Rube Goldberg sort of design led to production delays, excessive expenses, and eventually two tragedies.

At this point, Foss would have been a salutary influence, because he happily designed spaceships that were bulky and ungainly, and thus better suited for actual space travel than the airplane-like space shuttle. Simultaneously, he made his spaceships beautiful not by streamlining them but by adding bright, decorative colors. Spaceships, everybody knew, had to be made out of metal, which had previously led to an emphasis on the utilitarian and bland color gray, both in science fiction and in actual designs. Foss uniquely recognized that, when spaceships became a part of humanity's everyday life, their pilots and passengers would insist upon more attractive vehicles. One might further speculate that the uniformly drab appearance of earlier spaceships reflected a supposition that they would be primarily employed for military purposes—colonizing other worlds and waging space wars—and hence had to recall battleships, aircraft carriers, and fighter jets. In contrast, while Foss's spaceships might fight a battle or two, they lacked their predecessors' aura of grim utilitarianism, so that one can also envision them carrying cargo, collecting samples of space dust, or taking passengers on a pleasure cruise; he creates, one might say, spaceships for all seasons.

Today, after retiring the space shuttle, NASA has elected to rely upon the engines of private enterprise to propel their future astronauts into space, inviting companies to develop practical vehicles for near and distant space flights that NASA will then subsidize and utilize. And since the Internet and a series of books have finally brought Foss the international reputation that he deserves, there is a new opportunity for him to have an impact on the next generation of spaceships. For Foss can teach engineers that spaceships can be visually appealing without mimicking the unworkably elegant images of earlier science fiction. Indeed, while Foss would obviously be unqualified to assist in the design of a new space vehicle, he might be profitably invited to develop ways to decorate such vehicles in a colorful and striking fashion. Just as some airlines have promoted themselves by painting their airplanes in distinctive ways, an enterprising company seeking to attract government and private passengers might achieve success by offering them spaceships that recalled the unique visions of Chris Foss.

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