Art on the Moon - Fallen Astronaut

Art on the Moon - Fallen Astronaut
Did you know there are artworks on the Moon? The Moon Museum hitched a ride attached to Apollo 12's lunar module. But the Fallen Astronaut statuette lies on the Moon's surface. Here's how it got there.

Fallen Astronaut
In the early afternoon of August 2, 1971, Apollo 15 commander David Scott and lunar module pilot James Irwin had parked the lunar rover and set up the camera to film their ascent from the Moon. But just before they returned to the lunar module, Scott — quietly and off camera — laid two items on the rim of Hadley Rille.

Commander Scott photographed the two items. Fallen Astronaut is an aluminum figure 8.5 cm (3.3 in) in length. Its companion is a plaque with fourteen names. Together they formed a tribute to astronauts who had died.

Irwin knew what Scott was doing behind the rover, but Mission Control didn't. When asked what was happening, Irwin replied, “Oh, just cleaning up the back of the Rover here a little.” NASA was informed on their return to Earth. The deed was then mentioned in the post-mission press conference without naming the artist.

Belgian artist and space enthusiast Paul Van Hoeydonck met David Scott, and Jim Irwin and his family at a private dinner two months before the Apollo 15 launch. It had been arranged through the Waddell gallery who exhibited Van Hoeydonck's work in New York. By the end of a sociable evening Scott and Irwin wanted the artist to make a statuette for them to take to the Moon. Van Hoeydonck was thrilled.

They thought they were in agreement, but evidently their conviviality had blurred the details.

The astronaut
Scott wanted to commemorate American astronauts — his friends — who had died, but also their Soviet counterparts. He would get a plaque made with their names. This could have been controversial at the height of the Cold War, but didn't seem to be an issue.

They told Van Hoeydonck that they wanted an astronaut figure, but one without reference to a specific gender or ethnic group. Obviously, in order to go to the moon, it would have to be lightweight because of the tight weight restrictions involved. And it would need to withstand the lunar environment in which temperatures can vary by over 400 °C (750 °F) between lunar night and lunar day.

Because of strict policies regarding commercial exploitation of the space program, and Scott's strong feelings about the tribute, Van Hoeydonck wouldn't be named.

The artist
The theme of much of Van Hoeydonck's work was space, for which he was a passionate advocate. In a 1965 exhibition he proclaimed “The most romantic place on Earth is Cape Kennedy.” He envisaged his figurine representing humanity, and expected it to be upright, looking at the stars that are our destiny. He hadn't agreed to name it Fallen Astronaut.

Furthermore far from agreeing to remain forever anonymous, he expected to become “bigger than Picasso” and to be the artistic inspiration for space exploration. He was greatly disappointed when neither Scott nor NASA named him as the creator of his work.

Honor or insult?
Van Hoeydonck had been omitted from the story. His work had been hijacked and named without consulting him. It got worse in November. The Smithsonian requested from Scott a replica of the statuette to display in the National Air and Space Museum. Although the astronauts still considered the memorial an almost private event for the space community, they agreed to it as long as it was displayed “with good taste and without publicity”.

Scott sent the artist a note, passing on the museum's request. Bam! The divergent understanding of astronaut and artist clashed head on.

Rather than feeling honored by the request, Van Hoeydonck was insulted. First of all, it was sent to the astronauts because the museum didn't know about him. And their definition of an exact replica was one “made to the same dimensions, material, finish and appearance by the same workman.” So the artist was merely a workman? In an interview he said that if he was the “workman”, then Scott was just “the postman”.

Going public
Nonetheless Van Hoeydonck did make the Smithsonian's requested replica, and was publicly acknowledged on April 16, 1972. As Apollo 16 was launched, he was Walter Cronkite's guest on CBS. He spoke briefly about the statue, and the following day presented the replica to the museum.

Capitalism vs NASA
The Waddell gallery was in financial difficulties. They persuaded Van Hoeydonck to allow a series of signed replicas of the figure to be made and sold at $750 each. Waddell and Van Hoeydonck realized that Scott would be displeased. (He was!) In an interview with the New York Times Richard Waddell said, “At this point we decided, to hell with Scott. This is a capitalist country. If we can make money on this, why not?”

Although they weren't dissuaded by Scott, NASA was another matter. Van Hoeydonck revoked his permission after two long interviews with the inspectors NASA sent to Belgium.

The figurine was mentioned in a minor scandal about postal covers carried on Apollo 15. The astronauts were called to a Senate hearing, but eventually exonerated. They also received a mild reprimand from NASA. Replicas weren't sold, but a few are in museums. Art critics were derisive, and the public didn't take to Van Hoeydonck. Indeed, after the early excitement, the fickle public had become bored with space.

CS Powell & LG Shapiro, "The Sculpture on the Moon", DEC. 16 2013

You Should Also Read:
Art on the Moon - Moon Museum
Astronauts - in Memoriam
Exploring the Apollo Landing Sites

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