Before an age of digital cameras, the world had to rely largely on artist renderings to help visualize the various stages of early space travel, particularly the pioneering Apollo 11 mission that took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon 50 years ago this month.
And the artist whose work NASA relied on heavily was WSU alumnus George Mathis.
Mathis graduated from WSU with a degree in art in 1932 and moved to Oakland, California to focus on becoming a commercial artist. Along with his wife Jean, he founded a thriving business in lithography, where he focused on capturing the Old West through his art.
But in 1959, he also started working with the Aerojet corporation, America’s largest producer of rocket engines. Aerojet built the engines for the Apollo and Gemini missions and used the artistic renderings by Mathis to illustrate how the propulsion systems were designed to work. He called the art, “engineering concept” renderings and worked closely with Aerojet’s engineers, who studied the images for technical accuracy.
Back in 1969, with international interest in the Apollo 11 mission soaring, the Mathis renderings were widely broadcast by television networks and published in newspapers and magazines to help explain how the astronauts were actually getting from Earth to the moon.
He worked with Aerojet until 1970. Over the course of his career, he became nationally recognized not only for his work depicting space travel but for his art celebrating scenes of the Old West and the California Gold Rush, earning him the affectionate title of “pictoral historian of the Mother Lode.”
Mathis died in 1977 and his wife and daughter, Carol Mathis, donated his collection of art to WSU libraries in 1991, where it is now stored with Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections.