Print Study Room: Reading the Cosmos

‘Reading the Cosmos,’ a Scribner Seminar with Assistant Professor of English Maggie Greaves

In their Scribner Seminar “Reading the Cosmos,” Skidmore College first-year students undertook an interdisciplinary study of the universe. Through explorations of Greek cosmology, the sublime, Einstein, and the Space Age, students charted a literary and cultural history of the cosmos.

Students drew on their insights in the course to write labels for NASA photographs in the Tang collection. The class conducted additional research to curate a selection of photographs around four major themes in space exploration: Aesthetics, Space, Nation, & Empire, Planet Earth, and Space, Childhood and Play. They also created a space playlist ranging from Gustav Holst to Beyoncé. Enjoy the results of their work below.

Reading the Cosmos Playlist

Anchor name: Aesthetics


This picture of a Moon rock was captured by James Irwin during the Apollo 15 lunar mission. The visually dull Moon rock is displayed in a pyramid with the vastness of space as its background. The placement of this rock in the middle of the pyramid aesthetically elevates the plain gray object. The pyramid is strategically pointed towards space and evokes the United States’ achievement of breaking the “final frontier.” The image’s impact also comes out of ancient associations. The Pythagoreans of ancient Greece gave a lot of importance to perfect geometrical shapes, including triangles, and understood the structure of the harmonious universe through these shapes.

The pyramid also brings to mind Egyptian history and astronomy. The ancient Egyptians studied the sky in order to analyze the stars and accurately align their pyramids with Earth’s four cardinal points, and the Pyramid of Giza was among the seven wonders of the world. This rock’s aesthetic thus encompasses many cultures, and the addition of the Moon rock to the middle of it is a symbol of America presenting itself as the conqueror and successor of the other great civilizations.

  • Giovanni Peyo ’24
Photograph of the planet Saturn and its rings that is labeled with the planet name as well as “Hubble Heritage.”
NASA, HST View of Saturn, Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, 1998, chromogenic print on paper, Tang Teaching Museum, promised gift of Jack Shear, EL2019.1.350
Giovanni Peyo ’24
This picture, taken by NASA’s Hubble Telescope, shows Saturn, the sixth planet in our solar system and possibly the most beautiful one. Its colors, which appear to be a mix of yellow and purple, contribute greatly to its beauty. Ancient civilizations thought highly of Saturn. For instance, the Egyptians named this planet after their God of light, Horus, who often appeared in the form of a hawk; the Romans gave it its original name after the Roman god of harvest and time, based on the Greek titan Cronos. Saturn is also the most distant planet visible to the naked eye, which makes it even more special and a must-see while stargazing. Saturn possesses rings that are, still to this day, a mystery for many astronomers. The ring’s aesthetic reminds us that many unimagined beautiful sights in the far reaches of the galaxy have yet to be discovered.
Black and white photograph of the moon partially covered by darkness on the bottom third.
NASA, Gibbous Moon, Manned Spacecraft Center, Houston, Texas, 1960, black and white print on paper, Tang Teaching Museum, promised gift of Jack Shear, EL2019.1.116
Sophia Mehta ’24
The photograph Gibbous Moon was taken using a telescope at the Pic du Midi Observatory in 1960. To the naked eye, the Moon often appears as a glowing orb in the sky, but with a telescope, the viewer can make out much more nuance and detail. This photo showcases the Moon’s beautifully textured and patterned surface with its craters and firework marks. It features darker patches and lighter ones. With its thinner atmosphere, every crater strike and collision on the Moon is still visible, enabling the viewer to see so much of the past at once that it’s almost like looking back in time.
This image depicts NASA’s first space station, Skylab, ethereally orbiting Earth. The faces of the prime crew members are superimposed in a circular formation around the vessel. The image is brightly lit: both Earth and the space station brilliantly reflect the sun’s rays. This detail makes the image more inviting, more accessible to the average viewer. This detail is aided by the general “travel brochure” style in the image, with its fanciful portrayal of a space mission. It is not photorealistic, but an edited, idealized version. The author of the photo is intentionally trying to make space look like the future and an inviting one at that.

While NASA is trying to portray space in a futuristic light, the ideas of these aesthetics are ancient. The ring of astronaut portraits around the space station evokes the image of a sphere, and by association, Pythagorean “sacred geometry.“ A sphere is one of the five shapes that Greek mathematicians regarded as “sacred.” The Greeks believed that these shapes fit between the six known planets orbiting the sun, and were the product of cosmic intervention, or in other words, the work of God. The sacred shape made up of astronaut’s faces, surrounding the space station implies the might of humanity—now that we are in space, we are like gods. This image employs these tactics in its aesthetic to create a view of space that is enticing, fascinating, and displays human ingenuity.

  • Zack Barnet ’24
A group photograph of seven men in shiny silver space suits pose for a portrait in front of a blue background.
NASA, Astronaut Group I, Johnson Space Center, Houston Texas, 1962, chromogenic print on paper, Tang Teaching Museum, promised gift of Jack Shear, EL2019.1.19
Zack Barnet ’24
This image depicts the first look at the crew of the Mercury mission, who were the original seven astronauts that NASA showed to the American public. They are wearing spacesuits, but they look quite different than the white suits used on the first manned mission to space in 1961. Instead, these suits are a metallic silver material, reminiscent of iconic images in science fiction. The flashy attire, with matching silver boots looks as though it is trying to appear futuristic. In reality, these suits were the earliest model and lacked a life support system in the suit—making it useless outside the spacecraft. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the suits look straight out of a cheesy science fiction movie. The silver fabric, while practically designed to reflect radiant heat, also suggests futuristic technology. This wardrobe choice enforces the idea that NASA wanted to portray their space program as the future, one that is both innovative and promising.
Photograph of an astronaut as they work on a piece of equipment attached to a large mechanical object in space.
NASA, STS-37 Onboard View, Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, 1991, chromogenic print on paper, Tang Teaching Museum, promised gift of Jack Shear, EL2019.1.292
Sophia Mehta ’24
This image depicts the Arthur Holly Compton Gamma Ray Observatory still attached to the Space Shuttle Atlantis. The mission launched on April 5, 1991, but when the observatory was deployed three days later, the antenna didn’t extend properly. Here, an astronaut can be seen manually extending the antenna that enables the observatory to send readings back to Earth.
Anchor name: Space Nation Empire

Space, Nation, & Empire

Pictured here is astronaut John W. Young saluting the American flag on the moon’s surface. Captured in 1972, this image must be considered while acknowledging the political climate caused by the ongoing Cold War. Although never engaging in physical combat, tensions left over from World War II caused the United States and the Soviet Union to fight to solidify their stance as Earth’s most powerful country in a competition of technological advancement. The most desirable conquest was the Moon, as both powers believed that whomever landed first would be deemed the superior country.

After the success of the Apollo-11 mission, the United States was able to assert its authority over the Soviet Union by winning the space race and successfully landing a man on the moon. As for this particular image, taken during the Apollo-16 mission, its composition emphasizes the American man and flag as the pinnacle of the image with the rover in the background, illustrating the United States’ progression into modernity and thus their technological superiority over the world’s other leading powers. The light casts an angelic glow over the subject, solidifying its representation American success and power as they further exert their superiority over the Soviet Union over the coming decades.

  • Julia Siegert ’24
A photograph of an astronaut standing atop a piece of equipment in space with the earth and clouds in the background.
NASA, 41-B ONBOARD Onboard Scene of EVA, Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, 1984, chromogenic print on paper, Tang Teaching Museum, promised gift of Jack Shear, EL2019.1.288
Julia Siegert ’24
Astronaut Bruce McCandless II walks serenely above stationary cargo during the Challenger expedition in 1984. McCandless’ figure climbs steadily forward, evoking a sense of triumph as he leaves behind Earth’s familiar oceans in pursuit of extraterrestrial knowledge. The image itself almost replicates the American flag, with an abundance of white, speckled navy and two stripes of crimson on McCandless’s suit, serving as perfect propaganda to raise funding for NASA as well as cultivate an unbridled patriotism in American citizens.
Black and white photograph of a group of men surrounding two men at microphones.
NASA, Post-flight Award, Rose Garden, White House, Washington, DC, 1961, black and white print on paper, Tang Teaching Museum, promised gift of Jack Shear, EL2019.1.72
Johanna Meezan ’24
This photograph shows President Kennedy congratulating an astronaut surrounded by other important figures in space exploration, all of whom are professionally dressed white men. The space program’s public image is not a diverse one. From the astronauts who were sent to the Moon to the presidents who sent them there, the expected face of space travel was a clean-cut white man. This homogeneity promotes a very different image from what American national ideals seem to value. Although NASA suggested that space is in reach of everyone, it’s clear that those involved in the space race were a much more selective group of a specific breed of white men. So, although the space program was supposed to present a united front against its enemies, it presented a front that incorporated only a fraction of the country’s population.
These seven men were part of Project Mercury, the United States’ first human spaceflight program. The intention of Project Mercury was to put a man into orbit, ideally before the Soviet Union did. The media introduced these men to the public as the “Mercury Seven.” Life magazine, specifically, worked to present these astronauts as celebrities in an attempt to garner the American public’s support of the space program. Making space flight palatable to the public through an introduction to those that pilot these flights effectively served as a way to bring positive attention to this space endeavor.
The three images pictured here are of Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman sent to space. Jemison first applied to the space program in 1985 and was accepted by NASA in 1987, five years before she would venture into orbit. The first portrait here is of Jemison in training the year she was accepted, and the second and third are from 1992 before and during her time in space. Prior to her career as an astronaut, Jemison had formed an impressive resume. At only sixteen, Jemison attended Stanford University, where she earned both a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering and a Bachelor of Arts degree in African and African American studies. Dr. Jemison then received her Doctorate in Medicine from Cornell Medical School and went on to intern at the Los Angeles County Medical Center, eventually running her own private medical practice.
A photograph of a man in a blue shirt who is reading a newspaper headlined “Astronauts Safe!”
NASA, Apollo 13 Recovery View, South Pacific Ocean, 1970, chromogenic print on paper, Tang Teaching Museum, promised gift of Jack Shear, EL2019.1.9
Johanna Meezan ’24
This photograph depicts Apollo 13 Commander James A. Lovell Jr. reading a newspaper article with the headline “Nixon to Greet them Here // Astronauts Safe!” Apollo 13 is remembered as a patriotic mission, as American ingenuity and leadership brought the astronauts home safely after their spaceship exploded on its journey to the Moon. The space program took on the role of promoting American patriotism and national ideals that continued even after the Apollo program ended. For example, President George H.W. Bush explained the importance of going to Mars by stating, “Because it is humanity’s destiny to strive, to seek, to find. And because it’s America’s destiny to lead.” The Trump administration’s Space Force, as a new branch of the U.S. Armed Services, extends this patriotism in a more obviously militant way.
Anchor name: Planet Earth

Planet Earth

“The Blue Marble” was taken in 1972 by the Apollo 17 crew and was the first image of the Earth in its entirety. Since being photographed, the image has become iconic as the best photo of our planet and is one of the most widely distributed photos in existence. “The Blue Marble” did an incredible job capturing the beauty of our planet, and greatly changed the worldwide view of the Earth. The photo was taken about 18,000 miles away from the Earth’s surface and focused on most of Africa and the Mediterranean Sea. The original picture was taken upside down, with Antarctica at the “North” end. However, when the photo was distributed it was commonly flipped to show the Earth facing “right-side-up.” Technically there is no “up” in space, so the photo was flipped to show the Earth oriented in the direction that we are used to imagining it.

“The Blue Marble” quickly became one of the most popular photos used for environmental protection movements. When released, the photo struck a chord with those who saw it. The wonder that came with seeing our planet in its entirety for the first time helped kick off the environmental movement. On a day-to-day basis, when we didn’t know what the planet looked like, it was common to disconnect from the idea that the Earth was after all a beautifully complex planet. Viewing the full Earth was an experience that stuck with people, and it led to a more public appreciation of the environment. After its release, pieces such as the iconic “Love your mother” poster began to circulate, using “The Blue Marble” as the centerpiece of their movement.

—Hayden Merz ’24

Photographic portrait of a man in a space suit smiling with one hand on a globe and an image of a galaxy in the background.
NASA, James A. Lovell, Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, 1969, chromogenic print on paper, Tang Teaching Museum, promised gift of Jack Shear, EL2019.1.337
Celeste Farrell ’24
This photo of American astronaut James A. Lovell was taken in 1969 in the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. While working as a common module pilot on the Apollo 8 mission in 1968, Lovell became the first person to fly to and orbit the Moon. Lovell went on to command the failed Apollo 13 lunar mission in 1970, making him the first person to fly to the Moon twice. The image depicts Lovell with his hand over a globe model of the Moon. The model is labelled with details of the different craters that dot the surface of the Moon. Lovell is dressed in a spacesuit, without the helmet, and with a large image of the American flag embroidered on the left sleeve of his suit.
Photograph of a rocket on a launch pad in the distance with shrubbery and swampy water in the foreground.
NASA, Apollo 17 Roll Out, Cape Kennedy Florida, 1972, chromogenic print on paper, Tang Teaching Museum, promised gift of Jack Shear, EL2019.1.212
Emily Hay ’24
Apollo 17 Roll Out was taken at a ground-level view of the space vehicle as it arrived on the pad on August 28, 1972, waiting for launch. The Apollo 17 mission was the last one to land on the moon in NASA’s Apollo program and also included the first scientist-astronaut to land on the moon. The astronauts spent three days exploring the lunar surface collecting samples and photographs. However, this image represents the beginning of the end for lunar exploration and a return to planet Earth. By the end of the mission, public interest had shifted from space to other pressing issues of the time period, like the Vietnam War.

Floating into space is the greatest fear of many astronauts. In 1984, Bruce McCandless left the hub of the Challenger in the first-ever nitrogen propelled jet pack, untethered from the spaceship. The STS-41-B mission sent a man “free-flying” into space. Humans until this point, never safely managed to fully disconnect, physically, from Earth and live to share the experience.

His first EVA lasted 5 hours and 55 minutes, and he went out for a second time 2 days later for 6 hours and 17 minutes. McCandless also was the first to use the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), testing its ability on long tetherless spacewalks. McCandless described his experience: “It was a wonderful feeling, a mix of personal elation and professional pride: it had taken many years to get to that point.”

He also remarked that despite being told it would be calming and peaceful, the spacewalk was anything but: “With three radio links saying, ‘How’s your oxygen holding out?’, ‘Stay away from the engines!’ and ‘When’s my turn?’, it wasn’t that peaceful.” The photo shows the first human being to experience being fully untethered from a spacecraft, floating above our planet with nothing but a suit separating him and the emptiness of the cosmos. This spacewalk marked another advancement in our steps towards the stars and away from our home.

  • Hayden Merz ’24 and Milan Lombardo ’24
Photograph taken from the moon, where the moon surface is in the foreground and the earth is rising in the distance.
NASA, Apollo 8 Earthrise View, Manned Spacecraft Center, Houston, Texas, 1968, chromogenic print on paper, Tang Teaching Museum, promised gift of Jack Shear, EL2019.1.180
Milan Lombardo ’24
The photograph Earthrise, was taken by William Anders during the Apollo 8 mission on December 24th, 1968. The unique timing of the capturing of this image, being taken on Christmas Eve, caused Earthrise to be received as a gift to humanity, and a sign of a new age for the world. To fully emphasize the message behind Earthrise, the shifting of the tides and the dawning of a new age, the orientation of the picture was flipped from the original orientation of Earth being on the left of the moon, to the Earth being directly above the moon. The switch in orientation was designed to elicit a feeling of Earth rising from the abyss and to highlight the shift of an era of technological advancements and cultural shifts.
Black and white photograph of the moon’s surface, looks like a desert with a large rock and astronaut standing on one side the rock with a lunar roving vehicle on the other side.
NASA, Apollo 17, EVA Photomosaic, Manned Spacecraft Center, Houston, Texas, 1972, black and white print on paper, Tang Teaching Museum, promised gift of Jack Shear, EL2019.1.208
Celeste Farrell ’24
This photograph was taken during the Apollo 17 lunar mission, the final lunar mission in NASA’s Apollo program. In the bottom right, the image depicts American astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt standing next to a large split boulder on the Moon’s surface. The lunar rover can be seen parked on the left side of the boulder. Beyond the lunar boulder, desolate land and smooth hills show how empty the Moon is. The background of the sky is completely black, not a star to be seen, due to the surface glare of the light from the sun shining on the Moon.
Anchor name: Space Childhood Play

Space, Childhood and Play

The man in this photo is Apollo 1 astronaut Roger B. Chaffee with his Apollo 1 rocket model. This picture was taken in 1964, three years prior to the tragic fire that swept through the command module during a preflight test. Although all three astronauts on the rocket died, their deaths inspired innovation and the pursuit of perfection by NASA. This newly found motivation led to the successful landing on the Moon by the Apollo 11 mission team. The image captures some of the childlike wonder and optimism around the space program, despite its dangers and tragedies.

Chaffee is holding the model with both hands, smiling in delight, almost like a child showing off his creation at a science fair or holding onto their favorite toy. The sense of pride Chaffee’s body language displays leaves viewers relating back to a proud and passionate student showing off the product of their hard work, grit, and determination.

  • Eddie Dunhill ’24
Black and white photograph of seven men surrounding and looking at a model of a rocket on a table.
NASA, title unknown (Mercury Astronauts), n.d., black and white print on paper, Tang Teaching Museum, promised gift of Jack Shear, EL2019.83
Maddie Gunnell ’24
In this photo, a group of Mercury astronauts examines a model of the Atlas Booster and Mercury Capsule. The Mercury Capsule was meant to be launched into space and orbit the Earth. Many of these men look amused and happy, while some gaze in intense concentration. While this photo depicts scientists examining a model rocket that they made, it simply looks like a group of grown men playing with a toy rocket. This lack of focus on the complicated science associated with building a rocket makes the amusement of the men all the more noticeable. The childlike wonder that fills some of these men’s faces exemplifies the pure joy and excited curiosity that they are experiencing while working on this project.
This large tin box, named the “Hornet +3,” is for quarantining returning astronauts who have just returned from a trip to space – astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin Aldrin Jr., pictured inside the box, were aboard the first successful moon landing Apollo 11. The photograph shows the three men with large childlike grins as they talk with President Nixon who is welcoming them back from their long adventure.

The seal on the front says, “Of the President of the United States Seal.” The photograph radiates a joyful, celebratory mood in line with the Apollo mission’s goal to stir public enthusiasm and funding for the space program. The quarantine box also resembles a box theatre. These smiling astronaut “puppets” seem like they would put on an entertaining performance for all ages, awing children with the wonders of space.

  • Hanna Nally ’24
Black and white photograph of an astronaut on the moon saluting the American flag surrounded by foot prints with a lunar lander in the background.
NASA, Apollo 16 EVA, Manned Spacecraft Center, Houston, Texas, 1972, black and white print on paper, Tang Teaching Museum, promised gift of Jack Shear, EL2019.1.213
Eddie Dunhill ’24

This photo shows Charles Duke, an Apollo 16 astronaut moonwalking and saluting the American flag. The impression of the moonwalk is very playful. The weight-losing effect of low gravity makes something as mundane as walking look like skipping. The picture is reminiscent of a child playing make-believe, imagining he too is exploring the cosmos.

The moonwalk attracted the admiration of not only people in the United States, but all across the planet. Then in 1983, Michael Jackson debuted a gravity-defying moonwalk of his own. Jackson’s legendary move left an everlasting footprint on pop culture, and left America’s youth with the same sense of wonder and amazement that the original moonwalk had eleven years before.

A photograph of a child's toy of Snoopy the dog dressed as an astronaut propped to the right of the box it came in.
Snoopy Astronaut toy, 1969, from Nate D. Sanders Auctions, last accessed November 11, 2020 (click for link to image source)
This Snoopy astronaut doll was the most popular Christmas gift in 1969. With the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, popular culture, especially children’s popular culture, was obsessed with astronauts. Snoopy is an iconic character of the popular children’s cartoon Charlie Brown. Snoopy is sporting a spacesuit and his red scarf, and he carries an oxygen tank. NASA, in collaboration with Determined Products, used this Snoopy toy to promote their internal safety campaign. The colors of the toy—red, white, and blue—are inherently American. The inclusion of these colors in the toy highlights the idea of America at the forefront of the space race through the all-American Snoopy character. Through this toy and many like it, exploring space is marketed as an important part of childhood. It also establishes an astronaut as a dream career for children, instituting interest in space science in younger generations who will grow up to inherit space.
Orange fleece onesie pajamas with a hood, with decorative NASA patches.
Girls’ Astronaut Micro Fleece Union Suit, Cat & Jack™, Target online, last accessed November 11, 2020 (click for link to image source)
This garment represents today’s standards of an astronaut’s style from a child’s perspective. The space-themed onesie has NASA patches randomly placed across the front with a hood designed to represent an astronaut’s helmet included with the reflection of a shooting star. As one example of space merchandise marketed for young children, this mass-produced onesie (sold at Target) suggests that little astronauts should dream of the stars and grow up to reach them.
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