One small step for man, one giant leap for modern art?
Andy Warhol and five other artists likely left a 1969 calling card — a so-called moon museum of six sketches etched in miniature on a penny-wide ceramic chip — on the Apollo 12 lunar lander, an upcoming PBS show concludes.
"I thought it was crazy, but now I think it really is up there," says Columbia University historian Gwen Wright, host of the June 21 History Detectives(PBS, 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT.) "There is no way to be certain short of looking inside the lander module, but we have some strong evidence."
The show's producers are releasing details of the stowaway art ahead of the show, hoping the pseudonymous "John F.," the Grumman engineer suspected of pulling off the caper, will come forward. A 1969 telegram from "John F." confirming that the art made it aboard Apollo 12 sent to Forrest "Frosty" Myers, a New York artist and the brains behind the art, is one of the show's pieces of evidence.
"For us, at the time, the moon landing was the most exciting thing that ever happened. The artists just wanted to be part of it," says Myers, one of the six artists, including Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, David Novros and John Chamberlain, who made sketches. Representatives of Oldenburg and Chamberlain confirmed to USA TODAY that the artists had contributed to the effort.
During the 1960s, Myers was one of hundreds of New York artists working with Bell Labs engineers on the "Experiments in Arts and Technology" program. Wright traces for PBS how the artists' sketches were shrunk onto rectangular half-inch-by-three-quarter-inch ceramic chips by two Bell Labs engineers, now deceased. Myers and others still have copies. One chip was passed along to a launchpad engineer, the "John F." behind the telegram.
"It's up there," says Richard Kupczyk, who was the Grumman Aircraft launchpad foreman for Apollo 12. Kupczyk says he didn't hide the chip, but he admits for the first time that pad crewmen regularly hid stowaway items on the lander in places where they wouldn't endanger the mission. "Apollo was something bigger than life, and we were all part of it. We wanted to leave a mark."
Apollo 12 was the second moon landing. It touched down Nov. 19, 1969, crewed by Charles Conrad Jr., Richard F. Gordon and Alan Bean. Bean, who has since become an artist, expresses some surprise on the show at the notion of engineers planting trinkets on the landing craft he piloted.
"We're just hoping 'John F.' comes forward," Wright says. "The moon race was just an all-encompassing event at the time, and we think this is a wonderful chapter of that story."