The Way It Was Imagined: 1962 LEM

3ds max, gaea, photoshop, illustrator

As the Apollo program was beginning to take shape in the early 1960s, NASA engineers were working to decide among three different methods of landing astronauts on the Moon. The mode called Lunar Orbit Rendezvous was chosen. That meant an entirely new kind of spacecraft had to be developed – one that was specifically designed to land on the Moon, then lift off from the surface and rendezvous with a mother ship in lunar orbit.

Spacecraft designers at NASA's Langley Research Center worked through several designs in the evolution of the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module (LEM). This image depicts one of the earliest LEM designs from 1962. It is shown just after landing on the Moon as it might have been imagined by artists of the time.

About the style

In creating this image, I have emulated some key features of early concept illustrations that were typical of the period. The lunar landscape is dominated by steep mountains, believed to be so shaped because of a combination of the lower gravity on the Moon and the perceived absence of any erosion. The mountains surround a vast level plain which provides a suitable landing field for the lunar module. Directly below the LEM is a pronounced crater excavated by the descent engine exhaust plume. The characteristics of the lunar surface were not well understood at a time prior to the arrival of any unmanned robotic landers. Some scientists speculated there may be a thick layer of dust that might swallow up any spacecraft attempting a landing. I suppose since depicting a half-sunken spacecraft would defeat the purpose of their illustrations (and send the wrong message!) artists sometimes demonstrated the presence of lunar dust by showing the results of it being blown clear of the engine.

Other characteristics of early space illustrations appear above the lunar landscape. The sky is filled with a multitude of brilliant stars visible through the vacuum of space, unobstructed by any atmospheric haze, unlike the night sky as viewed from Earth. While a number of artists included a subtle representation of the Milky Way in their versions of lunar skies, a few deliberately filled their skies with bright cloud-like areas of color. Perhaps they were simply adding interest to what would have otherwise appeared as the virtual blackness of space. I have decided to add such colorful interest to this view.

As was the case with many early space illustrations, the Earth is seen with an absence of clouds. Instead, there is a glowing haze surrounding the globe that perhaps represents the tenuous atmosphere extending into space. Finishing off the image, the Apollo Command and Service modules are shown streaking overhead. I am borrowing a bit of the artistic license that some artists employed at the time, though the orbiting spacecraft would actually appear only as a star like speck if you were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it while on the Moon.