June 13, 2006
– Look up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's the space shuttle!
As comic book fans countdown to the return of Superman in theaters, NASA is preparing the shuttle for its second return to flight mission. Now, a NASA engineer has drawn for the space agency a mission poster that captures the excitement of the pending launch in the style of a classic comic book cover.
Matthew Melis' STS-121 comic book cover inspired poster. (NASA)
Mild-mannered Matthew Melis, who by day works as an aerospace engineer with the Structural Mechanics Group at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, is quick to admit he doesn't have an alter ego as an artist.
"My dad is an artist and I'm not. I don't claim to be," told Melis to collectSPACE. "It took me a long, long time to do [the poster]. I worked on it, on and off, for about six months. A lot of the elements were hand-drawn but a lot of them were manipulated from photographs."
"The clouds, for example, were manipulated from actual photographs I took when I was down in Florida for [the previous mission] STS-114," admits Melis. "The [launch] tower was somewhat hand-drawn but also manipulated graphically."
The idea for the poster, which features shuttle Discovery lifting off the pad, a small silhouette of the STS-121 crew and the typical design elements of a modern comic book cover, came not because Melis collected comics as a kid but as a result of his interest in pop art.
"I've always been interested — because of my dad's art influences — in different pop culture art," said Melis. "I was a big fan of Andy Warhol, so comic book covers, Wheaties boxes, Campbell Soup cans... all of that stuff."
"I collected posters of all sorts of shapes and sizes when I was growing up and I still have a relatively large portfolio of posters that I have saved over the years," said Melis. "So that's sort of where I got the idea."
"The poster kind of has this homage to the whole comic book/science fiction genre, which is, in many ways, the fundamental basis why we go into space, because it's a part of our spirit," explained Melis. "For those of us who are at NASA and are big science fiction fans and just big advocates of the space program, that's who I did this for, because I knew it would grab them."
"With this poster, I'm trying to reinvigorate the spirit and excitement for the launch, for my fellow employees, for the public and everyone — all of NASA's stakeholders."
To get the details of the comic cover right, Melis turned to the racks.
"Even though I read a lot of comic books as a kid, I never collected them. So, I went to Borders [bookstore] last fall and I just sat there all day and looked at all the different comic books, thumbing through them, and then I bought one in particular that had a look and feel to it that I liked."
"I used that as a springboard to jump into designing this one," said Melis.
In addition to the comic book style, Melis also worked to incorporate elements from popular science fiction.
"So I have got the 'Orbital Comics' with the volume and the date in the upper left hand corner and then the 'Space Shuttle' [title], that kind of looks like the old Space 1999 logo — that [1970s TV] series where the Moon blew away from the Earth," described Melis. "And the word 'featuring' on the starburst is done in the Star Trek font."
Melis' movie poster for 2005's Discovery STS-114 mission. (NASA)
In true sci-fi series format, this poster can be seen as a sequel of sorts to Melis' first work, a parody of a movie poster that he did for last year's Discovery mission and that grew very popular with both space workers and the general public.
"I never quite understood why the movie poster worked," revealed Melis. "When I did that, it was never really something I did with the intention of getting a bunch of copies printed. I did it for my buddy, Charlie [Camarda, STS-114 mission specialist] and it just sort of took off."
"But the movie poster was just fantastically successful. There was a blog out about it and people were trying to get it," recounts Melis.
Melis is seeing the beginnings of a similar success for his comic book cover STS-121 poster.
"The crew told me they liked it and I just heard that from them a week ago. In fact, they've not yet seen the full res versions, so I sent them some high res proofs that they can look at. I've not had their reaction yet but I know that they liked it and were excited about it."
"I know that the guys at Kennedy [Space Center] liked it. Ames [Research Center] picked up a bunch. Langley [Research Center] and Johnson Space Center picked up a couple of thousand [each], too. So, they are going to get circulated," said Melis.
"Pretty soon you build momentum, and then everybody wants one. And that's sort of the fun thing about it," Melis concluded.
On a 2005 trip to Kennedy Space Center, Melis stood at the base of Discovery between two solid rocket boosters. (NASA)
The first event to feature the posters will be this Saturday at Glenn Research Center. As part of their second annual Space Memorabilia Show, Melis will attend from 11:00 to 1:00 p.m. to sign copies of his comic book cover for both his fellow employees and the public.
STS-121 is planned to launch on July 1 on a 13-day flight to the International Space Station. Its seven person crew will test new techniques for improving shuttle safety and deliver both supplies and another crewmate to the orbiting outpost. This is NASA's second 'return to flight' since the loss of space shuttle Columbia in February 2003.
To download a high resolution PDF (1.1 mb) of the comic book poster, click here.