Prepared By: Mary C Bangs
Academic Rank: Instructor
Institution and Department: Empire State College Art Department
NASA/MSFC Directorate: In-Space Propulsion Center Operations
MSFC Colleague: Les Johnson
Jack B. Hood


Sun after Michelangelo’s panel in the Sistine Chapel, “Creation of the Plants, Sun and Moon”


This paper describes the design of a poster of the solar system incorporating space-transportation graphics of Tim McElyea [1], for the In-Space Propulsion Research Group of the Advanced Space Transportation Directorate at MSFC. These design concepts represent spacecraft engineered to optimally function under the widely diverse conditions within our solar system.

The poster is designed to combine elements of ancient and modern mythology. Solar-system planets are named after Roman Gods and Goddesses and so refer to the old mythology. NASA has named rockets, spacecraft and missions after figures of the old mythology, in accordance with this tradition.

During research on this project, it became evident that we are updating the old mythology in humankind’s effort to visit and explore the planets in our solar system.

The Old Solar System Mythology

The planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were named during Roman times. “Earth” is closely related to the Old Saxon word ‘ertha’, the Dutch word ’aerde’ and the German word ‘erda’ meaning land. Uranus, Neptune and Pluto were discovered much later; it was decided to name them relating to the pre-existing mythology of the other planets.

In order to arrive at the images for the different planets and moons we might visit, I conducted web searches on Renaissance and European Academy art. The purpose of working off the paintings or sculptures of the mythological figures as they were depicted and widely characterized during the time of the Renaissance and Enlightenment was that they represented an evolution from the Old Mythology.

Venus after Giorgione
“Sleeping Venus

Joseph Campbell observed that the myths created by our ancestors no longer make sense within the context of our modern society. Campbell went even farther to warn us that a society with no contemporary myths in which it can believe is in danger of losing an essential part of humanity…We need new myths to help reflect on the values of our culture, our philosophies, our sciences. For example, new myths can have the ability to incorporate both an understanding and a deep sense of respect for the power of modern science and the accompanying technologies offered us without losing sight of our need to touch one another [2,3].


The modern mythology we have been developing through science fiction, science and technology, continues to grow within our culture. One example is our conflicted reaction to the deciphering of the human genome. Another is the widespread interest in the theories of quantum physics, in particular as they refer to the phenomenon of consciousness.

Earth after Leonardo’s


As stated by Orson Scott Card [4], “speculative fiction—science fiction in particular—is the last American refuge of religious literature…Real religious literature…explores the nature of the universe and discovers the purpose behind it.”

Our Moon after Corregio’s Diana

Since its beginnings, space exploration has had significant mythological overtones. Astronauts and cosmonauts are regularly seen as larger-than-life figures. They embody our dreams of transcendence despite the sometimes-mundane duties they perform. Tom Wolf describes the Apollo 11 astronauts as being surprised at the reception they received during their post-flight visit to New York. Expecting a lukewarm or even hostile reception in a big, seemingly indifferent city driven by commerce and greed, they were amazed to witness the diverse population cheering itself hoarse and tough New York policemen openly crying as they passed by [5].

Mythology may be defined as a body of archetypal stories dealing with gods, demigods, and legendary heroes of a particular people. Many would discount mythology, and therefore science fiction as “an ill-founded belief held uncritically, especially by an interested group” (as Webster’s 3rd definition).

Jupiter after van Dyck’s King Charles I, King of England at the hunt

To the contrary, I believe that an educated, informed and critical populace, raised with the values and imagery of a society immersed in the computer age, can see the analogies between the archetypes of the primitive mind and the new mythology that we are creating. Mythology projects the dreams of society, or as Joseph Campbell has said [2], “A myth is a public dream, a dream is a private myth.”

Ganymede after Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam

Europa after Veronese’s Europa
Io after Veronese’s Europa Corregio’s Io

Callisto after Callisto and bear
Titan after Michelangelo’s captive slave with spacecraft

The astronauts aboard Apollo 8 gave humankind its first encompassing view of our exquisitely beautiful home planet. Perhaps their photographs sparked the environmental movement; they certainly heightened our understanding of our home. NASA officials were surprised by the volume of people logging onto their website during the Mars Pathfinder mission. Scientifically grounded SETI organizations, as well as a wide variety motivated by other beliefs, abound and regularly debate the existence of ETI (Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Millions of home computers currently act as processors for Arecibo’s data flow, combing the Milky Way galaxy for radio messages from ETI [6]. In light of these examples, it can only be concluded that millions of Americans are in tune with the New Mythology.

Saturn after Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam & spacecraft

The new mythology continues to grow despite the anxiety of many human concerns and slow-moving technical progress; it can be contrasted with popular culture’s ability to warp across the universe during TV commercials. And yet we carry our old myths with us, naming missions after Roman and Greek gods and heroes. But of course our mythology is evolving (as all mythology does) reflecting the culture that it is derived from. According to Joseph Campbell [2], “…myths-that is to say, religious recitations (are) conceived as symbolic of the play of eternity in time. These are rehearsed not for diversion, but for the spiritual welfare of the individual or community.”

This sentiment has also been echoed by Carl Jung, who states [7],
“Not for a moment dare we succumb to the illusion that an archetype can be finally explained and disposed of…The most we can do is to dream the myth onwards and give it a modern dress.”

Neptune after statue of Apollo at Versailles



Jonathan Young, who assisted Joseph Campbell and is the Founding Curator of the Joseph Campbell Archives and Library, has written [8] “The soul of the planet speaks to us through the mythic imagination.” In assigning an updated mythology to our solar system, we may be expanding our concept of “the planet” to incorporate the entire solar system?

This preconditions our response to the exploration of the solar system. According to McElyea [1], “Exploring the unknown is one of the most compelling human instincts. It is in this spirit that our space pioneers landed on the moon, peered at the farthest reaches of the universe, and introduced technologies that have transformed our lives.”

Uranus after Caravaggio’s Joseph

Does mathematics function like mythology to provide a way of arriving at the truth or does it in some way apply a human-made (albeit functional) grid over the universe and arrive at conclusions based upon our way of ordering the multidimensional chaos of everything? It seems to be fundamental to humankind to order our world based upon the framework of who we are.

Pluto after Ingres’s Jupiter


  1. T. McElyea, A Vision of Future Space Transportation, Apogee, Ontario, Canada (2003).
  2. J. Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (New York: Penguin, 1976; first published 1959)
  3. S. V. Johnson, “Wisconsin Academy Review”, A Journal of
    Wisconsin Culture Vol. 38, number 4 (Fall, 1992).
  4. O. S. Card, Cruel Miracles, TOR, New York (1992)
  5. T. Wolfe, The Right Stuff, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York (1979)
  6. http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu
  7. C. G. Jung, Collected Works, C. L. Rothgeb and S. M. Clemens, Eds. “Abstracts of the Collected Works of C. G. Jung”, vol. 9, part 1, Karnac, London, UK (1992)
  8. J. Young, www.folkstory.com/contents.html