Look! Up in the Sky! STS-121 Gets the Superhero Treatment

Look! Up in the Sky! STS-121 Gets the Superhero Treatment
NASA aerospace engineer Matthew Melis' STS-121 comic book cover poster. Image (Image credit: NASA/GRC)

Look upin the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's the space shuttle!

As comicbook fans countdown to the return of Superman in theaters, NASA ispreparing the shuttle for its second return to flight mission. Now, a NASA engineerhas drawn for the space agency a mission poster that captures the excitement ofthe pending launch in the style of a classic comic book cover.

Mild-manneredMatthew Melis, who by day works as an aerospace engineer with the StructuralMechanics Group at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, is quick toadmit he doesn't have an alter ego as an artist.

"Mydad is an artist and I'm not. I don't claim to be," told Melis tocollectSPACE.com. "It took me a long, long time to do [the poster]. Iworked on it, on and off, for about six months. A lot of the elements werehand-drawn but a lot of them were manipulated from photographs."

"Theclouds, for example, were manipulated from actual photographs I took when I wasdown in Florida for [the previous mission] STS-114," admits Melis."The [launch] tower was somewhat hand-drawn but also manipulatedgraphically."

The ideafor the poster, which features shuttle Discovery lifting off the pad, a small silhouetteof the STS-121 crew and the typical design elements of a modern comic bookcover, came not because Melis collected comics as a kid but as a result of hisinterest in pop art.

"I'vealways been interested--because of my dad's art influences--in different popculture art," said Melis. "I was a big fan of Andy Warhol, so comicbook covers, Wheaties boxes, Campbell Soup cans ... all of that stuff."

"Icollected posters of all sorts of shapes and sizes when I was growing up and Istill have a relatively large portfolio of posters that I have saved over theyears," said Melis. "So that's sort of where I got the idea."

"Theposter 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, becauseit's a part of our spirit," explained Melis. "For those of us who areat NASA and are big science fiction fans and just big advocates of the spaceprogram, that's who I did this for, because I knew it would grab them."

"With thisposter, I'm trying to reinvigorate the spirit and excitement for the launch,for my fellow employees, for the public and everyone--all of NASA'sstakeholders."

To get thedetails of the comic cover right, Melis turned to the racks.

"Eventhough I read a lot of comic books as a kid, I never collected them. So, I wentto Borders [bookstore] last fall and I just sat there all day and looked at allthe different comic books, thumbing through them, and then I bought one inparticular that had a look and feel to it that I liked."

"Iused that as a springboard to jump into designing this one," said Melis.

In additionto the comic book style, Melis also worked to incorporate elements from popularscience fiction.

"So Ihave got the 'Orbital Comics' with the volume and the date in the upper lefthand corner and then the 'Space Shuttle' [title], that kind of looks like theold Space 1999 logo--that [1970s TV] series where the Moon blew away fromthe Earth," described Melis. "And the word 'featuring' on thestarburst is done in the Star Trek font."

In truesci-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 Discoverymission and that grew very popular with both space workers and the generalpublic.

"Inever quite understood why the movie poster worked," revealed Melis."When I did that, it was never really something I did with the intentionof 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."

"Butthe movie poster was just fantastically successful. There was a blog out aboutit and people were trying to get it," recounts Melis.

Melis isseeing the beginnings of a similar success for his comic book cover STS-121poster.

"Thecrew 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 proofsthat they can look at. I've not had their reaction yet but I know that theyliked it and were excited about it."

"Iknow 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.

"Prettysoon you build momentum, and then everybody wants one. And that's sort of thefun thing about it," Melis concluded.

The firstevent to feature the posters will be this Saturday at Glenn Research Center. As part of their second annual Space Memorabilia Show, Melis will attend from11:00 to 1:00 p.m. to sign copies of his comic book cover for both his fellowemployees and the public.

STS-121 isplanned to launch on July 1 on a 13-day flight to the International SpaceStation. Its seven person crew will test new techniques for improving shuttlesafety 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.

Todownload a high-resolution PDF of Melis' STS-121 comic book cover poster, visitcollectSPACE.com.

Copyright 2006 collectSPACE.com. All rights reserved.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

Robert Z. Pearlman
collectSPACE.com Editor, Space.com Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.