Spaceflight Insider

Beyond: SFI artist imagines NASA’s next great voyage

NASA spacecraft depiction

Artist’s depiction of a fleet of Mars-bound spacecraft passing Earth’s Moon. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

Since the earliest days of the Space Age, artists have attempted to depict what missions to the Moon or deeper into space might look like. SpaceFlight Insider’s James Vaughan carries on that proud tradition with images of what the Chicago-based graphic illustrator thinks might be just over the horizon for the U.S. space agency’s crewed exploration ambitions.

NASA is currently operating without a clear mandate, as the Obama Administration canceled the last one the agency had been working on back in 2009 (the Vision for Space Exploration). However, with support inside Congress, the space agency hammered out its “Journey to Mars” initiative, which provides plans to send crews to the Red Planet by the 2030s.

NASA spacecraft depiction

A space taxi, with the Earth and International Space Station in the background in orbit. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

For his part, Vaughan joins a proud lineage of space artists that includes Chesley Bonestell, Pat Rawlings, Mark Dowman, and many others.

“I, like so many people, am inspired by visions of what comes next. It’s that curiosity that compels me in creating the imagery that I produce,” Vaughan told SpaceFlight Insider.

NASA spacecraft depiction

Space-Tug – pushing spaceship section. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA’s current plan involves three phases: Earth-reliant, proving ground, and Earth independent. Right now, the agency is working through the first phase, which includes the development of deep space systems for life support and human health.

Proving ground missions will involve demonstrating regular crewed missions and spacewalks in cislunar space and verifying deep space habitation. NASA will also conduct a yearlong mission in deep space to validate the systems’ readiness for Mars.

Additionally, the proving ground phase will include the Asteroid Redirect Mission.

Finally, the Earth independent phase will see science missions paving the way toward Mars by demonstrating entry, descent, and landing techniques to allow for multi-ton payloads to land on the surface of the Red Planet. These missions would also show the reliability of in-situ resource systems as well.

If all goes according to plan, NASA hopes to see humans orbit Mars by the early 2030s.

NASA spacecraft depiction. Construction - LEO - 2 interplanetary vehicles

The construction of two interplanetary spacecraft in low-Earth orbit, supported by a SpaceX Crew Dragon vessel. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider



Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

Great work, James!

I was not familiar with James Vaughan’s art before this article, but I have to say he belongs among the greats of aerospace illustration . I hope he has a long and prolific career. Thanx!

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