Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Space Oddity

The unique nature of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s jurisdiction and the world-changing nature of the events it has overseen in the years since its inception in 1959 inspired several committee chairman to include elements of that history in their chairman portraits. Five paintings in the House Collection show how Science Committee chairs shared the national enthusiasm for extraterrestrial exploration and embedded allusions to America’s space program in their portraits. The paintings are not committee chairmen in astronaut suits, commencing countdown or stepping through the hatch for a spacewalk. Yet in the background and sometimes in incongruous scale, planets, stars, and spaceships race across the canvases that ring the committee hearing room walls.

Don Fuqua

Don Fuqua/tiles/non-collection/5/5-24-space-oddity_fuqua_2002_018_001pq.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Don Fuqua is the picture of an unhurried statesman in his 1983 portrait, but the images in the background hint at his eagerness to get to work as a freshman Member in 1963, when he joined the committee. “I was 29 years old,” he later remembered about his request for a spot on the Science and Astronautics Committee, “Kennedy had just announced we would go to the moon. I thought, I don’t want to be on something that’s looking backward. I want to look forward.” Floridian Fuqua stayed on the committee for his entire House service, through expanding jurisdictions and multiple committee name changes (but always with “Science” at the forefront), during its oversight of the Apollo missions and later the space shuttle programs, both depicted in the background of his portrait. In the upper left, astronaut Buzz Aldrin leaves the Apollo 11 lunar module to walk on the moon, the surface of which is also visible in the lower left, below the view of Earth from space. In the upper right, Columbia completes its first mission, touching down on a dry California lakebed in 1981, a moment Fuqua witnessed at Edwards Air Force Base. Bringing congressional experience back to Earth, the Florida Handbook and the Congressional Directory from Fuqua’s first term in the House rest at his elbow.

Robert Roe

Robert Roe/tiles/non-collection/5/5-24-space-oddity_roe_2002_018_006_1.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Robert Roe was the second chairman to make visual note of the space program in his Science Committee portrait. Behind Roe, a space shuttle launches from the Kennedy Space Center through billowing clouds and into the thermosphere beyond. The shuttle imagery made sense, given the importance of the program to Roe’s time on the committee. He supported funding for the program and led hearings on the 1986 Challenger disaster. Roe prominently figured in congressional oversight of other forms of transportation, too. The House unveiled this painting and his portrait as Public Works and Transportation Committee chair in the same week in 1992, marking the first time two portraits of the same Member entered the House Collection together.

Robert Walker

Robert Walker/tiles/non-collection/5/5-24-space-oddity_walker_2002_018_003_1.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Pennsylvania Representative Robert Walker placed his home state’s contribution to transport, the Conestoga wagon, in the forefront of his portrait. The 19th-century covered wagon trundling over a globe makes this perhaps the most unusual Science Committee painting. The wagon’s toylike appearance and prominent placement, alongside a space shuttle taking off in a cloud of steam and the proposed space station Walker championed, only draw more attention to the incongruity. But the pairing of a symbol of westward expansion and space exploration might have resonated with Walker’s constituents. A year before the 1996 portrait unveiling, dozens of Lancastrians traveled to a test site to witness the first launch of a new rocket. It was named Conestoga, after the wagon, and although Walker was not responsible for the name, he was proud of the connection. When word reached him that a local craftsperson was carving miniature wagons, he arranged for the maker to present one to the Conestoga rocket’s designer, former astronaut Donald “Deke” Slayton.

George Brown

George Brown/tiles/non-collection/5/5-24-space-oddity_brown_2002_018_005_1.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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The only Science Committee chairman trained as a scientist, George Brown’s degree in physics and graduate work in nuclear engineering was neither the beginning nor the end of his interest in the space program. “I used to read science-fiction magazines when I was a kid, stories about space travel,” the chairman recalled when looking back over his career in Congress. This interest led to his long service on the committee. Brown was particularly interested in exploration far beyond the reaches of manned flight, and his portrait is the only one to include the Milky Way, shining in the sky above his California district.

Lamar Smith

Lamar Smith/tiles/non-collection/5/5-24-space-oddity_smith_2018_207_000-2.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Unveiled in 2018, Lamar Smith’s portrait combines a traditional congressional portrait backdrop with unusual and spatially intricate elements that place it in the tradition of space-related Science Committee portraits. The Capitol dome glows against a purple night sky in which the constellation Orion twinkles. Seals of government programs overseen by the Science Committee hover across the top of the painting. On the credenza behind Smith rests a book on one of his favorite topics: intelligent life on other planets.

Sources: Lancaster Intelligencer Journal (Lancaster, PA), 7 August 1995, 23 July 1996; Lancaster New Era (Lancaster, PA), 22 July 1996; New York Times, 9 March 1999, 17 July 1999; Targeted News Service (Washington, DC), 5 Dec 2018; Trenton Evening Times, 6 December 1992; Washington Post, 17 July 2014; “July 20, 1969: One Giant Leap For Mankind,” NASA, 15 July 2019, https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo/apollo11.html.