Is the mural depicting a spacewalk at one of the exits from the L'Enfant Plaza Metro station a portrait of a particular astronaut, or is it an artist's rendering of a general subject?
—David K. Rathbun, Alexandria, Va.
It's a dog.
To be fair, David knows that now. When Answer Man got in touch with him, David had figured that out (and was feeling a bit sheepish). But it's a good question nonetheless. After all, the first animal in space was a dog: the brave cosmocanine Laika.
There are actually two murals in that station: a spacewalking dog above the Seventh and D street exit and a dog in a space station above the L'Enfant Plaza exit.
In both photos, the dog is wearing a NASA spacesuit.
"I was really happy to have it," said the artist William Wegman, who created the works, called "H-E-L-L-O" and "SPACE SET."
NASA lent Wegman the suit in 2001. It's not an actual spacesuit, but a facsimile of a shuttle-era EVA — extravehicular activity — suit that NASA used for public events.
Wegman received the suit as part of a NASA art program that was, um, launched in 1962. Although dozens of still and motion picture cameras were capturing nearly every second of a mission, NASA's then-administrator, James Webb, thought artists could add something extra.
As H. Lester Cooke, a National Gallery curator who assisted with the effort, put it: "It is the emotional impact, interpretation and hidden significance of these events which lie within the scope of the artist's vision."
During the run of the NASA art program — it ended in 2010, the victim of budget cuts — such artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol took part.
Wegman found the spacesuit captivating.
"It just got me going crazy with it," he told Answer Man. "I started to make sets out of discarded Styrofoam container units." (They look like the material that a piece of stereo equipment comes packed in.)
Wegman set up the mock spaceship in his studio in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood.
"What was really amazing was this dog I had named Chip," said Wegman, 73. "He was so calm. I could put him inside the suit, cover him and put the lid down, and he would just be there. It was uncanny."
Wegman is known for photos featuring slinky, gray Weimaraners, starting in the 1970s with one named Man Ray.
"I was working at a time where almost anything became usable in my work, whether it was thrift-store objects or street finds, anything to transform the dog into not only human creatures, but landscapes or anything," he said.
In 2001, Wegman created a triptych for NASA that shows a spacesuited dog floating in space, connected by a hose to the mother ship where another dog waits. It's called "Chip and Batty Explore Space."
Somehow, the thought of a mural using some of the outtakes from that session arose. It became a joint project of NASA, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and WMATA. NASA and the arts commission split the $80,000 cost of fabricating and installing the 10-foot diameter murals, which are made of porcelain enamel-covered metal.
"The quality is quite exceptional," said Laurent Odde, manager of WMATA's Art in Transit program, which has placed 41 pieces of art in two dozen Metro stations. "Wegman himself oversaw the production or checked that the quality was going to be up to his standards."
The process was a slow one. According to a 2004 Washington City Paper article, it took years to hammer out the contract. The murals were finally unveiled in 2005.
Said Odde: "I think it's something that really helps beautify the space."
Said Bert Ulrich, who ran the NASA art program when Wegman borrowed the suit: "It was a really fun, whimsical piece that he did for NASA and later for Metro."
And, with the National Air and Space Museum not far away, the murals are in a fitting location.
Of course, none of it would have worked without Chip, a dog who definitely had the right stuff.
"You could put anything on his head and he wouldn't show any reaction," Wegman said of Chip, one of 10 Weimaraners he's owned since 1970.
"Some dogs, their ears go back. This dog, it was almost like he didn't have any cells in his brain that would tell him something was happening to him . . . He was a really wonderful creature."
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.