A conservator performs the meticulous work of restoring the 12×22-foot mural “Naval Aviation in Space,” painted by artist George McWilliams. The painting hung above the doorway inside the old Officers Club at NAS Patuxent River from 1986 until it was salvaged in 2018, prior to the building’s demolition. (photo courtesy of Olin Conservation Inc.)
LEXINGTON PARK, Md. – Recognizable to thousands of people in the Southern Maryland area, the large mural titled “Naval Aviation in Space” is back home and awaiting completion of the final stage of its journey — installation inside Test and Evaluation Hall at the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum (PRNAM).
Painted by artist George McWilliams during the time he was employed as a draftsman/illustrator at NAS Patuxent River from 1981-1987, the mural ended up being dedicated upon its completion in 1986 to astronaut Capt. Michael J. Smith, a 1974 graduate of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot (USNTPS) school, who lost his life when the Challenger space shuttle he was piloting exploded 73 seconds into flight in January that same year.
The 12×22-foot oil-on-linen canvas depicts images of four of the earliest Mercury astronauts who have ties to Pax River — Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, Scott Carpenter and John Glenn — as well as the moon walk and the space shuttle. For years, the painting was on prominent display above the front door inside the old Officers Club, aka the O Club, which was located on Cedar Point Road at the edge of the base, across from the Chesapeake Bay. In its heyday, the O Club was a popular social venue that hosted not only base gatherings, but community functions such as organization dinners, special events and high school proms, when the base was still accessible to the public.
“Any of us old timers have some sort of story about how we stood under that painting swapping tales and telling stories with some of our friends,” said George Hill, president of the PRNAM, who worked on and off at Pax River throughout his 35-year Navy career. “I myself remember standing under that painting with one of my USNTPS classmates, who became an astronaut, while he explained to me what it’s like to rendezvous with a spacecraft.”
The O Club closed in 2010, sitting unused until 2018 when the building was slated for demolition. At that time, saving the mural became a priority.
Restoration included the cleaning and removal of years of dirt, mold and tobacco stains from the canvas, along with touching up spots where the paint had failed.
Preserving a piece of Pax history
The painting represents Pax River’s role in national history and emphasizes the significance of what is done onboard the installation. It is considered of intrinsic historical value to the base by The Maryland Historical Trust.
“It depicts every bit of naval aviation in space, from its beginnings all the way up to the space shuttle,” Hill said. “It depicts history that can’t be replicated, and it is important to the history of Pax River and the people who make it what it is in terms of research, development, testing and evaluation for aviation systems.”
Through the combined efforts of then-Pax River Cultural Resources Manager Mike Smolek, now retired, and others at Pax River and the museum, the mural was removed, stabilized by Olin Conservation Inc., and put into storage until sufficient funds could be raised to properly restore it.
Eventually, through donations collected by the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum Association; the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum Foundation, the museum’s fundraising arm; and a matching grant from The Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, restoration was begun.
“[Olin Conservation] had it about a year and they cleaned off years of mold, mildew and tobacco stains,” noted Pete Butt, PRNAM exhibit team lead, who retired from Pax River in 2014. “When it was originally removed, [the back of] it picked up paper from the drywall [it was adhered to] and all of that had to be carefully cleared off by hand by people sitting cross-legged on the floor. They fixed parts that were failing and they touched it up. It’s clean and much brighter. They did a wonderful job.”
The challenge of installation
Now back at the museum, in temperature-controlled storage, the painting waits as the PRNAM and the Foundation attempt to raise the remaining funds necessary to properly mount and hoist the mural for permanent display to the public.
Butt explained the mounting will involve using 4×8-foot sheets of fiberglass honeycomb panels epoxied together to form a single seamless substrate to be inserted into a structural aluminum frame, hung between existing beams, and secured with clamps.
“The panels have low-thermal expansion because we can’t have the backing of the painting expanding and contracting,” he added. “The conservator will professionally apply the painting and make sure it’s in the frame correctly, put a border around it, and then we’ll have riggers lift it up and mount it. The actual painting weighs about 110 pounds, not including the mounting system, and mounting it has turned in to quite a technological challenge.”
And the process is not inexpensive.
“It’ll likely cost north of $40,000 to pay for the installation,” said Dan Macone, Foundation treasurer, who retired from Pax River in 2016. “We’ve started an email push, but we have a way to go. We can’t begin until we have the reserves to do it.”
Rendering of what the mural will look like mounted and on display above the Naval Aviation in Space exhibit inside the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum. (photo courtest of PRNAM)
Once on display, the mural will provide a dynamic backdrop for the museum’s Naval Aviation in Space exhibit, which now includes permanent display of the lunar sample donated by former USNTPS graduate and astronaut Jim Lovell in 2009.
“It took work to get the moon rock on display,” Butt noted. “We had to install special alarms and get NASA’s permission, but now people can look at it and almost touch it. If we do this right, the mural will highlight all of this and be the backdrop people will see as soon as they walk through the museum’s front doors.”
The mural is officially owned by the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, which is part of the Naval History and Heritage Command; but because the painting has been designated a heritage asset, it will not physically leave the area and has been formally loaned to the museum.
“The Navy recognizes its importance to the locality,” Butt said. “It was painted here, it represents everything about Pax River, and it belongs here. We’d like to get it up as soon as we can.”