It is 50 years since the foundation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration — or, more familiarly, NASA. Marking the anniversary, a travelling exhibition and companion art book, entitled NASA/ART: 50 Years of Exploration, have been compiled to trace the history of NASA through the eyes of some of the United States' leading artists.

The agency, which has become the global leader in space exploration and has spearheaded myriad scientific and engineering endeavours, came into existence officially on 1 October 1958, as a fearful response to the Sputnik launch and the Cold War. Soon afterwards, the NASA art programme was created, when then-administrator James E. Webb asked a group of artists to illustrate, interpret and elucidate the agency's missions and projects. Since then, more than 200 artists have contributed paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures and work in other media to the collection.

NASA's art collection includes works by Robert Rauschenberg, Norman Rockwell, Annie Liebovitz, Andy Warhol, William Wegman, Robert McCall, Vija Celmins, Jamie Wyeth and John Solie, whose painting Return to Flight is pictured above. The works offer insight into the pioneering spirit, the triumphs and tragic accidents, and the private and personal moments, that have formed the rich history of NASA.

The commemorative exhibition, organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and NASA in collaboration with the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, includes 73 works by the programme's artists and is currently on view at the Art League of Bonita Springs, Florida, until 17 January 2009. It will then travel on to 10 museums across the United States, until 2011.

The companion book by James Dean and Bertram Ulrich (Abrams: October 2008. 176 pp. £19.99) features nearly 150 paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures, as well as essays by astronaut Michael Collins, curator Tom D. Crouch and novelist Ray Bradbury.