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Manuel Alvarez and The Mexican Astronaut

The problem with septuagenarians, octogenarians, and nonagenarians is that they don’t really ‘do’ social media. I guess the reason is, at that point in one’s life, your brand is pretty much established and perhaps there are better things to do with one’s time.


But that’s also the first hurdle I faced on the piece I wrote about Alvarez. I did some research, but it’s such a common name in Southern California that looking for a M. Alvarez in Downey California yielded hundreds of results on social media, and none of them looked like the right person. I hoped that maybe, just maybe, the article would fire up a synapse or two in a stranger. It worked out well for the Sentovic piece, right?

Anyway, a couple of days after I published the article, I got an email from Mike. The story had stirred a synapse or two and he’d remembered an article he’d read written by Apollo engineer Anthony Vidana called “I Remember Bldg. 290.” In the article, the author recalls a career at North American Aviation, presenting a fascinating memoir that includes a story about him and others trying to push NASA towards hiring a Mexican American astronaut. As part of the campaign, he’d used some of his clout at Rockwell to get a company artist to create a painting.

As Anthony recalls, “I envisioned an astronaut and an Aztec with similar head gear and an Aztec pyramid, observatory, moon and statue in the background. The artist, Alvarez, added the Space Shuttle and the Mexican Olympics as an added touch.”


The article includes a thumbnail of the painting – subsequently gifted to the President of Mexico – and it’s gorgeous but low resolution, and the signature is pretty much cropped out, but it’s there and it’s by Alvarez for sure. I can make out an M and maybe an L. Mike emails me. “At the risk of stereotyping, could it be Miguel or Manuel?” It could, but perhaps we’re reaching. Look at it long enough and we’ll start to see what we want to see.

So I reached out to Anthony Vidana, who has a social media presence. Sadly no success.

In the meantime Mike kept digging and found another clue, a Directory of Spanish Surnamed and Native Americans in Science and Engineering, published in 1978 by San Diego City Schools. One of the entries is a Manuel Alvarez working at North American Rockwell.

1. Jake I. Al4irjd (b. New Mexico) /North American Rockwell
2. Humberto F. Alcantar (b. California), North American Rockwell, NASA Space Division
3. Manuel E. Alvarez (b. California), North American Rockwell

And there’s more – and I’d completely missed this while trying to track down Mr. Vidana – Anthony has a YouTube channel, where he shared a delightful video in 2020. The clip retells the story of The Mexican Astronaut, and mentions the artist again, this time using his full name.

Manuel E. Alvarez.

Above: A screengrab from Anthony’s video. Enlarged, the signature is pretty clear. Below: An early study for the painting, the astronaut is clearly modelled on a yet-to-be-born Ryan Reynolds.

Below: Last but not least, and also grabbed from the video.

MOTIVATION OCCUPATION – Space Division and Autonetics employees comprise the board of directors for the Youth Incentive Through Motivation organization combating the school “drop out” problem. Planning activities are, seated, Fred Rodriguez, Robert Arabelo, Autonetics; Manny Alvarez, Space; standing, Hank Martinez, Phil Padilla, Jake Alarid, Joe Gomez, Ted Garcia, Space.

If by any chance you’re Manuel Alvarez and you’re reading this, or perhaps he’s your dad, or an uncle, or your grandpa; please reach out to me. I’d love to talk to you, and I know there are a lot of people who’d love to know more about you and your career.

If you have a minute, take a look at Anthony’s channel and y’know, ‘smash the like button’. Hopefully he’ll be encouraged to release more videos.

Mike, thanks again, you’re a legend!

Image credit: North American Rockwell

Image source: Anthony Vidana

Artist Profile: M. Alvarez

Who is (or was) M.E. Alvarez?

Alvarez was an illustrator at North American Rockwell.

Beyond that, we know nothing about the artist. Not even a first name. There’s probably a box, on a shelf, in a basement somewhere at Boeing with old NAR personnel files that holds a clue. Short of burglary, I can’t see a way to answer the question. HR departments are surprisingly reluctant to give out that kind of information.

I thought perhaps the artist chose to sobriquet or nom-de-guerre to create a firewall between his or her commercial work and a fine art career. It’s not unheard of, I know plenty of artists in animation who take the day job for the benefits and do fine art or illustration in their spare time. Sleuthing just muddies the water. Alvarez is a very common name in the art world, both in the Americas and in Europe. The first hit on Google is almost always the American painter Mabel Alvarez, and I can say with some authority it’s not her. Looking through auction sites at Mabel Alvarez work, I did find a painting attributed to her signed, “M. Alvarez ’98.” Mable died in 1985.

So, like the piece on John Gorsuch, all I can really do is lay out something like a timeline told through art, and hope you enjoy it.

Above: Apollo 15 launching a subsatellite in lunar orbit. Painted in 1970/71. Below: Contractor’s depiction of a satellite, circa 1970.

Mister Shuttle

When North American Rockwell became the prime contractor for the Shuttle Program in 1972, it’s art department created the lion’s share of shuttle related art during the seventies. In effect, that made Alvarez Mr. Shuttle.

Above: Painted in 1972 – a first glimpse of the orbiter. Below: 1973, Rockwell engineers consider stowing the SRMS in a hump over the cargo bay and fuselage.

By 1974, the orbiter starts to take a familiar form.

Below Left: Beautiful painting of a shuttle launch. Below Right: The same image found in The National Archives. It’s in poor shape, but un-cropped and in colour.

Above: Iconic Alvarez. Below: From the same year: two versions of the same painting, showing an orbiter with the ESA Spacelab installed.

Below: Final arrangement, painted sometime between 1975 and 1976 Bottom: N905NA still in American Airlines cheats.

Below: Third version of this painting I’ve found – and there may be more – Rockwell engineers start playing around with mascara.

I’ve not found any Shuttle Program art by Alvarez after 1977, presumably browned-off after five years of endless revisions, the artist may have hung up his/her shuttle painting boots.

Into The Eighties

Above: 1977/78. Rockwell International’s Star-raker, a heavy-lift ramjet/rocket HTHL SSTO capable of atmospheric cruise and powered landing. Below: 1980’s Rockwell proposals for AMSC. Middle Row: Lunar base with an oxygen production facility. Bottom Row: A nuclear vehicle arrives in Mars orbit and a surface base.


Above: Space station concept found in a 1985 book by Don Dwiggins. Below: “Rockwell Tradition in High Performance Vehicles” depicting Space Shuttle, B-1B, Apollo/Saturn, XB-70, X-15, X-10, and The National Aero-Space Plane. Published in 1988, it’s the latest work I can find from the artist’s time at North American Rockwell. If it is indeed his or her last, then I think it stands as an amazing piece to end a career with.

Image credit: North American Rockwell

Image source(s):


Internet Archive

Mike Acs

National Archives

Numbers Station

SDASM Archives


Mysterious Alvarez

I’m pretty sure the top piece is by North American master illustrator M. Alvarez because he/she signed it. I think the bottom is by the same hand. What are we looking at? It’s a space station, but you knew that. You now know as much as I do. Parked here only because it shares the same page in Flying the Space Shuttles as the 1982 concept by Ted Brown I shared earlier.

Flying the Space Shuttles
Don Dwiggins
Dodd, Mead & Co., 1985

Space Station 1982 at Astronautix

Image credit: NASA

Image source: Numbers Station

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Shuttle Program at Astronautix

Image credit: North American Rockwell

Image source: Mike Acs

Mars Colony

Image credit: Rockwell International

Image source: Mike Acs

The Art of Apollo

Apollo Program at Astronautix

Image credit: North American Rockwell

Image source: Mike Acs

RI Lunar Base

Image credit: Rockwell International

Image source: Mike Acs

From Mike Acs

Shuttle Program at Astronautix

Image credit: NASA

Image source: Mike Acs

Supersonic Launch Vehicle

Recoverable Rocket Boosters by Tony R. Landis, AFMC History Office

Image credit: USAF

Image source: AFMC 


Recoverable Rocket Boosters by Tony R. Landis, AFMC History Office

Image credit: USAF

Image source: AFMC 

Star Raker

Star-Raker at Astronautix

Image credit: Rockwell International

Image source: AFMC