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It's hard to appreciate the influence that Chesley Bonestell, an artist in the 1950s and '60s, had on the U.S. space program. No one had ever drawn scenes of distant planets like he did; beautiful and evocative, they almost put you on the moons of Saturn looking at its glorious rings.

Appearing in mass publications like Life and Colliers, they made people want to be in those cold, forbidding places. So when the U.S. space program really got under way, Bonestell had already created a great deal of enthusiastic support for it.That's the impact art can have on our society. John Wesley Powell tried to describe the Grand Canyon he had explored in 1869, but people could not conceive of its grandeur. He took artists with him on the next trip, and the impact of Thomas Moran's paintings was enormous in the East. Moran later painted scenes of Yellowstone's wonderlands that so enthralled the public that President Grant made it our first national park.

So it isn't surprising that the allure of space has created its own following of artists. And just as different artists paint different views of the same landscapes, so this book is a vivid demonstration of that diversity in space. A publishing coup, it offers paintings by both Soviet and American artists who have found that space offers a significant subject for their energies.

And why not? If artists can specialize in, say, Western American themes, then surely the frontier of space has equal appeal.

But this book is more than a collection of paintings. It also includes a number of excellent essays, including one of the best descriptions of space flight I've run across. It was written by Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, twice-hero of the Soviet Union, a major general in the Soviet Air Force and head of cosmonaut training at Star City. He is also a trained artist and member of the USSR Artists Union, and took colored pencils with him into space to create the first eyewitness sketches of the Earth from space."We exited from night into morning. We could see how quickly the horizon begins to brighten. A bright red strip surrounds the entire Earth, then turns into orange, the orange into light blue, the light blue through a blue half-tint into violet, and after that the black velvet cosmic sky," he wrote. "And then the sun begins to rise - large and otherworldly. Above the sun's circle is a red triangle with rays emanating downward. It reminded me of a kokoshnik - the kind of headdress that women used to wear in old Russia. This astonishing sight lasted for a few seconds, and then the crown melted away."Not to be outdone is American astronaut Alan Bean, who flew to the moon on the second manned lunar expedition, Apollo 12, in 1969. He went to space again in 1973 for 59 days aboard Skylab 2. After retiring from NASA in 1981, he took up painting as a profession. In his essay, "An Artist on the Moon," Bean describes the colors and texture of the moon, particularly the difficulty of painting a surface that is essentially tannish-grey, but whose hues and colors vary with the angle of the sun.

Other excellent essays cover the history of space art, the role of space art generally, and its importance to our understanding of our future.

One, by artist Robert Schulman, notes that artists have been part of the American space program almost from its start. Schulman, director of the NASA art program, explains that for more than 26 years, some of the country's most outstanding artists have been commissioned by NASA to record their impressions.

Why is this, when every major launch at Kennedy Space Center is seen by more than 200 cameras recording every split second? Because, he writes, after reviewing the documentation of the first few years of the space age, "Administrators realized that important aspects of the story were missing. . . . It is the creative individual who makes the significant difference in the resulting imagery. . . . As Daumier pointed out about a century ago, the camera sees everything and understands nothing."

Soviet artist Andrei Sokolov, in his essay, adds, "Dreams have always advanced reality. I believe that where science and art meet we find a true means for scientific and artistic perception of the world. This meeting point will further develop the ability of man to see the invisible, to comprehend the unthinkable, and to dream, thus advancing reality."

The range of paintings by the 73 artists is impressive. Some are impressionistic, others so realistic you can almost feel the crunch of lunar dust underfoot. Some are abstract, some cubistic. The Soviet painters seem to gravitate toward more romantic and symbolic themes, the Americans to more realism. Valery Balabanov, for example, paints three children inside a capsule, each from a different country and different race, smiling. Vitaly Myagkokv launches the Soviet shuttle Buran with a mixture of mythologic and religious themes.

As explained by co-editor William Hartmann, a group of artists working on space subjects formed their first organization in 1983. In 1987, when the Soviet Union celebrated the 30th anniversary of Sputnik's launch, they were invited to participate. That led to more contacts between the countries, and in 1989 the first international space art exhibition was shown in Moscow, later repeated in Pasadena, Calif., when the Soviets came to see the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (As part of their visit they also spent a week in Moab, painting in Arches and Canyonlands national parks.) The Moscow and Pasadena exhibits are the core of this book.