At first, it sounded like a flock of birds had been released into the back of the auditorium at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. The source of the high-pitched chatter became evident as dozens of fifth-graders from Garland ISD's Watson Technology Center filed into the room. Even guest speaker and former astronaut Gen. Tom Stafford looked a little alarmed. And he's traveled at Mach 36 during re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.
The occasion that brought the astronaut and children together was the opening of the "Journey to Space" exhibit at the Perot. Media and museum members arrived in droves to look at the largest exhibit hosted at the Perot. "Journey to Space" opens Saturday, Oct. 21, and runs through May 6, 2018. Here's a peek at opening day.
There is a tendency to use images of NASA's space shuttle on anything related to spaceflight, including the opening graphics of the exhibit. It sends a bad signal — the shuttle has been retired since 2011 and has a mixed service record. A groundbreaking and flawed vehicle, it was both an engineering miracle and an underperforming lemon. The point here is not to debate the space shuttle program but to let people know that the exhibit is focused on something a lot more relevant: the International Space Station that is currently staffed with residents in orbit.
Space people are some of the best people. James and Marilyn Souders knew their grandchildren have aspirations to travel to space, and the NASA pressure suit costumes to prove it. So the Plano couple, both museum members, packed up James and Rowan Fowler and drove the grandkids to the Perot for opening day. Above, they pose for a photo with Stafford, a legendary NASA Gemini and Apollo astronaut. And yes, both grandparents donned their Star Trek uniforms for the occasion.
Most of the exhibit is reserved for interactive installations, but the few artifacts on display are worth gawking at. The helmet here is vintage Apollo program, and the gloves to the right were used by Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, during the Apollo 11 mission.
The Perot scored an icon to help open the exhibit. Stafford may not be the first name on a casual spaceflight follower's list of influential astronauts, but those who study the field know he's a pivotal figure. He piloted the first spacecraft to meet in orbit and connect, dive-bombed the lunar surface in preparation for a manned landing, helped design the International Space Station and charted the course to Mars via a lunary colony program in the 1980s. That plan has been kicked around by various administrations, as he'll tell you, but is currently back on the table. (Check out his full NASA bio, and recognize that it doesn't touch his full influence over spaceflight.) At 87 years old, Stafford's handshake and mind are firm, and parents and teachers lined up to meet him. "I'm just glad I was part of those pioneering days," he says. "Every mission was something new."
Life in space means dealing with the unsavory demands of the human organism. The exhibit does an admirable job in not only recognizing that details like this are the key to piquing the curiosity of children (and immature adults) but making the exhibits about them visceral and entertaining. Letting kids know that there is a world of shit-sucking vacuums and burning meteors of crap is the best kind of STEM outreach there is.
Space Station Toilet
Here is the crapper in question, modeled after the one on the International Space Station. Museum visitors are encouraged to sit on it. The black handles rotate over the user's thighs to help astronauts stay in place while they go to the bathroom, rather than floating away during the process and making an unholy, zero-G mess.
Museum officials say "Journey to Space" is the largest exhibit the venue has ever hosted. One of the reasons why: two massive rotating set pieces that give visitors the sense that they are in space. The walls spin around a walkway, creating a vaguely nauseating but impactful effect.
A Wise Use of Space
The Perot uses space wisely. The displays are accessible from every angle, with plenty of room for traffic flow around them. Yeah, this was a media preview, and you're not likely to get the kind of one-on-one time with exhibits that this guy is enjoying. But the preview was infested with groups of school kids who swarmed the museum, and Journey to Space handled the crush pretty well. The exception, not surprisingly, is the rotating space station display. The lighting struck me as simple but consistent, with parts dedicated to the ISS kept in darkness while shafts of light illuminate displays — invoking a sense of an isolated outpost. Exhibit designers bathed the Mars-themed room in the soft red hue of an alien world.
Allie Stark poses inside a mockup of a Mars spacesuit. Journey to Space doesn't do as good a job at bringing Martian colonization to life, compared with its interpretation of the ISS. Still, it provides a nice sense of unexplored worlds and ambitious expeditions that hopefully will kindle an interest in science and engineering in the kids who visit.
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It's the little things that capture the imagination. Sometimes having lots and lots of kids around can be a good thing — like realizing that a display about snacks in space could be the key to an abiding interest in spaceflight and science.
The Final Frontier
NASA has an iconic logo and plenty of recent successful missions to point to, but none of them involve manned flight. It has been hiring Russia to fly people to the ISS since 2011 and has hired private companies to design and deliver its astronauts in the near future. NASA used to build and own its hardware but has handed that aerospace glory to Boeing and Space Explorations Technology, known as SpaceX. So the real excitement in the manned spaceflight world is found in upstart companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX, yet these T-shirts are not sold at the Perot gift shop, just as these efforts are not mentioned in the displays.