Science Museum of Minnesota’s “Space”: Celebrating past triumphs, and crossing fingers for new ones

Science Museum of Minnesota’s “Space”: Celebrating past triumphs, and crossing fingers for new ones

One of the most striking moments of Journey to Space, the Omnifilm that accompanies the Science Museum of Minnesota’s new exhibit Space: An Out-of-Gravity Experience, involves Space Shuttle Endeavour rolling through Los Angeles in 2012, en route to its permanent retirement home at the California Science Center. As the shuttle is towed through a residential neighborhood in a parade-like atmosphere, a woman is seen standing at the front of the throng, holding a picture of a shuttle and weeping.

Getting emotional about spacecraft, once a defining part of the American experience, has become exceedingly rare. Born in 1975, I’m in one of the oldest generations to have been born after humans finished walking on the moon and one of the youngest cohorts to remember the Challenger explosion. Some of this year’s high school graduates may not even remember the 2003 Columbia disaster.

With each passing year, it’s becoming more and more strange to be reminded that we developed our only manned moon-landing program half a century ago, while the Beatles reigned on the charts. Men and women who are now in their 40s were born after the last Apollo mission came home, and yet the idea of returning to the Moon—or venturing beyond—remains a theoretical proposition with no firm time frame attached.

Even the International Space Station—humanity’s first permanently occupied outpost beyond Earth’s atmosphere, in constant use for over a decade now—seems a little underwhelming given that the furious pace of the 1960s space race led many (most famously, Kubrick and Clarke) to reasonably project that by this century, we’d have a base on the moon and manned expeditions to the outer planets.

Well, life happens—and both the Science Museum’s new exhibit and the accompanying film are, in part, celebrations of a relatively unglamorous era of space exploration. The Shuttle program and the Space Station, we’re told, have been invaluable in facilitating the development of technologies that will be essential in taking the next step—to Mars—whenever that may be.

As is typical for these exhibit-film pairings, it’s helpful to see the movie before experiencing the exhibit. Taking the end of the Shuttle program as a point of departure, Journey to Space assures us that steps are being actively taken to develop a human-crewed expedition to to Mars—while emphasizing what a dramatically more challenging undertaking that will be than any previous space expeditions. The film, like the exhibit, focuses on the pragmatic challenges of sustaining human life in space; an educational goal that’s not helped by an inexplicable shot suggesting that if you were floating outside the Space Station, you could somehow hear them in there rocking to Three Dog Night.

One reason it’s helpful to see the film first is that, by taking us into space, it conveys a sense of the mystery, grandeur, and fascination for which humans gladly brave extreme temperatures, zero gravity, and micrometeorites. The exhibit, full of hands-on experiences, is necessarily more prosaic—but constructively so. This is not the place to entertain speculations about balloon-like creatures living in the Jovian gas: in Space, you’re encouraged to experience the frustrations of working with pressure-inflated gloves and to contemplate what it might be like to poop into what’s essentially a vacuum cleaner.

Space was de-romanticized for me in college, which I entered as an aerospace engineering major intent on forging a career in the space program—quickly abandoned when it became clear to me that most aerospace engineers end up sitting in cubicles in, say, Eagan. It takes a global village to launch a few lucky, hard-working people into space, which “ain’t like dusting crops,” to quote one famous space pilot.

Still, we can do that—we can launch people into orbit, and beyond. Should we? Space left me wondering how generations whose lives have been defined by advances in communications technology—facilitated by geostationary satellites—might feel about the idea of a new space race, one that’s currently taking place between the public and private sectors rather than between Cold-Warring nations.

At the end of the exhibit, attendees are invited to drop chips into tubes signifying their views on the U.S. space budget. Given that NASA’s budget is currently about half a percent of the total federal budget (down from a high of 4.4% in 1966), should we spend more on space exploration? That’s a rigged game—imagine the results of such a poll at the conclusion of an exhibit about international poverty or global warming—but still, the overwhelmingly positive results suggest that space exploration might just become a winning political issue again. Space might just become, once again, something this country starts to get emotional about.

Jay Gabler