NEW YORK CITY—"Beyond Planet Earth," the slick new exhibit on space exploration at the American Museum of Natural History, is thoroughly modern. It has an augmented-reality iPhone app that produces hovering, three-dimensional animations. It has an interactive station where museumgoers can terraform a virtual Mars on a giant touch-screen to make the Red Planet habitable. It even has an interactive display that challenges visitors to divert a giant asteroid bearing down on Earth.
But the thing that struck me most during a recent media preview of the exhibit, which opens November 19, was also one of the least hands-on. It was a scale model of NASA's new Mars rover, Curiosity, which is scheduled to launch as soon as next week. Curiosity is huge—it weighs almost a metric ton, and its anthropomorphized head towers over most all humans not currently out of work due to the NBA lockout.
I had seen a scale model of Curiosity before, but its placement in the new exhibit—perched above the viewer on a simulated Martian slope, its many-pronged arm outstretched, its cyclopean eye staring down at the puny Earthling below—was awe-inspiring. Unlike the cute little solar-powered explorers of Mars missions past, the car-size, nuclear-powered Curiosity is intimidating, almost militaristic-looking. As I stood there staring up at the model rover, I thought to myself: That is one bad-ass robot.
The rover is just a small part of the new exhibit; other notables include a device that releases the scent of moon rocks (an interesting but not especially pleasant burnt odor), a life-size re-creation of a space-suited astronaut working on the Hubble Space Telescope and fascinating artifacts such as a compacted disk of trash from the International Space Station. (Before return to Earth, the mundane contents of the trash pellet—a protein-bar wrapper, a Russian trail mix package—were sucked clean to recapture any available water, heated to kill germs and then compressed.)
But Curiosity stuck with me because it inspired the awe and wonder that so often accompany space exploration, but that are easily lost amid the sobering realities on the ground—the Congressional frivolities, the hand-wringing over NASA's future, the fact that many missions simply fail.
"Beyond Planet Earth" is a good antidote for a space geek's doom and gloom, offering a well-balanced portfolio of NASA's greatest hits, as well as those of its international counterparts and of commercial strivers such as Virgin Galactic.
Ellen Futter, the museum's president, cited the transformative power of space exploration in her remarks to reporters. She noted that this year marks the 50th anniversary of humankind's first foray into space, the 1961 orbital flight of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. "That event utterly changed us all," Futter said. "No longer could we merely gaze into space—now we could go there, too."
The exhibit also suggests an ambitious vision of the future, where Mars becomes a temperate, livable world in five not-so-easy steps, where inflatable habitation modules are deployed on the moon and where humanity extends its presence beyond the fragile planet we inhabit.
"If money weren't a factor ... I think many of the things in this exhibition could actually be done within the lifetime of everyone in this room," Michael Shara, an astrophysicist at the museum who curated the exhibit, said in a speech to reporters. "There's nothing in physics that prevents us from not only going back to the moon and [then on] to Mars and even to Europa and down underneath the ice to look for life, but there's lots and lots of possibilities of getting even to the outer solar system."
In a later interview, Shara said that the unifying theme for the exhibition is life—the search for extraterrestrial life as well as the desire to extend the reach of human life to other places. "When we think of space, we think of the vacuum," he said. "We think of the moon as being dead and dry. We think of Mars as being a sandy, dusty, desolate world. To me, all of these places signify opportunities for life." Earlier he had spoken to reporters of the necessity of breaking free of humanity's reliance on Earth as our sole habitat. "You back up your hard drive—or you should, anyway," Shara said. "We should back up life."