On Saturday, November 19, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City will welcome a new special exhibit to its halls, titled "Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration." Before you read any further, you should know this isn't just any ordinary space exhibit.
Beyond Planet Earth isn't a collection of relics from the space race and a history of America's efforts to explore the vastness surrounding Earth. It's got that, sure, but what the exhibit is really about is where we're going: both in the near-term, and as far out as 500 years from now. More than that, it's either the first — or certainly one of the few — major exhibits that presents space exploration as a global effort, and one that will become more international as humanity reaches out into the stars.
Beyond Planet Earth doesn't brush NASA under the carpet by any means, but the exploration of space is a human endeavor, and one that's adding new nations and corporations to its roster all the time. Read on to find out what you can expect to see beyond the cradle.
"Beyond Planet Earth" is curated by Dr. Michael Shara, an astrophysicist who spent 17 years at the Space Telescope Science Institute at John Hopkins (the folks who work with the Hubble Space Telescope), and now he's a curator at the AMNH's Department of Astrophysics, where he's worked for 12 years. The idea of creating an exhibit that was more than just a list of NASA's greatest hits was the goal of Dr. Shara and his team from the start. Private spaceflight companies, the Soviet space program, the wildest (yet possible) visions of humanity's presence in space — it's all in there.
The First Thing You See: Soviets in Space
America may have been the first nation to put boots on the Moon, but the rival Soviet program beat the U.S. to a lot of early space race milestones. Sputnik 1 was the first man-made satellite to be placed in Earth's orbit in 1957. Also in '57, Laika, one of dozens of Soviet "space dogs," was the first animal to reach orbit (and die there, sadly). On April 12, 1961, Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and his Vostok capsule would rob America's fledgling Mercury program of two coveted titles in one flight: Yuri becoming the first man to enter orbit, and the Vostok 1 the first spacecraft to orbit the Earth. (Gagarin ejected a little over four miles above the ground and did not land within the capsule, which was round and controller-less and not designed to do much more than bounce to a stop.)
All of this is presented in celebration of the Soviet space program's achievements, rather than pitting it against America's earliest manned spaceflight efforts. This is where it really all started. It wasn't a failure for America, which would realize these ambitions and more, but a triumph for Russia.
For more, there's a rather long list of notable firsts for the Soviet space program here.
NASA Takes The Stage
You can't talk space without talking NASA, and in presenting the exhibit, Dr. Michael Shara himself said that the U.S. agency had a promising and rich future ahead of it yet. Pictured is a diorama near and dear to Dr. Shara's heart: STS-125, the mission when Space Shuttle Atlantis took a crew of seven up to perform vital repairs and upgrades to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Painstaking care has been taken to recreate the scene, depicting the red-striped suit of astronaut John Grunsfeld, a five-flight veteran who has performed eight spacewalks. In the very near future, it's this kind of scene that may not have NASA astronauts in it. The U.S. space agency has set its sights on deep space exploration, leaving orbital operations as an arena perfect for private spaceflight companies to compete in.
The Rise of Private Spaceflight
Virgin Galactic, Spaceport America (also a Virgin effort), Bigelow Aerospace, SpaceX even household names such as Boeing — the conquest of near-Earth space will be made by corporations and private industry. National agencies such as NASA, ESA, JAXA, Russia's Roscosmos and China's CNSA will most likely still play roles as guiding hands, but in Beyond Planet Earth, humanity's rapid expansion into orbit, the Moon and beyond relies on innovations spurred on by the competition of private companies.
Space exploration has always been a tricky proposition. A company can send some enormously expensive hardware out and get absolutely nothing back, and no corporation is going to be into that. Dr. Shara and his exhibit present a future where this is not so: orbital and lunar tourism returns money into private spaceflight company coffers, mining asteroids brings rare materials and cash, and space is suddenly a place to make money, not to have it swallowed up.
It all culminates in a Moon-to-space station elevator that'll ferry supplies and humans from orbit to the lunar surface. I thought this was the craziest thing the exhibit could throw at me, but then I looked to my right.
Beyond Planet Earth
Welcome to Mars. Rovers aren't the only presence you'll find here. You'll find people, such as this astronaut dressed up in MIT aeronautics and astronautics professor Dava Newman's next generation space suit:
Mars is the new Moon in terms of space exploration targets. Is there life there? Can we form a sustaining presence? Is there money to be made? Or, the most difficult question to answer: can we terraform the Red Planet, and colonize it? The AMNH didn't go light on the tech, with a Surface-style touchscreen table here walking you through the steps necessary to turn the Red Planet green:
The exhibit doesn't end there, either. There's life to hunt for beyond Mars, after all, and at the very end is what we're told is the largest walk-through hologram in the world, though it wasn't up and running at the time of our visit. We'll definitely be back to get a look of that.
In the gallery below you'll find some of the sights waiting for you at Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration. There's much more than what we have here, though. It's an excellent exhibit that's definitely worth a look if you find yourself in New York City. The exhibit opens November 19, and runs until August 12, 2012.
Photos above shot on location by Dania Nassar for DVICE. Gallery photos and captions provided by the American Museum of Natural History