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Going Beyond Planet Earth at the American Museum of Natural History

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Events of Dec. 28, 2011

While the highlight of coming home from Boston University for the holiday vacation was definitely celebrating Christmas at home with my family, I was just as excited for Dec. 28, three days after Christmas. Why the 28th, you ask? Because that was the day I'd made plans to visit the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and see the new exhibition Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration.

I'm a big fan of the AMNH, and I've been visiting and enjoying its offerings ever since I was a baby. I can clearly remember visiting the dinosaur halls with my father when I was four years old. My last visit before leaving for college had been in August, when I'd gone to see the STS-135 crew give a presentation at the Rose Center for Earth and Space. I'd definitely missed the museum while I was away, and the preview features I'd seen on the museum's website had gotten me very excited about the new exhibit.

Like during my previous visit, I met up with my friend Erin at the Rose Center entrance. Because there were a lot of visitors at the museum that day, the first timed-entry tickets we could get were for an hour after we arrived. That was good, though, because it gave us time to grab lunch at the museum cafeteria, and to check out the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples, which I wanted to see because they had artifacts from many of the cultures I'd been studying in my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class.

Finally, it was time to head to the Special Exhibit hall! Upon entering, I was surprised to see something I'd never seen before -- a life-sized model of a Vostok space capsule, the spacecraft in which cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first human in space! Nearby were reprinted photographs and newspaper headlines about the early space race. Actual gear used by astronauts and cosmonauts, including spacesuit gloves, a helmet, and geology tools used to study moonrocks, were also on display. There was a even a little display that let you smell simulated moondust; I agree with what the astronauts said about the traces that were left on their spacesuits: It smells a little like spent gunpowder!

There are whole books, documentaries, and exhibit halls at other museums about space exploration from Gagarin to the Apollo moon landings -- but at Beyond Planet Earth, it's all covered within the first room. As the title implies, this is an exhibition about the present and future of space exploration, not the past. So, after passing the Apollo artifacts, we found ourselves face-to-face with a life-sized model of one of the two Mars Exploration Rovers that landed on Mars in 2004, and a large photograph of the International Space Station. The exhibit's first big diorama comes here, showing one of the most dramatic space missions of recent times -- the 2009 repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope (as depicted in the documentary IMAX Hubble 3D). As the spacewalking astronaut shown in the diorama had his face obscured by his visor, Erin and I debated whether the mannequin represented native New Yorker Mike Massimino, "Hubble Hugger" John Grunsfeld, or one of the mission's other two spacewalkers, Mike Good and Andrew Feustel.

Other displays in this "present" section covered newer space entities, like the Chinese space program and the space tourism industry. I really liked seeing the model of a Virgin Galactic WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo configuration, especially as I'd talked with the company's Chief Technology Officer, Steve Isakowitz, about a month before.

After getting caught up on the past and present of space travel, it was time to move on to the future. The first destination highlighted was the moon, with a large model of a possible inflatable shelter that could be used by astronauts on the lunar surface. A very cool miniature diorama showed a future base at the moon's south pole that included several of these structures, as well as a super-sensitive telescope with a mirror made out of spinning liquid!

The second highlighted destination was near-Earth asteroids. A large diorama showed the 2005 rendezvous between the Hayabusa probe and Asteroid Itokawa, with some nifty lighting effects that really made it look like the scene was occurring in deep space. More mini-dioramas showed how astronauts could eat, sleep, and exercise on the long voyage to an asteroid, and it was comforting to see that an interactive display about ways to deflect a large asteroid headed for Earth had attracted a crowd. (To paraphrase Tears for Fears, everybody wants to save the world.)

The next room, devoted to exploration of the planet Mars, also really set the scene -- simulated rock formations surrounded us, and the reddish-tinged light gave the feeling of being beneath the red planet's salmon-pink skies. I was overjoyed to see a full-sized model of my good friend, the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity. Another diorama showed a future Mars explorer wearing one of the BioSuits developed by MIT Professor Dava Newman, who I've been fortunate enough to meet several times.

The final room of the exhibit was focused on perhaps the most tantalizing question for future space exploration -- is there life beyond the Earth? A video explained the search for life on Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter that may harbor an ocean. Beyond our own solar system, a trippy 3-D hologram showed the locations of planets around other stars discovered by the Kepler space telescope. And, just before leaving the exhibit, there was a large photo mural of the Milky Way, reminding us just how many worlds there are to explore.

If you're in New York City before Aug. 12, I wholeheartedly recommend seeing Beyond Planet Earth. There are enough interactive displays and "big rocketships and robots" to keep little kids interested, and enough detail to engage adults -- everyone I saw on my visit seemed interested, regardless of age. It's also a must-see regardless of prior knowledge about space -- the signage is very informative and all of the scientific terms are explained well, so even total novices won't ever feel "lost in space." For those with little knowledge of space exploration, the exhibit is a perfect introduction to its past, present, and future, and they'll definitely leave up-to-date on all of the space topics currently in the news. For hardcore space enthusiasts like Erin and myself (the sort of people who skip meals to watch shuttle-station dockings, you know who you are), it's a passage to nerdvana.