NASA’s Vision Takes to the Road
Interior of the first phase of the Vision for Space Exploration experience. This view shows the two kiosks where visitors can use these goalpost "windows" to access information on the Moon and Mars. Image
Credit: NASA

There's nothing quite like being able to reach out and touch a piece of the Moon. Knowing that an astronaut (one of only twelve people on the whole planet Earth) had traveled a quarter million miles across the void of cislunar space, landed on a barren and dusty surface, stepped out of his cocoon of the lunar module, picked up that rock, then brought it home again, is a pretty amazing and daunting thought.

To actually touch this invaluable piece of solar system history yourself is something that is not often available. In fact, there are only three places on this planet where it is possible: The National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., the Johnson Space Center in Texas, and as part of a traveling NASA space exhibit that is currently making its way cross country.

NASA's Vision for Space Exploration trailer is a beautiful piece of public relations for the future of human spaceflight. When our organization, the Orange County Space Society, does educational outreach work, we are often asked why this information is not more readily available. Many people we come in contact with are surprised at all that is currently happening in space or planned for the near future. This is the reason OCSS does what it does, to make the public aware, and we have been very successful in what we have accomplished. It is great that NASA is also out there doing this sort of work, because, as we all know, you can never have too much positive attention when it comes to the space program.

A decade or so back, I had the opportunity to talk with then-NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin. I asked him point blank why NASA was not doing more public relations work to sell NASA to the taxpaying public. His answer took me aback when he said, "NASA doesn't need PR. The success of our programs sell themselves."

As most everyone who has ever dealt with the public knows, nothing sells itself. NASA, under the new administration of Michael Griffin, innately understands this and has done something about it. In this case, that something is 72-feet long and 29-feet wide--an expandable semi-trailer has been constructed that gives the public a two-phase introduction to the future vision of human spaceflight, with a return to the Moon by 2018 and onward to Mars by about 2030.

During a recent three-day stay at the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana, California, many OCSS members were able to not only experience the exhibit first-hand, but to also participate by becoming tour guides to the Moon and Mars, as well as to the Apollo 17 lunar sample that is a hands-on part of the first phase of the exhibit.

OCSS guides were Ramona Montayne, Debbi Bennett, Sharon Brewster, Rudy Ouzounian, Ray Montgomery, Cherie Rabideau, and myself. We worked directly with Kirk Pierce of NASA's Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where the trailer was constructed. Kirk knows space education intimately, since he has also worked for Space Camp on traveling exhibits.

I'll let Rudy explain the first phase of the exhibit: "The stations had a screen, and in front of it a podium of sorts. On the podium was a roughly two-foot tall sensor that resembled goalposts. The screen showed a rotating image of the Moon or Mars with numbers superimposed. The visitor's hand would act as a computer mouse as they would place their hand between the goalpost and point at a specific number on the image. The computer would then pull up the relevant information and give a brief presentation on that particular topic, such as water on Mars, craters on the Moon, future exploration of the red planet, or past Apollo missions."

Before leaving this area, visitors could touch the lunar sample. For Debbi, this was a special thrill. "In the moment that I touched this little piece of outer space," she said, "I was instantly transported to those magical days watching the Apollo landings and Moonwalks on my little black-and-white television. I imagined being an astronaut some day."

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Following this, visitors were ushered through to the second half where they were surrounded by the future vision of exploration by actually seeing what it might be like to walk on the Moon or Mars with the explorers. Below the guests, a light-sensitive, interactive video floor showed grey rocks on the Sea of Tranquility or iron red ones on Meridiani Planum. Moving your feet actually shuffled the rocks as if you were on the real surface.

At the end of the tour, we escorted visitors back to Earth where they were able to get a free souvenir of their journey with a photo of themselves on Mars or the Moon. All the kids could take these photos to school and show their classmates what an exciting summer vacation they had experienced!

Coming into a functioning exhibit such as this was a different experience than doing programs and displays for OCSS. We had to learn a specific program to present, along with having the ability to answer questions intelligently. Our members tend to be pretty well versed already, and many of us have worked with the public, so it was fairly easy to fall into the rhythm of the day's events.

Ray, our resident kiwi, has an excellent knowledge of space, but as he admitted, it still took a bit to get used to program. "Actually, I felt a little unsure of myself for the first few tours--somehow there is an American 'patter' that just seems to flow no matter what the tour, and I just don't seem to have that, so in many ways I hoped that that didn't belie the professional exhibit itself, which was terrific overall. It took me a little while to find the answers to questions that were posed to me during the morning, but by the afternoon I felt pretty confident and competent, and by then I had my own 'patter' going so that it rolled off my lips, too. It didn't sound entirely 'American,' but I hope it did sound more or less professional."

He certainly need not to have worried. Every report concerning all the members who volunteered throughout the event was nothing but exceptional. Thank you again to all those who gave of their time to aid NASA and to get the 2,000 people who toured during our tenure a glimpse of the future.

I later discussed the exhibit further with Ray and definitely want to pass along some of his insightful observations. Everyone really enjoyed what they did, and the high-tech approach was definitely cool; however, this approach may not always work best, especially when there is limited time for those who entered the exhibit to get this new knowledge.

As Ray told me, "During the first part of the exhibit there is quite a bit of time preparing you for what you'll see in the second part. I felt that more time could have been devoted to the Moon and Mars exhibits which never seemed to have enough time to themselves. In addition, the interactive cursor device using people's waving hands, was clumsy. A lot of time was wasted trying to get it to work--time better spent actually seeing what there was to offer, which was very interesting. Couldn't plain old buttons with a corresponding menu have been sufficient? Sometimes high-tech and interactivity can be overkill, as it was in this case, at the expense of valuable information."

Another excellent idea from Ray would be that people should have been polled both before and after to get their thoughts and feelings about human space exploration and the future of NASA. This would have helped gage the true success of the exhibit.

NASA had given us free reign to talk about what we wanted during the tours, as long as we followed basic guidelines for moving the guests through and getting the information across. Debbi augmented her tours by posing some of the questions Ray felt should have been standard for everyone by asking, "Who wants to be an astronaut? Who wants to go into space?" She said, "I wanted to rev them up for the experience."

For a ten-minute presentation, NASA's Vision for Space Exploration exhibit did its job well. As it travels across the country, hopefully many others will be able to see it for themselves. Besides science centers, NASA is taking it to places like county fairs and even car races, so be sure to look for it.

"All in all it was a very interesting and educational event." Rudy told me. "Everyone going through the presentation seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves."

If NASA can get the general public excited by just showing them films and computer graphics, just think what the real missions to the Moon and Mars will generate in the coming couple of decades--and beyond.

Debbi explained that "in each child I saw the possibilities of a real future in space. Each young face lit up with imagination during their magical ten minutes in the dark. I would look and ask myself if that could be the face of an astronaut... an explorer... a visionary. As each child left, without exception, they answered my question, 'I want to go!'"

NOTE: The views of this article are the author's and do not reflect the policies of the National Space Society.

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