The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Folklife Festival exhibit
The NASA exhibit at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival includes a lunar landscape open for people to walk across. (credit: J. Foust)

Review: Space on the Mall

Space: A Journey to Our Future
National Air and Space Museum, Washington
Through January 11, 2009

Smithsonian Folklife Festival
National Mall, Washington
June 25–29 and July 2–6, 2008

The 50th anniversary of NASA offers a tremendous hook for publicity for the space agency, an opportunity to celebrate what it has accomplished and—perhaps more importantly, given the transitions the agency is undergoing—what it plans to do in the future. A couple of short-term exhibitions in Washington, one wrapping up in the next week and the other lasting through the end of the year, give the agency a chance to show off both its past and future.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival, in its 42nd year, usually honors several nations, regions, states, or other distinct cultures; this year’s event features the state of Texas and the nation of Bhutan. However, this year’s festival also includes, in a somewhat unusual twist, NASA, in recognition of its 50th anniversary. The NASA exhibit takes up the western third of the festival space on the Mall, in the shadow of the Washington Monument.

Once there, you’ll find a little bit of everything about NASA, with sections devoted to astronomy, planetary exploration, earth sciences, aeronautics, and human spaceflight, among others. A couple tents are used as stages for speakers and panels, although on a Saturday afternoon most of those events were only lightly attended, and at least some of the people were less interested in the content than in taking advantage of a seat in the shade on a hot, muggy day. Unlike the other two exhibits, where you can buy authentic Tex-Mex barbeque or Bhutanese dishes, there’s no food for sale in the NASA exhibit, although if you’re really jonesing for some astronaut ice cream, it is for sale in the festival gift shop.

The event is obviously geared towards the general public, so there’s less in-depth content or neat spaceflight artifacts than more general items, like models of spacecraft ranging from the Hubble to Cassini to the ISS, as well as inflatable models of an F-18 and an Orion CEV. There are a few hidden gems, though, that even hardcore space enthusiasts will appreciate. The planetary sciences tent includes a large 3-D panorama of the Martian landscape taken by one of the Mars Exploration Rovers; it’s stunning to look it, especially if all you’ve seen of similar views have required squinting at a computer screen. Tucked away in a corner of the overall exhibit, in a section on applications of space technology, was Peter Homer, the winner of the Astronaut Glove competition of NASA’s Centennial Challenges prize program in 2007. He was showing off new versions of the glove that won the competition, letting people stick their hands into versions of the glove in a pressure box and flex them, giving them a feel for how the glove would work in space.

Peter Homer
Peter Homer shows off the latest versions of his astronaut glove that won a NASA Centennial Challenges competition. (credit: J. Foust)

The exhibition is, in many respects, more a look ahead at what NASA plans to do in the years to come rather than what it has done in the last 50 years. Elements of the exploration program are front and center, including a model of the Ares 1 rocket and a mock lunar landscape that people can walk on and get their pictures taken with. Meanwhile, shunted away in a corner, almost hidden from view from the rest of the exhibition (although in plain sight to passing traffic on 14th Street), was an inflatable model of the Space Shuttle, sagging slightly.

If you can’t make it to the Folklife Festival (or if you’re not that enthusiastic about the idea of trekking across the Mall in near-tropical weather) the nearby National Air and Space Museum recently opened a temporary exhibition, “Space: A Journey to Our Future”. The exhibit is actually a version of a traveling exhibition that has been making the rounds the last couple of years, including museums in Indianapolis, Omaha, and Mexico City. (Museum officials said at a press event earlier this month that they had hoped to keep the exhibit open a little longer in January to accommodate people coming to Washington for the presidential inauguration, but the exhibit needs to be shipped to its next destination, Sacramento.)

NASM exhibit
The “Space: A Journey to Our Future” includes Ares and Orion models on display. (credit: J. Foust)

As the title suggests, the exhibit is primarily forward-looking, examining how humans will return to the Moon and go on to Mars and elsewhere in the solar system. The exhibit is crammed into a relatively tight area on the far eastern end of the museum’s lower level, near the food court, which doesn’t give it a lot of, well, space. There’s little in the way of historical artifacts in the exhibit (the rest of the museum, of course, more than makes up for this); instead there’s a walk-though model of what a lunar habitat might be like, and models of Orion and the Ares 1 and 5 (which were due to be replaced with a larger model of just the Ares 1 shortly after the exhibit opened in mid-June.) A miniature theater provides 360-degree video projections of a brief film about astronomy.

The exhibit does put an emphasis on interactivity, with mixed results. One display invites people to put together the cargo needed for a human mission to Mars from a list of items, given the limited capacity of the spacecraft (a hint: make sure to bring food and water, but also don’t forget a little entertainment.) Another offers people the opportunity build an Ares rocket by dragging and dropping components in the right place. However, this exhibit eschews tried-and-true touch screens for a high-tech approach where you waive your hand in the vicinity of a sensor that looks like a giant upside-down pair of headphones (or a sci-fi movie prop). The system was suffering some glitches during a pre-opening walkthrough; it also leaves one to wonder how it will work when, say, a crowd of kids tries to stick their hands into it at the same time.

NASM exhibit
Roger Launius of the National Air and Space Museum demonstrates—or at least tries to—an exhibit where people use an unusual interface to assemble a rocket model. (credit: J. Foust)

Neither the Folklife Festival nor the “Space: A Journey to Our Future” exhibit is worth a special trip to Washington; the latter is particularly underwhelming for enthusiasts, although that is in large part because it’s targeted at more general, and also to some degree younger, audiences. Both, though, demonstrate that even as NASA marks its 50th year of existence, it is trying hard to put its focus on its potential future, not its past.