I’m a fan of the Science Museum of Minnesota, and I’m out here touring the place today, but their latest theme, Space, did not satisfy. Maybe it’s just me, but I think the space program has lost its way — if it ever had a good direction in the first place — and the exhibits just confirmed it for me.
Gadgetheads will enjoy the exhibits. It’s gosh-wow engineering all the way through. The Omni Theater movie is called Journey to Space, narrated by Patrick Stewart, and you’ll get your fill of thundering rumbly lift-offs and a dome-shaped screen filled with flame and smoke. The space shuttle is glorified, we are given many grandiose promises about the next generation, the Orion spacecraft, and we get to watch a few of the hundreds of astronauts who’ve been to the International Space Station gamboling about.
We are never told why they are there, or what they’ve accomplished.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there was a good reason and that they’ve learned things, but the story constantly emphasizes huge engineering projects and fiddly details of living in space, and neglects to explain the science. It was really a propaganda film by Boeing, for Boeing.
There’s a big room of exhibits titled “SPACE”. It’s got explanations of all the layers in a spacesuit, the sections of the space station, hypothetical scenarios for putting people on Mars. So? Why do I want to go to Mars, why would I want to wrap myself in those intricately designed apparatus? There are many videos around the room, many of them featuring that persuasive guy, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and he keeps telling me we can explore outer space, we should expand the space program, we must colonize other worlds. I think he takes it for granted. I don’t.
On one big wall, they were projecting the short film Wanderers over and over again. It’s this fictional set of animated images of the far future of interplanetary exploration; lots of people raved about it when it came out on the net, while I hated it. It’s the same problem: lots of golly-gee imagery and a shortage of whys. For instance, there’s a scene of thrill-seekers jumping into a 3 km deep canyon on some moon of one of the gas giants. Why? Is that our goal, to give ludicrously wealthy bored people an opportunity to do something stupidly exciting? What is the world in which the idle rich have the luxury of flitting off to distant planets to do something ridiculous like? Did the creators of this film take any time at all to think about context?
The exhibits are relentlessly self-absorbed — the entire focus is on things people build to allow people to go to and live in space for a little while. I looked in vain for something that lifted its gaze away from our own damned navel and asked “What’s out there? What are the big questions? What could we find in space that would enlighten us?” But there was nothing. Here’s a space suit glove. Here’s another huge flaming rocket launch with sound effects loud enough to feel in your bones. Here’s the exercise regimen astronauts go through to keep from falling apart.
“We made a rover that drove around on Mars!” I’m suitably impressed and I’m sure you’re very proud, but I’m more interested in learning about, you know, Mars.
I have a general principle I look for in science outreach: can you tell me what’s beautiful about your subject? Can you show me something that will reveal a hidden elegance or surprise about the universe? This exhibit fails completely. It was the work of engineers who’ve forgotten about the grand old cosmos and instead think government contracts for a nifty new gadget are the most beautiful thing they’ve ever seen. The poetry and curiosity were totally absent.
Don’t get me wrong — I want so see more exploration of space, I want to learn more about Europa or comets or Martian climate, and I would love to someday see probes to other stars. But that means the short-term engineering efforts, essential as they are, are subsidiary to the science. A lot of space exploration proponents seem to have their priorities reversed.