Even if you are not a space nerd who wears NASA underpants, you can't miss Beyond Planet Earth, the new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. It will make you understand why we need to move forward in space.
It's also extremely fun. You will be able to terraform Mars, try to deflect an asteroid about to destroy all life on Earth and even smell the Moon. And you can download a free app that will give you information and add augmented reality to every object of the exhibit using your iPhone or iPad. It works great.
Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration starts with our past. It's a necessary first step: to know where we are going; to know our bearing, we also need to know our starting point.
Step into the darkness of space and the first thing you will see, floating to your right, is a reproduction of Sputnik. The first man-made object in space opens the first part of the exhibit: the history of space exploration so far. It shows our first steps into the vastness of the Universe.
To your left you will see a Vostok capsule, like the one that took the courageous Yuri Gagarin to Earth's orbit. It's hard to believe that the Soviet cosmonauts had the guts to go into space in such a crude, primitive ball of metal.
From there, it's Apollo, the first Mars Rover, the International Space Station, a wonderfully detailed reproduction of the Hubble rescue mission—the most ardous in the history of the shuttle—and a detailed model of Virgin's SpaceShipTwo attached to its WhiteKnightTwo mothership.
The future starts back on the Moon. Sometimes, the immediate future. Others, a little far away. But don't expect science fiction. It's all about science within reach. Given the budget, all the missions detailed in the exhibit are perfectly doable, according to the curators.
The second part of the exhibit is about returning to the Moon and establishing a permanent base there. There's a big model of one of Bigelow's inflatable modules, which may be the key for easy-to-deploy stations in orbit and on the Moon. There you will find something even more interesting: the giant liquid telescope that may be installed on the Moon. Instead of using costly, heavy mirrors that would be impossible to deploy there, this telescope would use liquid mercury as its mirror. The last model here is the space elevator that could be installed on the Moon to greatly cut the trip costs and help establish a permanent transport line between the Moon and Earth's low orbit.
After the Moon you will find the part of the exhibit dedicated to asteroids. While landing on an asteroid may seem crazy unless you are Bruce Willis, it's going to happen. In fact, NASA is already accepting applicants for that job. Studying asteroids would give us a better understanding on who we are and how did we get here, but they are also great platforms that eventually may become the home of colonies or a source of raw materials. Not to talk about trying to come up with a way to deflect any asteroid that may represent a danger to our survivability on Earth. There's a simple giant touch-screen game in the exhibit that will help you understand which are our best options to avoid a collision.
Another near-future target is obviously Mars, which is the fourth part of the exhibit. I was surprised by the astronaut suit that may be the standard regalia by the time we get there. It felt like Buck Rodgers, but it was the real thing, something that NASA is actually working on. The Mars part fast-forwards into the future a little bit more than the Moon and the asteroids, as it shows a huge spaceship and allows you to play a terraforming game over a giant touchscreen surface. I was able to turn Mars into a planet like Earth. And then pollute it. This is something that, according to the curators of the exhibit, will awake fierce debate whenever it happens. The terraformers will inevitable win that debate, as Earth can't possibly sustain our growth. For our survivability, it would also be better if we have eggs in two baskets. If a meteorite obliterates Earth, at least the human Martians would survive. I wish there was more talk about the sociological implications of life on Mars, though.
After Mars there's Europa as our next target. Scientists suspect that Europa may be bubbling with life on its oceans, which is why they want to send a spacecraft capable of exploring its underground oceans. Disappointingly, there are not many details in this part of the exhibit. I wish they went further into the future, always being realistic. I missed models for some of the deep space explorations ideas currently being floated around. Or perhaps some scientific speculation on how humans could evolve in space, of where we could be 100,000 years down the line.
You can visit Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. If you live outside of New York, don't worry, there's plenty of time to come: the exhibit spans from November 19 to August 12, 2012. Just show up from 10:00am (it closes at 5:45pm). You will love it.