photos courtesy of Journey to Space, LLC
Human beings set foot for the first time on a celestial body that wasn’t our home when I was a week shy of my first birthday. Just more than three years later, it was over: Gene Cernan of the Apollo 17 mission was the last man to set foot on the moon in December of 1972. (And yes, of course it was a man—but let’s not forget Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who in 1963 had spent more time in space at the time than all the U.S. astronauts combined.) For a young person of my generation, a return to space was a given. But then the decades piled up, Challenger and Columbia exploded, and we could feel possibility dwindle as we, as a people, seemed to lose the will and the drive to explore our tiny, minute corner of the universe.
History has its own gravity. We reached the moon, in part, because we were in a pitched competition with the Soviets and the rocket technology we developed also could be used to deliver nuclear bombs—there have been few better demonstrations of how our creativity and destructiveness go hand in hand. As a result, by 1966 approximately 4.5 percent of our total national budget went to NASA. That’s the equivalent of $43 billion today. In due time, though, the public’s fascination with space travel waned, and our leaders looked to other expressions of our collective destiny.
The Science Museum of Minnesota’s Space: An Out-of-Gravity Experience is the most ambitious in the institution’s history at $6 million and 10,000 square feet. It’s an attempt to bring the visceral reality of space travel to a generation that didn’t grow up with their heads in the stars (poor deluded Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story couldn’t even get off the ground under his own power). It delivers nuts-and-bolts facts about how precarious our existence is when we blast off into the cosmic void, as well as a mockup of the Destiny Lab, a 20-foot module we shot up to the International Space Station in 2001 and which, in this simulation, has rotating outer walls that trick viewers into feeling the queasy lurch of zero gravity.
Young people today need to see what we’ve accomplished in space, because they need to build on it with a sense of optimism and wild imagination. A cynic could say that the moon landing was great public relations for the Cold War arms race. Well, it sure didn’t feel like it at the time, not for me at least. It felt like a new era was dawning, and that just maybe we would find a way to see firsthand what lies beyond.
On the one hand, it took an unprecedented level of effort and political cooperation for us to shoot the Apollo missions into space. But that’s just the kind of purpose we’re going to need, and quite soon, to deal with climate change—and if you talk to the scientists, they tell us that it’s not too late, but we need to understand that urgency brings out our greatest achievements.
The universe can be a perilous place, and it’s unimaginably vast. Just this year in an interview, though, Stephen Hawking called space travel an “important life insurance for our future survival”—a reminder that we may well have a place beyond this pearl of a world that has been our only home until now.