Spark Notes
Museums explore strange new worlds, creating new opportunities for us on Earth
Isabel Singer and Chaucey Slagel
April 27, 2023
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This article was originally published on Blooloop.

When we imagine outer space, many see a place of unlimited possibilities, untethered to the limits imposed on us by our planet’s history and customs. Science fiction creators, like Octavia Butler and Gene Roddenberry, have long harnessed the power of imagining humanity’s future beyond our planet to push us towards new frontiers.

Museums are taking a cue from these inventive science fiction thinkers. and creating exhibits that imagine humans’ future in space, beyond our little blue planet.

Two Pittsburgh institutions—the Carnegie Science Center and the Moonshot Museum—have opened exhibits about the future of human space exploration. These exhibits promote diversity in the space industry and inspire visitors to pursue careers in space technology. They help us create more equitable and fair societies.

Ultimately, they demonstrate why exploring distant worlds matters to humanity. These exhibits explore how we might work towards a brighter future on Earth and beyond.

I don’t think there could be a multi-lightyear umbilical [to Earth]. I think people who traveled to extrasolar worlds would be on their own—far from politicians and business people, failing economies and tortured economies—and far from help. Well out of the shadow of their parent world.

- Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower

Museums and space exploration: inspiring careers

If working in the space industry is amazing today, how much more exciting will it be in 50 or even 200 years, when we know even more about the universe and can travel farther?

At the Carnegie Science Center’s new exhibit, Mars: The Next Giant Leap, visitors discover what life might be like for people living on Mars. Walking into a futuristic Martian home, visitors meet the residents: a botanist, an engineer, a student teacher, and a technician. Listening to audio interviews, visitors experience a day in these characters’ lives. Tucked away in shelves, they discover the Martian residents’ tools and personal belongings.

Exploring the home, visitors develop an emotional connection to these characters. They can understand how careers in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) could make this future possible.

Moonshot Museum
Moonshot Museum, image credit David Whitemyer

Pittsburgh’s Moonshot Museum imagines what careers may arise in the space industry in the coming decades. It invites visitors to practice what these jobs might be like. A sort of educational escape room, the Moonshot Museum’s five stations feature a different STEAM profession and a challenge.

For example, at the artist station, visitors meet a graphic designer. This person tasks them with creating a mission patch for their lunar settlement. At the engineering station, a roboticist challenges visitors to power and pack a water-searching rover on Mars. The Moonshot Museum gives visitors the opportunity to get their hands dirty and do real work. So, they’re empowered to see themselves as future space industry professionals.

Promoting diversity

When we imagine the future, we see more people who look like all of us in it. We see LGBTQ+  engineers, Black commanders, Indigenous graphic designers, people of color as writers, immigrants in the government, deaf geologists, blind gardeners, neurodivergent team leaders, and more.

In the Carnegie Science Center’s Mars exhibit, science fiction panels illustrate how people who are underrepresented in the space industry today could lead us beyond our planet tomorrow. For example, one panel features The 6th World, a short film by an American Indian filmmaker. This tells the story of a Navajo astronaut who establishes a community for his people on the red planet.

Carnegie Science Center Mars The Next Giant Leap
Mars: The Next Giant Leap, image credit David Whitemyer

At the Moonshot Museum, visitors see the potential for greater diversity in the space industry as they assemble their crew. A scavenger hunt reveals the diverse identities of their crew members: from a Latina mechanical engineer to a Black settlement commander, to a nonbinary robotics engineer, and more.

Visitors can imagine themselves as part of the future of space exploration when they see people who look like them.

Creating a more just and equitable world

The first step to creating a better world is to imagine it.

At the Moonshot Museum, visitors imagine a fairer society by creating a governing charter for a future science base on the Moon. Visitors consider the challenges lunar settlers might face as they vote on laws for their community. How might they establish a government that is just and equitable?

By considering how a community on a strange new world in space might function, museums can help visitors discover innovative ways to govern our own communities on Earth.

Moonshot Museum at home exhibit museums and space
Moonshot Museum, image credit David Whitemyer

Carnegie Science Center’s Mars exhibit asks visitors to imagine an efficient, fair, just, and affluent Martian society in “Dream Big: Space.” Visitors view a model of a human settlement on Mars. They also vote on different issues that may arise in the community related to work, healthcare, education, technology, and more.

Visitors’ votes are informed by graphic panels about different approaches that have been taken to these issues on Earth, and different ways science fiction has imagined societies throughout the galaxy. Based on how visitors vote over time, the Museum changes the Martian settlement’s physical model. For instance, the Museum may add new buildings or change what is visible through the settlements’ windows.

When visitors see that their decisions make a concrete difference, they internalize that their contribution matters.

Museums explore why space matters

When visitors enter the Moonshot Museum, they watch an introductory film highlighting that the Moon is not just a dead rock, but an incredible natural resource. Private companies are going to the Moon to see if they can harvest valuable elements, protecting our precious Earth from environmentally hazardous mining operations.

The Carnegie Science Center’s Mars exhibit shows visitors how the knowledge and technology developed for space can be applied to challenges on Earth. For example, in the Mars garden, graphic panels explain that growing food on Mars will require solutions that support a lot of vegetation in a very limited space with very little water, such as the functional hydroponics and aeroponics systems on display.

Graphic panels make the connection to terrestrial issues. Despite Earth’s more abundant space and water, these solutions developed for life on Mars are just as valuable on our home planet.

Mars The Next Giant Leap at Carnegie Science Center museums and space
Mars: The Next Giant Leap, image credit David Whitemyer

People might wonder why we’re spending money going to space when we have so many problems here on Earth. Museums that imagine humanity’s future in outer space show us how we can make Earth and beyond better today and tomorrow.

When we explore strange new worlds in our minds, we’re inspired to create tools that allow us to boldly go where no person has gone before.

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