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Rediscovering the final frontier

A new exhibit at Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry lets visitors explore space without leaving the ground.

Published December 23, 2004

[Times photos: Brian Wagner]
A monitor at the exhibit displays the infrared readouts of guests, in this case Clear Channel spokesman Woody Graber, left, and Times photographer Brian Wagner.

[Times photo: ]
Visitors can take in the view of the Martian landscape.

TAMPA - What happened to our love affair with space travel?

In the 1950s and '60s, the space race was all the rage. Astronauts were pop icons. Supermodels? Not so much.

In 1969, the romance of interstellar exploration claimed a defining moment. Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and uttered the immortal words: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

By 2004, defining moments, and statements, in American popular culture had become simply spacey.

A loutish real estate mogul with a tsunami-shaped combover declares, "You're fired." A painfully thin hotel heir exclaims, "That's hot." And your Aunt Ethel, like millions of Americans, is somewhere right now proclaiming "All-in" with her pair of aces. Did pop culture run out of space for . . . space?

What happened to William Shatner blustering about the final frontier? When did the Star Wars movies morph from our favorite science fiction serial ever into George Lucas' mind-numbing screensaver?

And why is the Sci-Fi Channel ignoring space exploration themes to produce doll-on-doll carnage flicks like Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys, starring . . . Corey Feldman?

You won't find answers to those questions - or, thankfully, any trace of Corey Feldman - at the Museum of Science & Industry in north Tampa. What you will find is a sprawling, immersive exhibit intended to rekindle your sense of wonder about what lies beyond the skies.

It's called "Space: A Journey to Our Future," and at 12,000 square feet it's one of the largest ever displayed at MOSI. The exhibit debuted in Seattle in November 2003 and continues here through May. It is scheduled to tour through 2008.

Its "total immersion" concept - segregating the exhibit from the rest of the museum - couches its educational elements in a narrative about astronomical studies from past to future. When they're finished with the exhibit, depending on which ticket package they've purchased, visitors can explore the rest of the museum and attend the newly arrived IMAX film Space Station, or any other IMAX film.

Maybe walking on the moon isn't the talk of every school yard in the land, but President Bush's enthusiasm for reinvigorating America's space ambitions has certainly put the issue back on the national agenda. Not to mention the new opportunities for really rich travelers to blast off into space.

"With all the talk of space tourism in the news, this couldn't be more timely," MOSI president Wit Ostrenko said. "Space is the subject most often requested in our visitor surveys."

The exhibit's creators say they hope to convey the wonder and potential of space exploration to a new generation growing up long past the amazement of the lunar landing.

There's a lot of technical information on hand, but numerous interactive elements serve as the teaspoon of sugar to help the medicine go down. They include:

* A re-creation of the view from the gantry as a mammoth Saturn V rocket launches.

* A visit with the legendary 16th century Italian scientist Galileo Galilei and a look through his telescope to view Jupiter and Mars.

* A walk through a theoretical martian base camp, with an opportunity to touch actual rocks from Mars and the moon.

* A look through the "window" of a LEM - the module astronauts used to land on the moon - to experience what they saw as they descended.

Though space journeys have not captured the public consciousness as they did when the baby boomers were growing up, there have been a number of high-profile developments. The exhibit offers a way to put them in perspective.

The burgeoning private spaceflight industry gained ground this year as the privately owned SpaceShipOne entered space, and Congress approved a bill that would open the way for suborbital space tourism.

In recent months, the White House persuaded Congress to approve $16.2-billion for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration - a 5 percent increase - as most federal agencies saw their budgets cut.

The funding continues an initiative Bush announced in January for an ambitious "new course" at NASA, proposing to return Americans to the moon by 2020 and to use that mission as a springboard for future trips to Mars and more distant destinations.

But questions remain about the future of the shuttle program, the space station and the Hubble Space Telescope. And Bush's focus on space has prompted protests from those concerned about record federal deficits.

This month, NASA's top official announced his resignation, even as the agency announced that the space shuttle program - grounded since the Columbia tragedy of February 2003 - could resume in the spring.

The death of seven astronauts aboard Columbia prompted an investigative board to cite numerous critical administrative problems at NASA and propose 15 changes before the shuttle program could be resumed.

NASA recently announced that eight changes had been completed and that the agency was on track to launch the space shuttle Discovery on a mission to the international space station by May.

Many still consider space exploration a critical element in advancing our understanding of our world and its place in the universe. Astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to leave his footprints on the moon, called space exploration "an absolute necessity."

Space exploration remains a popular dream for many kids, according to a senior vice president for Clear Channel Exhibitions, which produced the exhibit at MOSI.

Jeffrey Wyatt said he spoke about the topic to his son's kindergarten class this month in San Antonio, Texas.

"The interest level was just great for both boys and girls; there was a glow in all the children's eyes," Wyatt said. "You can really feel that excitement about space growing again."

* * *

PREVIEW: "Space: A Journey to Our Future" continues through May at the Museum of Science and Industry, 4801 E Fowler Ave., Tampa. Three admission plans are available. The Mercury ticket includes "Space" and all MOSI exhibits for $16.95 adults, $14.95 seniors or $13.95 ages 2-12. The Gemini ticket includes "Space" and any IMAX movie for $16.95 adults, $14.95 seniors or $13.95 ages 2-12. The Apollo ticket includes "Space," all MOSI exhibits and any IMAX movie for $19.95 adults, $18.95 seniors or $17.95 ages 2-12. Admission is always free for those younger than 2. 813 987-6100 or Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekends. Open Christmas Day.

[Last modified December 22, 2004, 08:23:05]

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