Interview with chief exhibit designer Doug Nickrent and PGAV Destinations' project manager Emily Howard
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NASA’s Space Shuttle Program came to a close on July 20, 2011; but as completion on the new home for the orbiter Atlantis approaches its opening June 29, the message is clear: it hasn’t stopped here.
“It’s bittersweet, ” says Doug Nickrent (left), chief exhibit designer for the new Atlantis orbiter home opening in summer 2013 at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. “It’s the end of thirty years of thousands of people’s life-work on an amazing “ bird” that was built to fly, but will never fly again.”
But the power and science gained from the shuttle program is anything but finished growing – as PGAV Destinations' project manager Emily Howard (right) states, “at the new orbiter home, it’s about teaching everyone that the history of NASA’s work is building our future – and that’s pretty exciting.”
Anyone who’s ever tried to teach history knows the challenges involved in making it intriguing, fun, and memorable. When it comes to the shuttle program, there are literally millions of historical stories to tell – each of the millions of pieces of the shuttle has its own story, the thousands of people involved in the program have a history, even the ground you walk on at the Kennedy Space Center has its history.
“It’s about choosing the right stories to tell and pairing them with a variety of really jaw-dropping visuals and interactive elements, ” says Nickrent when asked how he designs great shuttle history exhibits. The greatest pull of the new exhibit space is just how incredibly close visitors will be able to get to the shuttle Atlantis, one of the greatest technological marvels ever built by mankind. In partnership with that icon, a multitude of new interactives (more than 60) provide a deep mix of hands-on simulations, demonstrations (like blow-torching a shuttle heat-plate), and technology (like a digital timeline on a massive table that allows visitors to browse NASA’s history at whatever depth and pace they’d like). “When you inspire guests from the moment they enter an exhibit and then provide them the empowerment to learn history at their own pace and interest, you make history engaging for each visitor in their own way, ” says Howard.
To develop the historical aspects of the new space, PGAV Destinations interviewed a multitude of NASA personnel involved in the shuttle program – from the people who assembled the shuttles to the people who flew them. One of the greatest influencers was Captain Jon McBride, who piloted STS 41-G aboard the Orbiter Challenger in 1984. A highly decorated pilot and currently with Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts, the company which operates the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, McBride commands a very impressive presence, despite his noticeable humbleness.
“He’s incredibly passionate about the program – a little bit daredevil, a little bit engineer, ” says Nickrent of Captain McBride. “He doesn’t speak often; but when he does, the room goes silent – because at the end of the day, he’s the only one among us who’s been there [space].” It’s a very small club of those who’ve been in space – only a few hundred – which causes people to stop and think when they realize these remarkable individuals put their lives on the line each launch so that we can learn more about our home planet.
From the series of interviews emerged a plethora of stories, from the small and personal to the grand and thrilling – ‘nail-biters’ as the exhibit designers call them. One hidden, personal story explains how one ground crew member was one of the favorites of female astronauts because he was really adept at braiding their hair to keep it out of the communications equipment. For the nail-biters, the first shuttle launch was incredibly tense: the shuttle was the first spacecraft that was not tested with an unmanned flight. Two men who had trained for thousands of hours understood the technology and had to trust it deeply; and despite the thousands of things that could’ve gone wrong, they went anyway. Any Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA – spacewalk) is a nail-biter, as astronauts are hurled around Earth at 17, 500 m.p.h. and have the presence of mind to calmly let go at that mind-boggling speed, and concentrate on their very detailed and delicate work.
“The story of the Hubble Telescope has your classic legend structure, it's almost Biblical, ” says Nickrent. “You’ve got despair, recovery, more despair, victory – and because a handful of determined people wouldn’t give up, they did something that changed our lives forever, offering incredible insight into our world and others far away.”
“I get goose bumps when the astronauts talk about looking back at Earth from space, ” says Howard. “They see 16 sunrises in a 24-hour period, and the way they describe it makes it sound like the most beautiful thing in the history of the world.”
When visitors leave the new orbiter home this summer, the message will be clear: NASA’s history is building the future, and it’s far from over. The International Space Station is rocketing around the planet serving as a research laboratory and clear sign of global cooperation. The Mars Rover Curiosity is still rolling away on the Red Planet making new discoveries by the second. And every day innovators and engineers around the world are applying the technologies developed by NASA to new applications, from medicine to communications to new shuttles. During the exhibit’s development, Nickrent spent a day with NASA’s Desert RATS, the Research And Technology Studies branch of NASA. During his visit, he watched as the engineers and scientists experimented with new rovers, tools, and procedures for exploring other planets. “When we decide what celestial destination we’re going to next, ” said one of the lead engineers, “we’ll be ready.” At the new home for the orbiter Atlantis, history is building the future.