[image-51][image-78]A new outdoor exhibit at the NASA Goddard Visitor Center, titled the "Astrobiology Walk," displays Goddard's role in probing the origins of life on our world, in our solar system, and in the deep reaches of space.
The exhibit is the culmination of nearly two years of effort by the Goddard Center for Astrobiology (GCA), a ten-year-old enterprise dedicated to studying the formation and distribution of pre-biotic chemicals throughout space. The GCA is part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. "We don't deal with critters," said GCA education and public outreach lead Cynthia Cheung of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "Not even bacteria. We deal with the ingredients of life."
In 2011, the GCA developed a series of posters for Goddard's Open House event. The posters led viewers on a walk through significant events in the history of life on Earth. Following the Open House, during which 15,000 visitors toured Goddard, Cheung approached Visitor Center director Bill Buckingham about developing the concepts presented in the posters into an exhibit.
GCA principal investigator Michael Mumma envisioned the exhibit as an outdoor walk, similar to the 2001 installation titled "Voyage: A Journey Through Our Solar System" on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. "Voyage" consists of a series of stations representing the relative sizes and distances of planets in our solar system. GCA scientists sketched out a storyboard and a detailed content plan for each station along the proposed walk. After a competitive process, the GCA contracted with C&G Partners, of New York City and Exhibitology of Paterson, N.J. to design and build the exhibit. The two firms also built "Voyage."
Goddard's Astrobiology Walk consists of ten stations. Each station sits atop a stainless steel pillar and features two informational panels. One, which visitors read as they overlook the Goddard campus, describes basic science concepts in astrobiology. The other, read as visitors face the Rocket Garden's massive Delta rocket, explains Goddard's contribution to that science. Quick-response (QR) codes at each station link visitors' mobile devices directly to related web content.
Each station is also crowned with a three-dimensional icon – a visual representation of the science concepts being presented, whether an amino acid, a stromatolite rock from Australia, or a detailed model of an early barren Earth. Two icons, depicting the topography of Mars and the nucleus of comet Hartley 2, are based on satellite images and laser altimetry measurements. Exhibitology fabricated these two models using 3-D-laser printing, with later refinements by graphic artists. Visitors are allowed – and even encouraged – to touch everything.
Exhibit planners designed the Astrobiology Walk for durability. "When I come, as a taxpayer, I don't want to see rusted stations," Mumma said. "I want to see my tax dollars go to things that last, and that are well done." To that end, the exhibit team chose stainless steel pillars and matte high-pressure laminate coatings on the informational panels. Automobile paint coats the 3-D models, protecting them from wear over the exhibit's planned ten-year lifetime. Every component is weatherproof and child-proof.
Science is an ongoing process, so some exhibit information may become outdated and obsolete in coming years. That's why the exhibit was designed to be modular, allowing a single panel to be replaced, or a station added, as needed.
"The individual stations address active, live scientific inquiry," Mumma said. "These exhibits will change with time. And they should!" he added. "We want to present the frontiers."
The exhibit explores visitors' burning questions. Are there planets outside the solar system? Do they have life? What about planets or moons in our own solar system? How did life arise on Earth? Buckingham hears these questions all the time.
"To now have something that covers that range of questions is fabulous," he said. "It adds a huge volume of content and quality to the whole Visitor Center experience." Since the exhibit's installation in mid-August, he's noticed many more visitors spending much more time outdoors.
The Astrobiology Walk is one part of an ongoing transformation and revitalization of the 37-year-old Visitor Center, which draws around 40,000 visitors a year. Not many years ago, the Visitor Center offered only tired exhibits and decidedly un-inspiring views. The view out the eastern windows was no more than a parking lot, a bus stop, and a drink machine. "When you looked out these windows, you had no feel whatsoever that you were at NASA," Buckingham said.
Now a large, high-resolution composite photo of the moon covers some of the east windows. The semi-transparent moon display, alongside photos of nearby stars and galaxies, allows enough natural light through to create a sparkling star field. Large infrared images of the southern Milky Way and the Large Magellanic Cloud, a companion galaxy, cover nearby windows. Similar depictions of the Earth and sun will soon adorn the west windows, Buckingham said. Visitors will feel immersed in space – much as they do when climbing into the center's hugely popular Gemini space capsule mock-up.
As budgets allow, GCA will update and expand the Astrobiology Walk annually. First on the wish list? A station dedicated to the Curiosity rover, whose adventures had barely commenced during the exhibit design process. Cheung also envisions a display of the dinosaur footprint discovered last year on Goddard's campus during excavation for a new building.
Mumma hopes the addition of the Astrobiology Walk, as an effort of Goddard scientists, designers, artists and support staff, will help visitors understand the ongoing scientific endeavors at the center.
"The Visitor Center," he said, "should be a place where visitors come to learn what happens, not only within NASA, but at Goddard. What do we do here? Why is it important? What are we hoping to learn?"
The Astrobiology Walk was formally unveiled at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on October 29, 2013 at 2 p.m. EDT at the Visitor's Center. Goddard scientists who contributed to the project will stand by the stations as docents, ready to address the station content and concepts for the NASA administrators and invited guests attending the event.
For more images from the opening, visit our Flickr gallery:
For more information about the NASA Goddard Visitor's Center, visit:
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center