The fascination Earthlings have long held for the neighboring red planet of Mars is playing out in a big way with a new permanent, immersive exhibition at the Carnegie Science Center on Pittsburgh’s North Side.
“Mars: The Next Giant Leap,” a $4.5 million project, opens Friday, and Science Center officials are calling it the most ambitious new experience built since the museum’s inception in 1991.
The 7,400-square-foot exhibition is taking on a lofty mission that looks at how sustainability, climate change, social justice and equitable access to resources can impact humanity’s future on Mars and on Earth. That future doesn’t seem so distant with this week’s successful launch of Artemis I bringing NASA closer to sending the first astronauts to Mars.
Jason Brown, the Henry Buhl Jr. director of the Carnegie Science Center, said the creators of the exhibit took cues from local students who expressed their vision of what should be included.
“Students asked, ‘Why should I care about going into space when my friends and neighbors don’t have enough food to eat?’ (They) helped us realize what makes space exploration relevant to our community here is ultimately the same set of issues that will enable us to thrive right here in Pittsburgh,” Brown said.
“As you walk through the exhibition, you will be challenged to ask questions about what makes a community thrive, how our lives are shaped by our environments and how exploring Mars will impact life on Earth.”
Brown said they knew the exhibition had to be timely, interactive and inclusive.
“As John F. Kennedy noted, ‘We choose to go to the moon and other places, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.’ And we took a similar route.”
The exhibition includes a colorful, immersive Martian landscape, opportunities to drive a rover on the simulated surface of the red planet or walk through a hydroponic garden producing food that would help sustain humans on Mars.
The Carnegie Science Center worked with an exhibition design company called Luci Creative, based in Chicago and Boston.
“We knew we wanted a space exhibit, but we also knew that the (Carnegie Science Center) really wanted something that was relevant,” said Sarah Ingraham, Luci Creative’s associate director of exhibition development. “Our work began with a lot of community engagement sessions here in Pittsburgh to understand what would be appealing to Pittsburgh’s audiences. And the answer was a space exhibit that spoke to challenges and questions in our world today.”
Much of human curiosity about Mars involves questions about whether there is life there or if it existed in the past. The rover part of the exhibition is designed to let kids search for signs of life by doing something fun such as driving the rovers around on a simulated Martian surface. It helps them understand what things they might find on Mars that would indicate life has existed there.
“The rovers drive around and what we’re trying to show people is what kinds of evidence exists for life on Mars,” Brown said. “As the rovers drive around the landscape, they will trigger certain things that pop up on here, which are the types of evidence that NASA is currently using to look for life.
“So, they’re looking for things like magnetic materials which would indicate that there was once an atmosphere (and) ice which could indicate that there was once life — potentially microbial fossils.”
Another installation imagines a future 1,000-person human settlement on Mars. Touchscreens allow visitors to explore the settlement and answer questions such as how to address a power shortage and create new power supplies — geothermal, wind or nuclear. Visitors will vote and the votes will be collected after three months. The winning vote will determine the new model in the exhibition.
“Over the life of this exhibition, you’re going to see this model grow based on what our visitors feel is the most important thing to build it out,” Brown said. “What we’re trying to do is get people to think about the topics here on Earth. So, as we’re faced with power shortages here on Earth, understanding what our options are and then being able, as a society, to choose what’s best for us.”
There is also a “Mars Rock” on display, a piece of Martian lava that scientists believe came from Mars after being struck by an incoming meteorite. It eventually was captured by Earth’s gravity and discovered in 2015 in Northwest Africa.
“I wish, when I was younger, that this would have been here for me,” Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey said. “Think of how many minds we’re going to educate.”
The Mars exhibition opens Friday with a public grand opening Saturday. It is included with general admission to the Carnegie Science Center.