Open the Pod Bay Doors

San Diego Air & Space Museum debuts “The Science of ... Aliens”


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In November 1969, a microbiologist at Atlanta’s U.S. Communicable Disease Center craned his neck to observe microbes split and reanimate in a petri dish. One of the most common bacterial trespassers of the human nose, mouth and throat, Streptococcus mitis, multiplied in the lens. Nothing remarkable about a routine culture.

However, the 477,710-mile round-trip the microorganisms had traveled to reach the laboratory was exceptional. What made them earthshaking were the 31 months they had survived on insulation foam inside a lunar lander’s camera, exposed to the vacuum of space, solar radiation, temperatures 73 degrees Fahrenheit above absolute zero and pressure about one-trillionth that of its home planet — with no food, water or energy source. Astronauts aboard Apollo 12 had no inkling that by recovering components of 1967’s Surveyor 3, remnants of a sneeze would experience a homecoming as the first earthlings to ever visit the Moon’s surface.

Further proof that science and the imagination are compatible, “The Science of… Aliens” recently opened as San Diego Air & Space Museum’s featured exhibit. Unveiled in February, curator Karen Lacy said the family-friendly exhibit will run at least one year. Renowned scientists in astronomy, biology, mathematics and other disciplines contributed hard science throughout the attraction. One of its chief elements is interactivity. “The idea would be that it would spawn discussion,” says Lacy. It’s divided into four zones: Alien Fiction, Alien Science, Alien Worlds and Alien Communication.

From Cold War-era creature features and props to pop-culture bugaboos like the “alien autopsy” videos and tales of abduction, Alien Fiction explores many alien-related subtexts, including those that have shaped the sci-fi genre. Display bubbles also hold dozens of otherworldly toys whose cuteness can’t help but disarm earlier generations of cyborgs and commies.

In Alien Science, extremophiles and other radical life forms that inhabit Earth provide clues to extraterrestrial life. Hardy bacteria survive dangerous radiation levels and thrive in the salty crust of bone-dry lake beds. Within our own solar system, methane clouds in the dense atmosphere of the Saturnian moon, Titan, and an enormous ocean beneath the frozen surface of Europa, a Jovian moon, are key areas of curiosity.

Two fictitious landscapes, Blue Moon and Aurelia, are the crown jewels of Alien Worlds. Scientists extrapolated imaginary ecosystems that are projected onto interactive sled-shaped panels. Visitors’ hands activate heat-sensitive pads that widen into informational squares. Life-sustaining worlds orbit red dwarfs and gas giants. These resplendent landscapes amaze.

Alien Communication deals with potential means of contact with alien species. Despite some dry science, this rotunda invites patrons to send messages to aliens and contemplate the inherent challenges of communication across interstellar channels.

Tickets for “The Science of… Aliens” are $9–$24.75. Children under 2 are free. Signs are in English and Spanish. 2001 Pan American Plaza, Balboa Park, 619-234-8291, sandiegoairandspace.org

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