Paul Dusenbery: Bringing Space Science Down to Earth
Recent explorations of Mars are providing insights into the past, present, and future not only of the Red Planet, but of Earth as well. Paul Dusenbery, executive director of the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colorado, shared his perspective on developing an exhibition designed to provide visitors with a first-hand sense of exploring Mars as a real place, Marsquest, at the time of its opening in 2000.
I am the executive director of the Space Science Institute (SSI), a non-profit corporation and a nationally recognized center of excellence for the integration of scientific research, education, and public outreach in the earth and space sciences. I help to manage operations at the Institute, develop strategic plans, and work closely with SSI's board of directors. I am also the project director for the Space Weather Outreach Program and the Electric Space and MarsQuest exhibitions.
I have been interested in space science ever since humans first landed on the Moon. I love the study of naturefrom what's happening on Earth to the edges of the universe. In graduate school, I studied space plasma physics (the area of science that explains phenomena such as the aurora or Northern and Southern Lights). I was an active research scientist for ten years after receiving my Ph.D. My career took a dramatic turn when I became a program director at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the late 1980s. While I was at NSF, I learned that the public knew very little about my field of space physics and not a lot about science in general. When I left NSF in 1991, I wanted to strengthen the visibility of space sciencewhat better way to do this than by creating science center exhibitions?
The Beginnings of MarsQuest
Todd Clancy, an SSI researcher, is an expert on the atmosphere of Mars. MarsQuest became reality because Todd had many great contacts in the planetary research community and NASA was about to launch its decade of Mars exploration with the Pathfinder spacecraft. Mars holds a fascination for the public so it seemed natural to devote an entire exhibition to a specific planetone that humans may someday live on.
Our front-end evaluation study found that the general public was very interested in Mars but that its understanding of the Red Planet was superficial. In order to provide visitors with a sense of exploration, the exhibition will be organized around five specific Mars sites, each representing a different geologic formation. Visitors will learn about life in extreme conditions and whether life ever existed on Mars. They will also learn about what makes Earth and Mars similar and different. Finally, MarsQuest will be accompanied by a comprehensive education program. Teachers, students, and families will be able to understand Mars and in the process understand their own planet better.
The Challenge of Presenting New Discoveries
Because the exploration of Mars is on-going, it is important for the exhibition to remain up-to-date. We will likely solve this problem by producing a kiosk called "What's New on Mars?", and reconfiguring exhibit components when necessary. We want visitors to come away from the exhibition with some knowledge about the physical forces on Mars, a deeper appreciation for the beauty of its varied landscapes, and a deeper understanding of its life story. Mars may be the most important planet besides Earth in the next century.
I think that this statement from T.S. Eliot describes the MarsQuest experience best:
"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time."
T. S. Eliot