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Lilly Boudreau, 3, explores Chabot Space and Science Center's "Luminous Moon" exhibition with her nanny, Manon Hubert-Brémieux.

Museum exhibit celebrates Oakland’s view of the moon

on September 6, 2019

Fifty years ago, Apollo 11 touched down on the moon. For just a few more days, Bay Area residents can explore an exhibit dedicated to what scientists have learned since that historic touchdown and where they hope to go from there.

The Chabot Space and Science Center’s limited-time “Luminous Moon” exhibition, which closes on September 8, highlights the moon’s role in current and future space exploration. The exhibition, which opened June 22, features massive, high-resolution photos of the moon’s surface and interactive activities designed to engage visitors of all ages.

Of the more than 50 photos displayed on the wall of the center’s gallery-like Gruener Astronomy Hall, many were taken using Chabot’s very own telescopes. Some provide crystal clear images of the moon’s topography—portraits of mountains that formed when space debris hit the rocky surface, and birds-eye mosaics of craters caused by similar impacts—while others are more abstract and artistic.

“The photos from our own telescope are one-of-a-kind,” said Mary Catherine Frantz, a marketing associate for the museum, as she walked through the exhibit. “You’re getting Oakland‘s view of the moon, rather than NASA’s.”

The remainder of the photos come from Apollo missions and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a satellite that has provided close-up images of the moon’s surface—including the far side—since its launch in 2009. According to Elizabeth Etienne, exhibitions project manager for the center, their team chose to feature the photos prominently to give guests a more “intimate” experience with a familiar celestial body.

“We see it every night,” Etienne said. “It’s our closest cosmic neighbor. But the photos and the technology we have now can bring us into very close contact, so there’s more of a physical intimacy, and we can really see what it looks and feels like to be on the ground.”

Interactive exhibits allow visitors to do more than look. At one station, visitors can use straws and simple plastic connectors to build geodesic lunar structures. On one Wednesday morning, a 3-year-old boy and his nanny worked together to build a dome. As she got lost in the task, he made a mess of the colorful straws.

Visitors can run their hands along a plastic display that mimics the geology of the moon’s craters, getting a sense of their depth and shapes. They can pull back a spring-loaded rod—like ones found on old-fashioned pinball machines—to launch a “meteor” (a small metal ball) into sand to create unique impact craters.

The exhibition includes a few different engagement points that are specifically meant for younger kids, including picture books that range from Native American folklore and lunar legends to triumphant tales of a dog who goes to space. In one area, kids can scribble on table-sized, high-definition photos of the moon.

At Chabot Space and Science Center's "Luminous Moon" exhibition, visitors are encouraged to draw on high-definition photos of the moon.
At Chabot Space and Science Center’s “Luminous Moon” exhibition, visitors are encouraged to draw on high-definition photos of the moon.

“For them, the moon is not just an interesting thing to look at,” said Camie Bontaites, a creative content producer for the center, nothing that younger generations could be a part of future missions to the moon and beyond.

In one area, visitors can post sticky notes on a wall about what comes to mind when they think about the moon. One note, signed Margaux, 8, reads: “I think of the vastness of the universe and the world and how so much bigger the universe is.” Another shares a visitor’s memory of watching the first lunar landing with their family. “I was only 7,” the note reads, “but I remember it so vividly. Thank you to my dear dad.” A few notes mention cheese.

At Chabot Space and Science Center's "Luminous Moon" exhibition, visitors are encouraged to explore their perceptions of the moon.
At Chabot Space and Science Center’s “Luminous Moon” exhibition, visitors are encouraged to explore their perceptions of the moon.

Chabot staff worked with researchers at the NASA Ames Research Center to provide information on current lunar science, including the push to use knowledge gathered from lunar expeditions to help move toward Mars exploration. By sending people, plants and technology to the moon, scientists have been able to study the effects and limitations of space travel—its effects on the human body, how well plant-based life grows in space, how to best manage fuel reserves—before planning to send crewed expeditions farther out into the solar system.

Etienne says the prospect of putting people on Mars is very exciting, and lunar science is the reason it may be possible. “We’re learning the feasibility of space travel inside our immediate universe, what the steps would actually be,” Etienne said. “We’re at the cusp of something, but we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen.” 

Bontaites, who helped develop the exhibition, has a background in the philosophy of science. She says there are thousands of people involved in current space exploration research, from engineers to artists to writers—and even some origami masters, who have helped engineer foldable lunar structures. She said the future of space travel, whether funded by public institutions or private companies, will likely look different from what we can imagine.

“The next generation is going to be involved in the space travel industry in ways that we’ve never even thought of,” Bontaites said. “It’s not just about astronauts anymore.” 

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