'Spacetacular' showcases Iowa City's galactic history


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In Iowa and around the world, our eyes are drawn to the sky. From the moon to the stars, to planets and satellites, space has inspired awe and fascination for centuries.

Charles Miller of the Iowa Space Science Center said the program hopes to capture this sense of wonder in their inaugural 10-hour Spacetacular event, held at the Englert Theatre on July 7. The event is free of charge and open to the public, providing space-related activities focused on informing and entertaining visitors of all ages.

"It's our first major public exposure to let people know about our nonprofit and to entertain, inspire, and give them information," Miller, director of the ISSC, said. "The Science Museum has been around for decades and there are good reasons for us to have one. Space science is one of the most popular among the public in general."

Spacetacular begins with a digital star show for kids under the ISSC's traveling planetarium from 12-3 p.m., hosted by Andrew Chaikin, a space science enthusiast and celebrated author of The Man on the Moon and Voices from the Moon. From 3 to 5:45 p.m. a screening of the film Apollo 13, followed by dinner with special guests Chaikin and UI professor Donald Gurnett will take place. And from 7:45 to 9 p.m., the two guests will give presentations; Gurnett's on "The Search for Life in the Solar System", Chaikin on the history of Apollo missions and the importance of exploration.

"People have a sort of issue in their mind of what is human's place in the universe," Gurnett said. "The big question is, 'what's the chance of life existing elsewhere?' and I think that's a really profound question. If we found life someplace else, it'd be the discovery of the century. I wanted to focus on the question of — what have we learned from space science over the past fifty years since the beginning of the space era?"

And according to Gurnett and Miller, much has been learned about our solar system since the Space Age, much of it due to advances in technology forged in Iowa City.

"James Van Allen was involved at the very earliest points of our national space program," Miller said. "The state of Iowa and the University has the distinction of designing and building the electronics that went into our first satellite. Iowa is one of the first universities around that designed their own space craft: The Injun and Hawkeye series, designed and manufactured in Iowa City. Iowa's had a pretty unique role, and it's very impressive."

Miller said the Iowa City community is still eager to learn about the 2,000-year-old study.

"Because it has such a long history, its story parallels a lot of the history of major stories of science, making it a convenient vehicle for presenting science history [including] our Iowa heritage," Miller said. "There are a lot of smart kids in Iowa City that can ask a lot of clever questions, and [space discovery] really catches the imagination of kids."

Mary Lestina, City High science teacher who earned a degree in astronomy from the University of Northern Iowa, said she is constantly observing and cultivating her students' curiosity for space.

"We have such a strong science program in Iowa City which is a wonderful thing," she said. "Space history is really key for the students to understand where we have been and all the progress that we've made, because it's something we take for granted. They don't often realize all the struggles and problem-solving that was involved with the Space Race."

Although Iowa City has been a center for astronomical research and development, Miller said he and the ISSC are working hard today to continue promoting advancements at the Space Center that, like the funding for NASA missions in recent years, are experiencing lows.

"The only two science centers in Iowa without a planetarium are Iowa City and Cedar Rapids," Miller said. "There are local science teachers who have taken their kids to planetariums as far away as Bettendorf just to have the experience. So there is a need for it."

Lestina said she is one of these teachers.

"We develop their curiosity during the class, and then allow them to have additional experiences that go above and beyond the classroom through field trips," she said. "When I was a planetarium director at UNI, I saw how interested the students became and saw how teachers used it to enhance their classroom, and also just the additional experiences of the students coming with their parents outside field trips. I really think it would be beneficial to students [to have] a planetarium in Iowa City."

But Miller said events like Spacetacular, which provoke interest in astronomy and inform the public about the need for support of space programs, help the ISSC on their mission to incorporate such educational outlets. They hope to one day house a permanent facility and purchase a larger portable planetarium with seating.

One of the Englert's directors Wendy Ford said she expects a range of community members to come out to the event in support of the ISSC's goals.

"We have a community that's highly educated and who are very interested in science and these subjects from both an intellectual and academic side of things, and those folks who are parents and trying to instill the importance of learning about space, science and the stars to their children, so it really serves a huge swath of community," she said. "Think this is one of those really interesting opportunities the Englert has had to present something to a segment of the community they haven't been able to really reach yet."

Gurnett also emphasized the importance of sustained astronomical research and inquiry in the community, even after the hey-day of 20th century space exploration has passed.

"There's always been an interest in space exploration, but I think some people don't realize we're still making important, relevant discoveries today," Gurnett said. "We've found that Venus has a very high greenhouse effect and that is certainly a current topic and relevant to our situation right now. There are still unanswered questions that are very important. How well the public will continue to study space research remains to be seen, but we've received a lot of support in the last few years."

But Miller said he has no doubts space exploration will continue to hold the mankind's interest.

"I think astronomy has a special place," Miller said. "You can go out at night and look up and see things that have been around thousands of years. There's a certain appeal and romanticism to it that lasts."

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