‘Space Expo’ offers a cosmic sense of wonder

by Ben Brady

Special To The Japan Times

With man’s natural curiosity and a potentially endless, undiscovered universe waiting to be explored, it’s no wonder that space appeals equally to both the scientist and the fantasist. The “Space Expo 2014″ collaborative exhibition being hosted through Sept. 23 by U.S. space agency NASA and its Japanese counterpart JAXA at Chiba’s Makuhari Messe gives you a chance to see up close huge replicas and indeed real pieces of space among images of stars and a universe unknown.

The first of two parts of the exhibition belongs to NASA and “The Human Adventure,” charting the agency’s history from its formation in 1958 until the 1970s launch of America’s first space station, Skylab, via a carefully laid out, linear pathway. We start with “The Dreamers,” a stylized room where portraits of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and other famous sci-fi creators line the circular wall while biographies and examples of their work play on TV screens.

Next is a rivalry well represented in a small corridor where even the carpet is split between red and blue, with American novelties on one side, Russian on the other. With so much tension between America and Russia in the ’60s, it’s no wonder that the space race became a huge movement for propaganda. Impressive displays of newspaper clippings and videos playing speeches by then-President John F. Kennedy adorn the walls.

The introduction is a fun history lesson, but it is with “The Pioneers” that the exhibition has its first real “wow” moment. You hear gasps of amazement as adults and children alike first see mechanical parts dominating the floor space. Propaganda has been replaced by photos and biographies of great scientists; scale models of NASA rockets show years of developments, while various spacesuits line the path, stripped down to show how their layers have evolved.

Forty-five years ago we put a man on the moon. There have been massive advances in technology since that time (your smartphone is said to have more processing power than any of the Apollo mission equipment), and these are showcased as we move toward the end of the first section, with full replicas of the NASA moon rover and Russian sampling rover, replica command modules, engine parts, peripherals and more. This really is an impressive and comprehensive display.

The second part of the exhibition is less structured, and it’s difficult to know where to start. An impressive hall full of contemporary achievements, technology and futuristic theories lie before you, with models and information panels fighting for your attention. The 1/10-scale module from the International Space Station is the largest single article on the floor (if you ever wanted to know how an astronaut goes to sleep or indeed uses the toilet in zero gravity, this is the place to find out) and this gives you an idea of how huge the project is, but it is the life-sized replica of Japan’s own Hayabusa, a probe capable of collecting asteroid samples, that seems to grab most visitors’ attention when asked about their favorite pieces from the show.

One young woman describes it as “beautiful,” naming it her favorite part of an exhibition that overall was “so much fun.” An older man summarizes the experience perfectly when asked why he visited: “NASA and JAXA are traveling to the heavens, and, of course, I want to see that!” Another man attending with his family explains, “The kids’ summer holidays have just started; we wanted to show them something fun and interesting.”

The exhibition also seems to be inspiring a new generation of explorers. I ask one young boy his thoughts and he replies, “Now I know more about the planet we live on, and I see why it’s important to protect it. I think it would be interesting to go into space. I’d be up to that task.”

JAXA clearly has a larger stake in this side of the exhibition, with a detailed history of its own rocket development, culminating in a 1/25-scale model of the Epsilon shuttle, considered a significant development in solid-fueled space transport. Among models of engine parts and commercial space-flight vehicles, a huge solar sail (developed for the Ikaros project) hangs from the ceiling and accompanies panels on the exploration of Mars and Mercury, images of the moon’s lava tunnels and developments in ion-thruster technology.

As the event is co-hosted by NASA, there is a good amount of information written in English, and even if your language skills are limited the scale models and artifacts are enough to excite anyone with an interest in the history of space exploration.

“Space Expo 2014″ takes place at Makuhari Messe through Sept. 23; open 9:30 a.m.- 5 p.m. Admission is ¥2,500 at the door, with discounts for advance purchase and for students. For more information, visit www.space-expo2014.jp.