Space is for everybody. It’s not just for a few people in science or math, or for a select group of astronauts. That’s our new frontier out there, and it’s everybody’s business to know about space.

— Christa McAuliffe, Teacher and Challenger Astronaut

July 20, 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, recalling not only the Cold War space race of an era gone by, but also generating nostalgia for one of humankind’s greatest achievements –– our first steps on the moon. Yet, while the glory days of the Apollo missions are long gone, excitement for what many believe is a new golden age of exploration and discovery is happening right now. 

From new missions to return to the moon to possibly establishing human colonies on Mars, space exploration has returned in force, with big ambition. But it’s not only future astronauts who are leading the charge into this new age of discovery. Some of the most anticipated discoveries are being generated via observatories, whether space-based ones like the Hubble Telescope, or giant ground-based traditional ones.  

And while most of us won’t be on a rocket anytime soon, the stars are definitely within reach right here in Michigan.

Three ways to kick off your “star trek” here on campus range from the historic Detroit Observatory in the Bentley Historical Library, to the planetarium at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, to telescopes wielded by the students and residents of Ann Arbor at the Student Astronomical Society. 

Getting Starstruck

Excitement and passion for the sciences is tangible here on campus. More than a simple passion for education, or enthusiasm for the geekier side of all things space (live long and prosper), there has been a growing sense of animation among the community for the sciences. 

“Huge numbers of students are coming to the planetarium shows,” says Lori Ann Dick, manager of marketing and communications at the Museum of Natural History. “Weekend mornings are swarming. It’s a real community.” 

The museum, which has been undergoing extensive renovations this past year, has hit the ground running in its multi-staged re-openings. The Planetarium and Dome Theater exhibit and interactive experience has proven to be an exciting, highly anticipated part of the museum’s ongoing work to update their facilities and improve the overall visitor experience to the museum.

Adds Gary D. Krenz, who works with the Detroit Observatory: “I hear people excited about rejuvenating the pushing of boundaries. We are in a new phase of excitement, about exploring space. There’s been more public attention than I would have predicted.” And at the core of this excitement, Dr. Krenz observes, “Science has always been a combination of pure curiosity driven to push the bounds of knowledge.” Where better to find a kindred spirit to this curiosity than on a university campus? 

The reason for the excitement is threefold. First, both the museum and the observatory have a deep, rich history on campus. 

Planetarium manager Matt Linke explains, “The roots of the museum go back to the beginning of the University.” Linke jokes, “the original (museum) being a cabinet of curiosities almost 200 years ago!” As for where these masses are coming from, Linke says “Generations have attended the museum –– we already had the (audience) base, a kinship with those who came before.” 

While certainly the wonders of the museum draw visitors far and wide, it is undeniable that the museum also holds a special place in many Wolverine, and local Ann Arbor-ite, hearts.  Revisiting old memories and making new ones –– all while engaging our child-like wonder and curiosity — is in us all. 

Dr. Krenz echoes this, emphasizing how the University has always held a track record for research and pushing the bounds of knowledge –– a reputation that started with the foundation of the Detroit Observatory in 1854. While the observatory itself is no longer an “active” research observatory, it remains an “exciting hub for students.” 

Second, the emphasis on accessibility has been vital for drawing in both veteran science fans, and those eager to learn. 

The museum’s renovated planetarium features wheelchair friendly ramps and seating, along with chairs that have removable arms, allowing for those with limited mobility to rise and seat themselves with ease. 

But things don’t stop there –– Linke highlights a new program for deaf children which was piloted at the planetarium, utilizing new technology to connect the exhibit’s accompanying soundtrack to the children’s auditory systems (such as implants). This enabled the visiting kids to experience the exhibit like any other child or adult might, providing a “normalized” experience for anyone and everyone. It’s an impressive level of inclusion for children with disabilities, showcasing both the museum and the University’s dedication to accessibility.

The observatory, too, has prioritized accessibility in the construction of the new annex –– an additional entrance to the observatory, which will feature not only wheelchair entrances, but classrooms, event spaces and exhibits. 

From their headquarters in West Hall, the Student Astronomical Society tackles accessibility on the front lines of campus, working to inform, educate and showcase the wonders of astronomy to the campus community. As SAS outreach co-chair Josiah Sherk outlines, “SAS hopes to focus on outreach, improving our open houses, as well as focusing on external outreach within the community.” 

These open houses often include a variety of activities structured to engage and inform students from any discipline or major about astronomy. From physics demonstrations and models, to tutoring University students in astronomy, and even hosting open stargazing sessions utilizing the observing facilities at Angell Hall, SAS offers a variety of resources and tools to all its members, students and locals. 

Sherk further explains, “We are dedicated to taking people with a passing interest in astronomy, or dedicated to astronomy as a career path, (and) bringing them together and providing them with opportunities to give back to their community.”

Third, there is a key balance being struck between nostalgia for what’s old and a passion for embracing what’s new. 

As Matt Linke observes, “The Natural History Museum has been a presence on campus for the past 42 years, and the museum has moved four times … We were in the Ruthven building for 90 years –– a place that was near and dear to heart.” 

The team at the museum has welcomed the move to the new Biological Sciences Building with optimism and excitement. But while the modern design of the museum’s new home is awe-inspiring, and renovations have brought more technologically advanced mechanics to the museum’s exhibits and organization, not everything in the newly reopened U-M museum is brand new. According to Dick, dozens of relics and exhibits from the old museum have been saved and brought to the new museum site.

“You’re walking around all this new stuff, and then you see something and go, ‘Oh, that’s familiar!’” Linke jokes. 

Back at the Detroit Observatory, a similar approach is underway. According to Dr. Kenz, new renovations don’t include any direct change or update to the original historic building. Rather, the construction hopes to add to the pre-existing space, in lieu of replacing it. 

The positive buzz around campus may be an indicator of a larger excitement brewing around the globe. Not everyone may share the cherished memories the Wolverines hold dear here in Ann Arbor, but this mix of nostalgia, accessibility and advancement can be seen on the national (and even international) level. 

Don’t Fix What Ain’t Broke

While the planetarium shows make for an excellent foray into the stars, SAS offers a more direct, hands-on way to continue your “star trek” through campus: telescopes. 

Both the observatory and SAS offer regular stargazing sessions and related activities throughout the year. But with the observatory currently under renovation, it’s the perfect time for SAS to shine. 

Aside from hosting most SAS events, Angell Hall also houses the Astronomy Department, along with its own observatory and viewing platform for students and faculty across campus.

New technology is undeniably helping to reinvent the field of astronomy, and the greater natural sciences, too. New smartphone apps –– like SkyView, Star Chart and Star Rover to name a few –– allow the everyday user to engage and interact with the stars on a new personal, more direct level. Many of these apps utilize augmented reality to enhance virtual stargazing. Users can use these apps to locate and view constellations, track objects in the sky and learn about our solar system. As cool as telescopes can be (they certainly recall a sense of vintage nostalgia), are apps the new everyman’s telescope? SAS’s Sherk says no. 

Sherk says, “Technology is developing as a tool, and it’s always been a tool –– it just helps us do things more efficiently. The fact of the matter is that something the size of a smartphone will never be able to do what a telescope can do.”

While the capabilities of smartphones are seemingly immeasurable, it seems that no matter how advanced the classic iPhone or Samsung can get, their small size prevents the telescope from becoming obsolete. Sherk elaborates, “Larger telescopes will have a clearer image, and they’ll be able to see more. The reason we need to use a larger telescope is because it has a bunch of mirrors in it in order to capture as much light as possible to create a clearer image of what we’re trying to look at.” 

But, while telescopes continue to reign supreme, smartphones can still be a versatile tool for astronomical observation. Sherk explains, “Lots of people like to take amateur astronomy photography; They’ll try to take pictures through their telescopes, and some people even like to use their smartphones (for this) … Using smartphones for photography, or even helping your telescope to locate certain objects in the sky, that (becomes) a great tool.”

For many, “science” often holds the connotation of new, cutting-edge and modern. Yet, when it comes to astronomy, it seems the old-fashioned methods can’t be beat. Sometimes, “new” doesn’t translate to “better.” As the saying goes, “Don’t fix what ain’t broke.”

For the amateur astronomers –– or those eager to become one –– both SAS’s open houses and telescope viewing sessions, along with buzz-worthy apps, are great ways to continue your exploration through the stars right here at “home.” 

To Infinity, and Beyond: A look to the future 

Campus has its head in the stars and so, it seems, does the rest of the world. Beyond the bounds of Ann Arbor, things are kicking into gear to usher into a new age of scientific discovery and space exploration. 

With advancing technology allowing for the realization of what were once impossible dreams, humanity’s gaze once again returns to the moon. To some, a moon landing may seem to be an old hat-trick –– after all, it’s been done a few times already, hasn’t it? But while a dozen moon landings, 24 lunar orbits and roughly 550 men and women launched into space may seem impressive, in actuality these numbers do not suggest an ease, or mastery of space travel. Rather, there is much more work to do. 

The new Apollo 11? A lunar base on the moon by 2030. A goal emphasized by growing interest from private sector companies to engineer commercial flights to space, from the likes of Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. On a smaller, more immediate scale, 2024 has become the rallying point for humankind’s return to the moon –– the “baby-steps” before the Star Wars-esque Lunar Base. Meanwhile, China and India have made space travel a new priority, suggesting that a modern-day space race is brewing –– a race potentially driven not only by politics, but by private-sector investment and innovation.

It is certainly an age of wonder that we have come upon. And for those who aren’t yet sold –– those who don’t feel the tell-tale itch of curiosity to get up, go out and learn about science! –– here are a few passing words to change your mind.

To anyone who has yet to take a jaunt to the museum, Linke offers, “Who doesn’t want to see a dinosaur?” (The museum has some very cool dinosaurs). Dick adds, “We’re open late on Thursdays, and it’s perfect for a date!” 

For the people who have deluded themselves into thinking telescopes aren’t the coolest thing about campus, Dr. Krenz enthuses, “There’s nothing quite like looking through a telescope. Seeing the rings of Saturn very clearly, for instance, or the moons of Jupiter –– (The observatory) is still a place where people can (become) inspired; a place where people can touch the universe beyond the atmosphere.” 

So, consider taking a “star trek” here on campus. Experiencing the universe from behind an IMAX movie screen is all well and good –– but the real thing, now that’s something worth seeing (and it’s free!). After all, it’s the final frontier.

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