Where Next, Columbus?

Closed on March 4, 2002

Five hundred years ago, Christopher Columbus sailed west across the Atlantic, using the stars to guide him. Today, modern explorers are charting a course that may eventually take humanity out among the stars themselves. How and why have we come from seafaring to spacefaring? What challenges and choices do we face now?

The Where Next, Columbus? exhibition asked visitors to consider the motives and methods of exploration, as well as the options and possibilities for future space exploration.


Exploring This World
This first section of the exhibition, "Exploring This World", walked through the past 500 years of exploration - Spain's Enterprise of the Indies, the young United States' Corps of Discovery to the West, and the Cold War era American mission to the Moon - were shown on one side of the entryway. These examples illuminated the motives, technologies, risks, costs, and results of exploration. On the opposite side, the changing conception of this world as revealed through key maps of the past 500 years, as well as our changing conception of the universe as revealed through cosmographical diagrams and astronomical images, was shown. Today neither this world nor the universe at large bears much resemblance to the concepts of 500 years ago. Exploration - by traveling to places and by observing them from a distance - has had tremendous impact.

Exploring New Worlds
The exhibition's next section was a 3,000 square-foot simulated Martian landscape. Visitors followed paths in a valley on Mars; steep canyon walls rise to the ceiling on two sides, and a vista across the valley opens in murals on two walls. Visitors could follow either or both paths through the Mars site. The theme of one path was robotic exploration, and of the other, human. Highlights along the robotic path included a 3/4 scale model of the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft and a full scale rover Sojourner which landed on the surface of Mars on July 4, 1997. Both objects were placed on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

To The Stars
The third and final section shifted our scale of distance and time from the solar system to the galaxy. At the entrance to this area, a uniquely accurate mural of the Milky Way leads into a room-sized model of our neighborhood in the galaxy: a three-dimensional stellarium shows the locations and magnitude of more than 700 stars within 50 light years of the Sun. The stellarium prompted visitors to realize how much more vast the distances are between stars than planets, how much more challenging the prospects are for interstellar travel compared to planetary travel, and how we may explore by means other than travel.