The 27,000 people who wander through the Air and Space Museum every day will probably love "Stars."
This new permanent exhibit, opening today, attempts to cover the story of astronomy "from Stonehenge to the Space Telescope" in a way that media-bombarded Americans can relate to: with the huge backup telescope of Skylab complete to the lifesize astronauts floating around it, with a video game called "Fusion" in which you set off your own hydrogen explosion, with a model of Stonehenge when it was still operating as an observatory, and a walk-in model of the sun's interior, and various space machines dangling from the ceiling (a museum trademark), and a tape that plays "Stardust" and "Aquarius" and even "Red Sails in the Sunset."
The problem with modern astronomy is that it is basically a lot of numbers.
"We had to design for several levels of interest," said curator David DeVorkin. "There are one-liners you can read as you stroll by, and demonstrations, and things you can operate, and there's still enough information on the walls so you can spend hours and hours in here."
One thing people always want to know is how you're supposed to look through a telescope that's hanging 300 miles out in space. Walter Boyne, the museum director, pointed out the one-fifth-scale model of the Space Telescope that will be shot into space in 1985 aboard the shuttle and the exhibit that shows "how it sees objects," as the wall plaque announces.
Quite a bit of space is devoted to spectroscopy, the basic tool of astronomy since the 1860s, when a pair of Cal Tech scientists showed how the analysis of light given off by objects in space could tell us what they were made of, how fast they were traveling and some other things.
"We've tried to make it palatable, and even interesting," DeVorkin said, and certainly there is enough razzle-dazzle here to catch even the dullest eye.
You push a button to see how fast light travels to the moon and back (a little over a second). You push another to learn about a star whose light started its journey to your retina in the year you were born. "When we look far away we see into the past," the wall tells us. You see what size the stars would be if the earth were a BB. The sun is a tennis ball, Alpha Centauri is a baseball, Gamma Apodis is a basketball.
One of the most instructive shows emanates from the operating console of the International Ultraviolet Explorer satellite observatory. You can call up four different nebulae or other great sights in space, view them in the visual computer terms in which an astronomer would see them and watch as some area of the screen is analyzed for carbon content or other clues to its nature.
This exhibit dramatically demonstrates how spectroscopy brings us information from places we couldn't get to in a month of Sundays. We have come a long way from the day when astronomers discovered helium on the sun before its presence was known on earth.
"What do astronomers do with the light collected by a telescope?" the wall asks. "Rarely if ever today do they use their eyes to actually examine celestial objects. Cameras and electronic sensors have virtually replaced the eye at the telescope."
But in case anybody thought the sky belonged to the scientists, there are other exhibits: the stars in art, in literature, in music. And most charming of all, a celebration of celestial references in our daily lives: a Dallas football helmet with a star on it, a Milky Way bar, the Baltimore Sun, a Brenda Starr cartoon, a Chicken and Stars soup can, and so on, clear across the room.