"Space Odyssey" at Denver Museum of Nature & Science gets an update

When employees at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science began thinking about a space-science exhibit two decades ago, humans had just moved into the International Space Station, paving the way for further exploration of the solar system.

But in the 17 years since the museum’s “Space Odyssey” first opened — following three years of planning and construction — humans have largely stepped back from visiting our closest celestial neighbors (thanks, robots!). Meanwhile, digital technology and faster processors have chipped away at the secret domain of black holes and graviton waves. And advances in physics at the smallest level have provided insight on large-scale mysteries such as dark energy and dark matter.

If you go

“Space Odyssey.” Redesigned space-science gallery reopening 9 a.m. Friday, Nov. 13, at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, 2001 Colorado Blvd. Tickets: $15-$20; free for ages 3 and under. All guests are required to have a timed ticket to enter the museum and a separate timed ticket for “Space Odyssey” (however, there is no extra charge for the exhibition). More info, tickets at 303-370-6000 or dmns.org.

How does one translate that into an entertaining, kid-friendly experience?

“One of the major changes for us was going to the community and finding out what they wanted in a space-science gallery,” said Naomi Pequette, program specialist at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. “People wanted to know not only new discoveries and facts, but also how we found those out.”

As a result, Pequette (also an astrophysicist) and space scientist Steve Lee, Ph.D., started from the ground up, envisioning themed “knowledge orbits” and other interactive areas in “Space Odyssey” that could help visitors understand the tools we use to learn about space. In other words: How do we know what we know about the night sky?

“We want to put guests in the spot of making these discoveries themselves,” Pequette said of “Space Odyssey,” which reopens to the public on Friday, Nov. 13, after a year-long renovation. “We really want to get these ‘Wow!’ moments happening.”

With a more colorful, spacious footprint, “Space Odyssey” certainly feels like a new exhibit. Museum staffers took areas the public didn’t have access to — mostly storage and classrooms encircling its planetarium — and increased the overall gallery size by 30% to roughly 10,000 square feet. Now visitors can visit a “fantasy spaceship,” grounded in science, that imagines what space exploration could look like in the coming years.

There’s also a “full sensory spacewalk” in a nearly soundproof environment, shot through with more than 11,000 “stars” using 43 miles of optical fiber to reinforce the illusion. Visitors can make their own “Hubble” images of nebulae and galaxies, or hear “traditional and living indigenous knowledge of the night sky and Earth origins.” And they can program a robot in a Mars diorama using a simplified version of the same software scientists use to control real Martian rovers.

“Having internet-connected devices in the gallery was the big, shiny thing when we first opened,” Pequette said with a laugh. “So we really thought about, ‘What unique things can we provide now that you can’t find on your own, and that you have to visit us to experience?’ ”

The features aren’t all new. A popular, toddler-focused dress-up area (Astro Tots) is back — albeit idle until pandemic restrictions lift — and the area is more “bright and whimsical to appeal to kids’ sense of imagination and play,” Pequette said. Visitors can still attempt to dock a spacecraft (updated from the now-defunct shuttle program) and make the biggest, messiest meteor crater impact.

“Our guests really just wanted to make craters in sand,” Pequette said of the community feedback for the exhibit. “It’s so satisfying to see that lovely pattern of ejecta on the outside and watch it on a high-speed camera. You’ll still get that fantastic, satisfying experience; it’ll just a look a little bit better and be more scientifically accurate.”

Because it was designed pre-pandemic, some of the more interactive features will have to wait.

“The vast majority is up and running, although one interactive we will have to deploy later is where you smell the universe,” Pequette said. “We don’t want guests to take down their masks to do that, but we’ll still present the awesome science of that. It’s designed to be more about self-exploration and a visitor-driven experience.”

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