When I was much younger I toyed with the idea of becoming an astronaut (I think this was right after my phase where I wanted to be a detective like Nancy Drew or the girl who rides the elephant in the circus). Unfortunately, growing up at the bottom end of Africa doesn’t really allow for much opportunity to head into space, so that dream too faded into the mist and eventually became nothing more than a penchant for sci-fi movies. I occasionally read articles in the National Geographic about space exploration, but in general that interest has become something of the past.
Gareth, movie buff that he is and even more inclined towards the sci-fi genre than I am, is extremely fond of Tom Hanks’ Apollo 13 and, more recently, Matt Damon’s The Martian. So he absolutely insisted that we go to the Gateway to Space Exhibition currently on show in Johannesburg.
Visitors are immediately given a taste of life in space when, to gain entrance to the exhibition, you stumble through a pitch black tunnel. A dome-shaped window shows us flying over earth, the lights of North America lighting up the blackness of space.
And then you’re inside the main hall. At first glance it does seem a bit boring, with more to read than to look and interact with, but if you actually take the time to read the informative boards it turns out to be quite interesting.
I was immediately hooked and pulled in when I found the section on Jules Verne and how eerily accurate his 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon was, despite writing the book nearly a hundred years before the first space mission launched. From there it was easy to follow the history of the Apollo missions, including Apollo 11 with its ground-breaking crew’s first steps on the moon, right through to Soviet missiles, Yuri Gagarin, the international space station and the lunar rover. Even Darth Vader made a special appearance.
Gareth and I were particularly impressed with the recreation of the MIR space station and how it left us completely disoriented. We stumbled out of there with a new appreciation of what it must feel like to live in a gravity-free environment.
We learned about space food and giggled at space toilets. We looked at pictures of astronauts exercising on special bicycles to keep their muscle strength from deteriorating in space. We saw countless varieties of space suits and one pair of special space boots. We pushed buttons in a shuttle cockpit. We touched the cool smoothness of a moon rock.
We had a lot of fun.
The exhibition gave us the opportunity to boldly go where only a few have gone before. We will probably never set foot in space, but at least we’ve had a small taste of it now, and the next time we watch Star Trek or read a sci-fi novel, we’ll have some appreciation of what life in space is really like.