The new Sparks in Space exhibit officially opens Saturday in the museum’s Changing Gallery, located to the right of the main entrance, and is one of the first displays in Nevada that incorporates iPads, said Dick Dreiling, museum volunteer and board member.
“The iPads were bought for this exhibit, but we will put iPads throughout the other exhibits once the space exhibit is taken down,” Dreiling said.
The new technology was purchased with funds from a Ben Snow Foundation grant and is part of an ongoing effort by the museum to create a more interactive experience for patrons.
“The museum has been working to … appeal to young and old,” Executive Director Anthea Humphreys said in a press release.
The space exhibit was developed with the help of the Challenger Learning Center of Northern Nevada and a group of Sparks High School astronomy students and includes information on rocket testing in Sparks, animal “pioneers” in space and the next generation in space exploration.
Dreiling dug up information for the From Railroads to Rockets portion of the exhibit, and said he found some little-known facts about rocket testing operations that once took place in the Spanish Springs area.
“Not a lot of people realize that Rocketdyne owned 126,000 acres where Spanish Springs is now,” Dreiling said.
Rocketdyne tested rocket engines used in the Apollo and Gemini programs in the area north of Sparks at the Nevada Field Laboratory for a number of years until the late 1960s when NASA stopped buying engines that were not tested in its own facilities, he said.
“The actual flight engines were tested there,” Dreiling said. “Thousands of them.”
Visitors to the rocket portion of the exhibit will be able to explore space at iPad kiosks and can try their hand at piloting a space craft and landing on the moon using a Return to Camelot
simulator. The flight simulator was purchased by the Reno Air Racing Association and allows the user to “fly” a space ship by using a joy stick.
The Animals in Space portion of the exhibit contains information and photos documenting the work of local veterinarian Richard Simmonds, who spent more than six years of an Air Force career managing animal testing components of NASA’s lunar quarantine program and a joint space biology program with the Soviet Union.
Simmonds, who serves on the board of directors of the Sparks High School-based Challenger Learning Center, volunteers at the museum and is now sharing his experiences with the community.
“In the exhibit one learns about the various animal astronauts including dogs, mice, fish and primates,” Humphreys said.
Visitors will see firsthand a prototype of a “mouse hotel” Simmonds helped develop to send mice from Nevada to space for a cosmic ray experiment.
“They sent the little pocket mouse, which is found in Nevada, because it requires very little water to survive,” Dreiling said as he pointed to images of cosmic rays going through the brain cells of the mice.
The experiment was to determine whether cosmic rays were harming astronauts, who reported seeing flashes of light in their eyes, Dreiling said.
Dreiling said besides his work with animals traveling to space, Simmonds also was involved with a lunar receiving laboratory where moon dust was tested for toxins. Human astronauts had to go into quarantine until Simmonds determined whether moon dust was harmful.
“They took the moon dust to an area full of creatures and mixed the moon dust in their water,” Dreiling said, and it was determined the dust was harmless.
Simmonds also sent fish to space to see how they would swim in a weightless environment and a spider to see if it would be able to spin a web, Dreiling said. The exhibit contains photos as well as the outcomes of those experiments.
In The Next Generation portion of the exhibit, visitors will learn about current and future endeavors in space.
“Here in northern Nevada we find Dr. Wendy Calvin, who is actively involved with the current explorations of Mars,” Humphreys said. “As a Challenger Learning Center board member, she is helping right here at Sparks High School to develop the next generation of explorers.”
Simmonds said the Challenger Learning Center serves students all over Washoe County with its portable sky and cosmic shows.
The Sparks Heritage Museum is located at 814 Victorian Ave. and is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is $5 for adults and children age 12 and younger get in free. Active military members and their families gain admission for free as well.
Over the next six months, the museum will offer a series of programs relating to the space exhibit such as dome programs, movies poetry readings and lectures. For more information, call 355-1144.