Saturday, July 10, 2010

Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination

This is part one of two on our trip to Huntsville, AL, home of the US Space and Rocket Center (and Space Camp). See Part Two here.

A couple of years ago, I started hearing about this exhibit that was touring the country. It was a Star Wars exhibit, and everything I had seen or read about it looked amazing. Movie models, costumes, props... I was licking my chops. But it was no where near Atlanta. I even considered going to see it last year when it was somewhere in Minnesota, but I couldn't make the time (and plane schedules) work out right. I swore if it ever got within driving distance, we would go.

Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination made its first stop in the Southeastern USA in Huntsville, AL, which is most appropriate, I must say. We'd have gone to see it anyway, but having it at the US Space and Rocket Center meant we pretty much *had* to go! Luke has been interested in shuttle launches and the like for a year or so now, so it was perfect. I even bought us tickets for a Friday, instead of a Saturday, trying to avoid the crowds if possible. Since it is only a 4-ish hour drive, we left after work Thursday. Given that we didn't leave until right at 5 PM, we didn't get very far on our journey before it was time to eat. We stopped in Marietta to eat at Sonny's. Little did I know that one of Atlanta's own quirky landmarks was going to be within sight!

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the famous Big Chicken (see Wikipedia entry). As the joke goes, giving directions in Atlanta will always involve "go down Peachtree," unless you're in Marietta, in which case you would substitute "when you see the Big Chicken." I've only driven by it a handful of times, and I knew Luke hadn't seen it, but I had no idea DH had never seen it! (How is that possible after living here nearly 15 years?!) As we left, we got turned around a little bit trying to get back to the interstate, and we ended up driving right past it for this much better photo.

After that it was on to Huntsville. Maggie (our Magellan GPS unit) and Google Maps could not agree on what route to take, but Maggie kept us on more interstates. Despite being about 30 miles longer in distance, her calculations said it was only about 5 minutes longer in time. I didn't relish the thought of being on unfamiliar US Highways and Alabama state routes in the middle of the night, so we went with the interstate. That route also allowed us to increase Luke's state count by 2! Alabama was new for him, but Maggie's route sent us through Tennessee as well. That gives him 8 now (Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Arkansas, Virginia, Tennessee, and Alabama). We were treated to some beautiful skies up that way.

We had reservations at the hotel right next to the center. Not the cheapest way to go, but it wasn't outrageous. It was most definitely the simplest option, and the hotel was very nice. I also suspected that a nap would be required in the afternoon, and I didn't want it to be a long drive back to the hotel. DH and I both slept poorly, so we were very grateful not to have to drive too far and maybe get lost the next morning. We were less than a mile away!

The next morning, we picked up our tickets and followed the gold footprints:

To the exhibit building, with this on the outside:

Awesome! And the first thing to greet your eyes upon entering the building is the Space Camp shuttle simulator:

I was practically giddy just looking at it. I could hear the campers in the area below, but I couldn't really see them. It was walled off so all you could do was look, but it was still pretty amazing. But that's not why we were there!

We were already running a little late for our 9 AM tickets, and no one had told us that they close the doors 10 minutes after your ticket time! Thankfully they will let you in with the next group, but I was not happy. It all worked out okay, though. The first thing we saw upon entry to the exhibit was this:

Followed by this:

Oh yeah, happy kid, happy parents!! For an idea of scale on the Millennium Falcon, Luke is standing directly in front of the glass for the X-Wing, and the Falcon was a good 20-25% larger. Photographs were allowed, even encouraged, but no flash and no tripod. Doesn't sound like a big deal until you see how darkly the models are lit. I know part of that is to preserve them; many of them are nearly 35 years old, and I'm sure they were not built at the time to be heirlooms. But it was still very hard to get good pictures without blur trying to handhold the camera for such long shutter speeds (and even harder to get non-blurry photos of the constantly moving child!). I was desperately wishing for my dad's good camera with the low light lens, but we did the best we could.

Here are a couple more for you, the Blockade Runner and the Star Destroyer used in the opening sequence of Star Wars (and don't you dare say "which one?"; there is only ONE movie *titled* Star Wars).

As you can see, the Blockade Runner is nearly twice as large as the Star Destroyer, even though in the film, the "huge" Star Destroyer engulfs the "tiny" Blockade Runner. It was so bizarre! In addition to the models, there were props and costumes:

And life-size mock-ups of digital characters. I love that the battle droid looks like it is pointing at him, and I could just cry that the photo of Luke with the Droideka is blurry. I took several, hoping one of them would be clear, but this is the best I could manage, with a slightly clearer side shot taken later.

"But wait!" I can hear you saying, "I'm seeing a lot of the 'imagination' part, but not much of the 'science' part." I'm getting there! LOL Obviously, the exhibit tied many of the props and principles in Star Wars to current existing technologies. For example, the prop of Anakin's prosthetic hand:

was displayed next to a case full of real modern prosthetics (that I didn't think to photograph for some reason). There were also practical demonstrations:

They had little speeder-shaped LEGO units with permanent magnets on the bottom, so they would float just like real mag-lev trains.

Then you used the electromagnets to pull it along a magnetic track. You had to hit the button to turn on the next arch at just the right time, or your car wouldn't make it back up the hill at the end.

But if you thought that LEGOs plus magnets could not be topped in Luke's mind, how about building and programming your own R2 unit! You select the right wheels to get you over the obstacles in the path, then test it to make sure it works:

After that, you head to the programming station, telling your astromech how many seconds to travel in what direction, and how many seconds to spend turning. You download you program and see if you can make it!

And after a couple of trial and error tests, you get this (not sure why he is using his high-pitched baby voice here):

(Sorry it is scrunched up; the actual video is widescreen, but it is hard finding a free site that supports it that is not YouTube.)

Such a successful test gets you this:

Followed by tears when he finds out he has to give it back and can't take his R2 unit home, no matter how badly he wants to (and no matter how much we would love to let him!). :-( We did have one thing to cheer him up, though:

How could a ride in the Millennium Falcon *not* cheer you up? It can only hold a handful of people at a time (four seats, plus room for another 1-2 people to stand). I was *really* hoping Luke would get to sit in one of the two front seats, but there were two tween boys in our group who were also ahead of us in line, and needless to say, they were not giving those seats up for anything (except maybe $20 bills, which I didn't have). Luke still seemed to enjoy himself. It was too dark inside for me to even see his face, much less get any photos of him (no matter how poorly lighted), but I did manage this shot, which is truly unmistakable to any fan:

DH said he intends to make this his desktop photo! High praise, indeed. By this point, we'd been there for over 3 hours, and it was time to eat. We went to the Rocket City Cafe, their little food court, where I had what was truly one of the *worst* grilled chicken sandwiches ever. I truly couldn't eat more than about 1/3 of it. And on that note, we took the tired and hot and grumpy child (and his tired hot grumpy parents) back to the hotel for a nap.

We did, however, return to the center later in the afternoon to explore the rest of the museum and grounds, including the real Saturn V rocket laid out horizontally in an enclosed wing of the center. See Part Two here.

Currently feeling: robotic

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