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Destination:  Earth!

by Jay Apt

Since his arrival as director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History last June, Jay Apt has been developing his plan for the museum—a plan that truly will transform it into an interactive museum of the Earth. Here he unveils this blueprint and shares with us how his experiences as a space shuttle astronaut have inspired him in creating it.—K.M.D.

A Breathtaking View from Space

First, the colors! They are more varied and vibrant than film or video can convey, from the deep purples of Australia to the rich oranges of north Africa. Before I flew in space, my image of the map of north Africa was of endless yellow sand dunes; the reality is fantastically varied oranges and even reds. In northern Chad, jet black wind-scoured volcanic rock lies beside brush strokes of burnt orange and cadmium yellow from an artist’s oil palette. The steel gray-blue of the Zagros mountains in Iran gives way to the deep calm blue of the Indian Ocean, then to the green Maldives that seem to be glimpsed only as smoke rings, soon to disappear. The Himalayas are angular blocks of snow and walls of rock rising out of the haze-filled valleys of India, pushed into the sky by the force of colliding continents. Their white suddenly changes into the tan of the high plains of Tibet, dotted with emerald lakes. It was a surprise to pass from the Pacific over the Andes only to see what looked like another ocean—the high plains of Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina. These plains are a blue that, with their haze, trick the eye into believing that water laps both sides of those arid mountains with their marooned salt pans.

Film cannot capture the experience of watching the planet at night. After dinner, we often darken the ship and glide across moonlit continents. On the second evening of the flight, we float in the forward windows, watching Africa with her clouds clearly outlined by moonlight, seeing lightning and the lights of cities passing below. The Magellanic clouds and the southern Milky Way are clear, and the windows are filled with stars. We can see perhaps 150 degrees of the Earth’s horizon through our enormous windows. The atmosphere appears to be much thicker by night than by day, and well above it we can see the tenuous yellow haze of the airglow layer. Looking again through the great sweep of our windows at the city lights through thin ground fog, we imagine ourselves to be in the gondola of a giant balloon floating without vibration across the continent.

When sunrise comes, we can see at least eight layers of blue in the atmosphere, illuminated like stained glass. Each layer has its own brilliant shade of blue, and is separated from the next by a distinct line not captured in any photograph. The geometry is stunning: the giant planet beneath us is wrapped in a very thin atmosphere indeed. We know the history of the moon, Mars, and Venus, and wonder at the combination of forces that has left Earth with this gossamer pressure vessel of exquisite design and unknown duration.

Galapagos Islands.  Volcano Darwin is the middle volcano on the big island of Isabela,  which is made up of a line of coalesced volcanoes.  Lava recently flooded down to the sea from Fernandina (the smaller island in the photo),  burning cacti and killing fish.

Outside the cabin, on two spacewalks, I saw a wonderful effect. Just as the full moon appears to be much larger when viewed near the horizon (because of the proximity of trees and houses to act as size references), features on the Earth appear much larger when viewed close to the edge of the orbiter’s cargo bay. My partner and I saw the Namib desert in this way near sunset, and the sand sea’s red dunes seemed enormous and close. This effect also gave us the strongest sense of speed we felt on orbit, when we passed over Central America during the second spacewalk. It was close to the port wing, and we felt as if we were rushing at incredible speed past Lake Managua, Lake Nicaragua, the Panama canal, and into the bulk of South America. Leaning back to allow the Earth to fill the suit’s faceplate gave me a feel for how large this planet really is. The land is only a tiny fraction of our world, and the oceans between continents seem enormous. Yet we bridge them daily in airliners as we drink our coffee, thinking the planet is small because we look out the window only infrequently.

I have talked to many groups throughout the United States and the world about the Earth, and have found that several topics are consistently interesting to people. We want to know what the world looks like now, what forces are shaping it, and what it has looked like in the past and may look like in the future. We want to know about how life arose here, and how it changed so rapidly from simple forms such as algae to all the complex life forms we now see (and the many more that have died out along the way). We want to understand not only evolution of life, but of the Earth as well, and so want to learn about ecology and global environmental change.

My transition from NASA to Carnegie Museum of Natural History is an enlargement of the sharing of this view of Earth from a small audience to a much larger one. I want to bring the magic of viewing our planet through space and time to the visitors here at the museum.

Labrador Coastline.  The rocky,  snow-covered headlands and islands of Labrador set up eddies and swirls of ice trapped in an ocean current moving south.

The Role of Carnegie Museum of Natural History

I feel deeply that it is the responsibility of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to convey the sense of excitement that has gripped Earth science in the past few years. The exploration of the solar system by Earth’s robots has brought us a profound understanding of the physical processes that shape our planet and its life. Computer tomography has allowed us to look inside the solid Earth with the same revolutionary techniques used in medical CAT scans. For the first time, scientists are understanding not only how dinosaur bones are put together, but how dinosaurs themselves evolved as the Earth’s single continent split apart under their feet into the many land masses we see today. Carnegie Museum of Natural History scientists are at the forefront of unraveling the mysteries of the evolution of mammals, and have made two discoveries in the past two years that have astounded the scientific community: finding a tiny monkey that dates from twice the age that primates were previously known and describing the first complete skeleton of a fourth class of mammals. (See page 16.)

The research side of the Museum of Natural History encompasses 23 Ph.D. scientists and their support staff, and is now headed by Dean of Science Dr. Bradley C. Livezey. Our goals for the research staff are to encourage significant contributions to both science and to the public side of the museum. Scientific positions will be filled on the basis of national reputations, and staff will be evaluated for promotion and retention based on effectiveness of their scientific research. As in a university, outside visiting committees will periodically evaluate our programs and provide advice to the dean and director. In a university, scientists are expected to share their knowledge through teaching. In our museum, there is now an explicit requirement for scientists to contribute to the public side of the museum by helping to bring the excitement of science to this museum of the Earth.

Our plans for the museum are based on a strategic plan developed over the past year, with the active participation of the Board of Trustees and the museum staff. We have held focus groups to survey public attitudes towards our museum, and towards its new strategy. In the next few years, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History will become an interactive hands-on place where our visitors can come to be excited about the Earth in new ways with changing exhibits in a friendly atmosphere. We will show how the Earth was formed and the twisted pathways through which complex life evolved. We will talk about the issues that concern our visitors: ecology, evolution, and climate change. All this will take several years, and the dedicated help of our members.

Coming This Year

In the short term, we have taken several steps that will change the atmosphere at the museum in 1998. We have a full-time computer designer, and our electronic presence on the Internet has already won an award as one of the top sites on the Web ( We have hired our first two interactive exhibit designers, and they are hard at work. This year, we will open an area where visitors can come to learn the latest news from the forefront of Earth science. It will be an Earth café, where visitors can sip their drinks from the coffee cart while interacting with computer kiosks bringing them up-to-the-minute Earth data and read stories that will change every month.

Reading areas will be placed in Dinosaur Hall and in the new ALCOA Foundation Hall of American Indians (opening June 6) to permit in-depth study or just a place to relax in a friendly atmosphere while in the museum. Dinosaur Hall will also soon have yet another unique specimen: the first dinosaur ever to leave Earth. The skull of a 210-million-year-old Coelophysis was flown aboard the Shuttle Endeavour earlier this year on her voyage to the Russian Mir space station. Visitors can see a piece of space history here at the museum.

The largest creature ever to fly will come to the museum this year. Quetzalcoatlus northropi, a pterosaur (flying reptile) which lived at the same time as the dinosaurs had a wingspan of 35 feet, larger than some airplanes! Boeing Aircraft’s chief aerodynamicist will help us assemble the skeleton correctly, and we’ll be the first museum to have the huge carnivore on permanent display.

Three festivals will bring tremendous excitement to the museum.

Through generous grants from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the R.K. Mellon Foundation, we will be able to begin work this year on a digital theater which will bring NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth satellite data to our visitors. It will allow us to present changing shows dealing with topics such as global use of land, El Niño, and global climate change. We will start the development of shows this year, and begin procuring the theater itself.

The Carnegie Lectures on Global Environmental Change drew full-house crowds last fall, and the spring lectures (March 25th, April 13th, and May 19th at 7 pm in the Museum of Art Theater) are expected to be even more popular, with titles such as Costs and Benefits of Greenhouse Reduction and In a Democracy the Climate Problem is Whatever the Public Believes It Is.

Our museum is on a new journey, and the view is going to get even more exciting in the years ahead, with your help. Climb aboard—Destination: Earth!

The rays of the aurora show nearly all their known colors as they dance in front of the constellation Orion.

When Apt returned in 1991 from the first of his four space missions, he wanted to share the experience of looking at Earth from the space shuttle. With NASA’s permission, he and scientists Justin Wilkinson and Michael Helfert wrote a book showing some of the best photographs of the 268,000 taken by astronauts from orbit. The book, Orbit: NASA Astronauts Photograph the Earth, showcases the beauty and impact of the local and regional geology, land use, and ecology phenomena that can be seen from space. Orbit has appeared in 10 languages and is in its third printing in English. It is available at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History Store.

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