Shooting for the Moon: An Interview with a Planetarium Curator

May 21, 2015
What’s it like working for the oldest planetarium in North America? How do the exhibitions seen by hundreds of thousands of people come together behind the scenes? When your workplace has moon rocks and space capsules and one of the world’s most advanced dome theaters, do you ever get to turn an interstellar artifact into your own paperweight?

Annie Vedder, Exhibit Developer, sat down with Travelzoo to discuss the new Mission Moon exhibit, the human experience of space flight, dehydrated space ice cream and how coffee with an astronaut’s wife helped completely change the Adler’s presentation.

TZ:   Before we get started, let's get the obvious question out of the way -- exactly what relation are you to Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam?

Annie Vedder: I don't know! We always used to joke that he was our cousin, probably not. We like to think that there's some distant connection between us and Eddie Vedder. But what's so funny is I have the same birthday as Eddie Vedder. Not only do we have the same last name, but we also have the same birthday. He's 10 years older than I am, but the exact day, December 23rd.

This is going to show you how old I am, because it was like "MTV News," on the scroll, would be like, "Happy Birthday, Eddie Vedder." I was like, "Oh my God. They're wishing me a happy birthday, too." I thought that was pretty cool in high school.

TZ:  If we weren't sitting in Chicago, I wouldn't have asked that question, but I know he’s an Evanston native, and he does make it back here for Cubs games on occasion.

Annie:  Oh my God, yes. There must be some connection. I have no proof of it, but there is.

TZ:  On to more "science-y" things -- tell me about putting "Mission Moon" together. Was that your project from the beginning? How did that come about?

Annie:  It started about a year ago. We had really started to re‑evaluate the old “Shoot For The Moon” exhibit. We wanted to give it a refresh, an update onto the narrative, as well as to the design to it. [We] got together and re‑evaluated that space and thought, "OK, what can we do here?"

Originally, we thought we would go with a more straightforward, like Space Race, and really start with Sputnik and tell the story of America and then the Soviet Union.

But, then, I was very fortunate. Last fall, I had the opportunity of having coffee with Mrs. Lovell, Captain [James] Lovell's wife. I wanted to talk it through with her and engage like, "Hey, you lived there...and we have the artifacts”. I thought she made some really amazing points, which were [that we] have this opportunity. What was so great about having a conversation with her was it became more than his story. All of a sudden, it was like, "Wait, this is your story. This is the family story.” This is a story of the people that witnessed it. They shared in these moments.

We wanted to get at the humanity of it and that it isn't this larger-than-life hero in a capsule, but it is a husband. It is a father. It is Mission Control, and a lot of people supporting that. That was amazing.

Seriously, we [just] flipped it. At that moment, it was humanity's mission to the moon.

We were going to tell the story that our guests are going to identify in a much more personal way, because it's going to deal with these emotional key points. Like, Captain Lovell has childhood aspirations of launching rockets. He thought it was his fate to be an astronaut. At first he doesn't make it as a candidate to be a Mercury Seven astronaut. He failed his physical, something that was completely out of his control.

Here's this childhood aspiration of, "I want to launch rockets. I want to design rockets. I want to fly planes, and I see it as my fate to be an astronaut," and then to not succeed in that? People can really understand what it's like to have that dream and to feel sometimes that, "Oh no, I didn't get into the school I wanted," or, "I had to take plan B to get to where I wanted to go," or, "How did I persevere through some hardships and difficulties?"

That was really amazing, to deal with some of the early portions of his story and make those connections. That was the beginning.

Eventually it became all of these moments of parallel. You get to the Gemini 12 Capsule and you think about the hero, again, of being this astronaut and this person sitting in this capsule, but also the indignity of being an astronaut. It's gross. They're my favorite stories, about living and working in space isn't easy. You’d best not have your modesty. [laughter]

At that point, after having the conversations with Mrs. Lovell, we started to spend a lot of time reading Captain Lovell's oral history through NASA. How do we follow him through this adventure? How do we see that sometimes he's the lead character, the astronaut in the rocket, and then sometimes he's in mission control supporting the mission? Or he's on the science team trying to coordinate a bunch of scientists, like Apollo 17?

It was a fascinating opportunity to learn and invest that time, starting to identify with his story, and starting to see, "Oh, this person's a human." [laughs] Then of course his family story was really fantastic.

Courtesy of the Adler Planetarium

TZ:  When you watch the "Apollo 13" movie, with Tom Hanks as Captain Lovell, the very beginning of the movie starts with them spending time with their families and friends – it really helps to give a sense of emotional perspective. It helps you feel that sense of distance when they’re way out in space.

Annie:  We watched the movie early on because obviously Ron Howard knows what he's doing and Tom Hanks is brilliant, but we tried to go with everything that was authentic and archival.

We do want to honor the family. In the exhibit "Mission Moon" we have the Apollo 13 event. One thing that we noticed that was very different compared to the movie was how controlled everything was in their communication. We're going to play the actual piece where the explosion happens using the real NASA audio, and they're so calm.

It's amazing. It's such a dramatic moment, but yet the reality of it is these men that were in this situation were trained to deal with these situations. They kept it very cool, and they kept it very together.

We call the section "Crisis at Home." It's symbolic of the family having to have a squawk box that NASA would install in the home. They did this for every mission, [so the family could] listen to the communications between mission control and the crew.

For me, what I identified in that story was more with [was] Mrs. Lovell having that very passive moment of listening and having to hear this. To know that that's your loved one, that's your husband...

TZ:  And they're hundreds and thousands of miles away.

Annie:  Thousands of miles, and to hear everything, but not to be able to tell them, "I love you." How can we really bring our audience into this situation to feel as if they're standing alongside Captain Lovell at some moments [and then] beside Mrs. Lovell and the family? To stand alongside Gene Kranz or Christopher Kraft in mission control, and really create these situations where you feel like you get to step inside a little bit of these pivotal moments in history and in time.

Obviously it's our interpretation, but all the sound is archival. All the audio that you hear is of the men and women that lived it. We used quotes as much as we possibly could for all of the copy in the exhibit. We built it around quotes and what people would have said immediately or sometimes responding to these situations.

We really wanted to be mindful that, again, this is a human story. Humans lived it.

These aren't robots, and that they can tell this story in a way that we want to honor and be respectful to. After that it became really easy. [laughs] Not easy, but exciting. It came together.

TZ:  What kind of back and forth do you guys have to do with something like NASA to get the things that you need to tell this story, and what did the Adler already have on hand that you could use for this collection? Did you guys have the capsule originally?

Annie:  Yes, the artifacts that we have on display were the artifacts that we had in the preexisting exhibit. The capsule is on a long‑term loan from the Smithsonian, so we had had that in place, as well the amazing artifacts that Captain Lovell had donated or gifted to the Adler from his personal collection.

We wanted to highlight them and provide more accessibility. With our capsule, which is awesomely cool, the way that it had been displayed previously is the hatches were open. Because the hatches were open it was up high, if you were of my stature [at] 5'3", you couldn't see inside of it. One of the big goals of this was to create accessibility for that capsule so that people could peer inside and see how small that is. How cramped it was.

We built this ramp around the existing case so that now you can look inside. You can see where Buzz Aldrin and Captain Lovell spent four days living and working in space. At one point they open the hatch and Buzz exits for one of his EVAs. We wanted to give that context, so we started to incorporate more and more of large prints [and] photographs.

We have now a photograph of Buzz, larger than life, exiting that capsule, right next to that capsule. Again, providing that context that humans sat here, humans did some extraordinary things.

It's mind‑blowing to think “Oh, it's this small, and eventually somebody opened this door and went out into the void, went out in to darkness." That was something we really wanted to [show].

We were really lucky to have all these great artifacts at our disposal. We wanted to make sure that we were creating even more accessibility and providing more context to them. We did that by using, again, archival images from NASA, audio, video. We were very fortunate that it was such a well‑documented period of time, and that that was all extremely accessible to us and to the public.

We were very fortunate, also, that we had contacts at NASA, at the Johnson Space Center. When we did run into [issues like], "Oh, we don't know exactly what the Gemini mission control looks like," we were lucky to reach out to some of our contacts. We got some great help from folks that lived it and were able to say, "Oh, well the red phone here was part of the DOD [Department of Defense] you would have used for splashdown and recovery." That was really fantastic, that we had so much in front of us and it was so easy to get to.

TZ:  Working behind the scenes of all these things, and seeing the things that regular people that come in off the street can't see, obviously you can't have your full collection out for view. Is there one thing that The Adler has that you wish you could have for yourself, to put into your living room?

Annie:  There's so much...I would love the moon rock from the Great Scott Rock. That'd be a nice paperweight.

TZ:  Right? People would walk in and be like, "Oh, what is that?" You're like, "Oh, a piece of the moon. No big deal."

Annie:  That'd be pretty awesome. My mind has been so wrapped around [this exhibit]…I think it'd be ridiculous to have Captain Lovell's helmet and gloves from Apollo 13.

That was in his private home for a long time, and he had young children. What would that be like to grow up and open the closet and there's your dad's space helmet and space suit? You're like, "Oh, yeah. That's what my dad does." [chuckles] That was pretty amazing.

We have the flight plan for Gemini 12. We have Apollo eight. Then we have the malfunction manual for Apollo 13. To see the handwriting of somebody and to see the notes that were so important to that moment in time. I'm super fascinated by things that people have touched. You can see their own prints left behind on there. That's really awesome and cool and makes it feel you make that connection like, "Oh, that's their handwriting. Those are their works."

Courtesy of the Adler Planetarium

TZ:  Outside of Adler After Dark, do you guys ever sit around with a few beers and play with the telescope and look at things?

Annie:  [laughs] The Doane Observatory is pretty fantastic. That's what's kind of amazing too is you come downstairs, and we have these awesome collection pieces, but we also have amazing research scientists that are downstairs.

They go up on the floor, and they have great conversations with the public. I feel that's our behind-the-scenes moment. Here you have living, breathing scientists -- when you get into, "I have a question. How does this work?" You can go straight to the source and have that conversation. That's what so fantastic about the group that we work with is if you're like, "Well, I don't get it."

They'll [take] you out to the telescope, try to show it to you, create the model and really make you understand it in an accessible and exciting way. I love the collection of objects, but the people downstairs are probably our biggest behind the scenes treat.

TZ:  You're saying that no one has hooked up the Xbox 360 to the big theater and play games on the huge screen?

Annie:  I'm not going to say that hasn't happened. [laughs] You have to play, right? That's what's so great with working with this group of individuals is you have a really playful, inventive and innovative group that wants to try new things.

TZ:  Final question, and this is something that a number of people have asked me to ask about. It’s about something that many of us associate with The Adler and with the Museum of Science and Industry too.

Are you or are you not totally sick of freeze‑dried space Neapolitan ice cream?

Annie:  [chuckles] In a city full of great food, it's really hard to get excited about that ice cream. [laughs] I will say having the opportunity over this past year learning about the evolution of space food and how super gross it was during the Mercury and Gemini program, it's come a long way. If I had to, then I would. No, not my favorite.

Travelzoo has Anytime All-Access Passes to the Adler Planetarium available for 45% off. Travel through June 30th to access all the shows and exhibits the Adler has to offer, including the “Mission Moon” exhibition.


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