By Matt Villano, on February 17, 2016

From Silicon Valley to space

There aren’t many places on Earth where laypeople can go to learn about space and the way we humans explore it.

The biggie, of course, is Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, from which the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) manages the astronaut launch program. A close No. 2: the visitor center at NASA’s Ames Research Center facility, located just outside of Moffett Field, about 30 minutes north of San Jose, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley.

The California outpost is notable for three reasons: 1) It’s free, 2) It’s easy to do in a day, and 3) It lets you get face to face with a moon rock. The visitor center also offers a crash-course in supercomputing, NASA’s jam in Silicon Valley (and an important part of NASA’s work for the space program overall).

I visited on a recent weekday and was—dare I say it?—blown away. Here’s a closer look at why.


Lessons in computing power

About half of the exhibit space inside the visitor center focuses on the NASA Advanced Supercomputing Division. This is basically the part of NASA tasked with building and operating the organization’s most sophisticated computers. The computers live at Moffett Field, and would be nothing without contributions from big tech companies nearby.

(If you’ve seen the movie, The Martian, you have experienced the importance of these computers. Every time the movie’s characters had to send mathematical equations back to a computer for answers, They were talking about the computers here at Ames.)

Just how big are these supercomputers? Big. One of the exhibits noted that the machines can hold up to 126 petabytes of information. Another exhibit said the Pleiades supercomputer—which in 2008 was the third-most powerful supercomputer on Earth—is as fast as 295,000 MacBooks operating simultaneously. Perhaps the craziest statistic: The Local Area Network at NASA is the largest in the world, and is connected by more than 65 miles of cables.

Considering these exhibits were tasked to help the general public understand the scope and magnitude of a giant computer, I’d say they do a pretty good job of distilling the most critical information.

In short, NASA has made it easy to understand what makes these giant computers tick.

Viewfinder Tip: Plan to spend time at the NASA Ames Research Center reading about the Kepler mission, which has produced some of the most amazing space images in recent history.

Life in space

Another significant portion of the exhibit space inside the Ames visitor center spotlights what it’s like to live in space.

In a cut-away from the first International Space Station, I was able to replicate exercises astronauts perform to stay limber in space, and stick my hands into a globe box not unlike the ones astronauts use to conduct experiments in space. I also learned about a material that has become critical to help astronauts make sure their most important items don’t float away in a zero-gravity environment. The material is enables things to stick to other things. We all know it as Velcro.

Elsewhere on the museum floor, I marveled at an exhibit that shared a progression of astronaut helmets over the years—some of the original helmets must have weighed 30 or 40 pounds alone.

Finally, after reading about life on board the space shuttle, I decided I had to experience astronaut food for myself, so I went into the gift shop and bought some. My selection, freeze-dried ice cream, tasted like something between Dippin’ Dots and nougat. It was a small price to pay in the name of research.


A piece of the moon

Perhaps the most memorable part of the collection at the visitor center is an actual moon rock retrieved by the crew of Apollo 15 from the moon’s Hadley-Apennine region.

This sample is part of the 169 pounds retrieved from the lunar surface during the crew’s 67-hour stay on the moon back in 1971. The shotglass-sized specimen sits in a glass case in front of an image of an astronaut on the moon. It looks like any other piece of weathered igneous rock you might find on a beach in Hawaii. To be frank, I almost couldn’t believe the stone was from the moon.

I also couldn’t believe I had a personal connection to this rock—my late maternal grandfather, Ralph Jacobson, designed and built some of the spacecraft that were used for many of the manned space missions around this time. I couldn’t help but wonder: Had my Poppy been through this place to see this rock? It didn’t matter; being there made me feel closer to him in that moment, which was a wonderful way to end the day.

What are some of your favorite offbeat museums and why?