When astronaut Gene Cernan passed away in January, the death of the last man to walk on the moon cast the entire US space program in a new light, as hopeful as it was nostalgic. It saw us remembering the 50th anniversary of the tragic Apollo 1 fire at the same time we watched the beginnings of SpaceX and other commercial rocket ventures literally get off the ground. At about the same time, the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame, on the campus of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on Merritt Island, off Florida’s Space Coast, was about to reopen after its relocation there from its previous home near Titusville FL. The timing was purely coincidental, of course, but it reinforced the irony that what many regard as our species’ highest achievement has left little more than a few million dollars’ worth of hardware sitting forlorn and unvisited on our only natural satellite’s airless surface for the last 44 years.
The Astronaut Hall of Fame’s first exhibition in its new location, Heroes & Legends, presented by exhibit sponsor Boeing, offers a healthy dose of inspiration, drawn from the exploits of the first human journeys into space, the Mercury and Gemini programs, to counter any such pessimism. It acts as a contextual gateway to other attractions at the Space Center Visitor Complex, yet, more importantly, it serves as a reminder of what they did and how it’s the foundation for what’s still to come.
“This was definitely simpler than trying to fly to the moon,” joked Chris Cooper, the Project Manager for AV integrator Electrosonic, which provided AV installation, integration, projection design and show programming for the new attractions. In fact, the Dell PCs that act as local media servers for some of the interactive exhibits that make up Heroes & Legends are many orders of magnitude more powerful than what astronauts of the era it portrays had at their disposal as they orbited the Earth. But that simplicity is also a byproduct of the significant efficiencies that digital technology affords us on an everyday basis.
“So much of the audio and video here can be transported on a single Cat6 cable because it’s networked,” said Cooper (who shares a surname with, though is no relation to, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, Gordon Cooper). “We were able to use far less cabling on this project than we would have had to a few years ago.” Networking and more powerful devices in smaller and more cost-effective forms, such as PC-based media servers, also allowed more of the content sources to be integrated into individual exhibit stations, further reducing cabling and the cost and effort of running it.
The hall Heroes & Legends occupies has a cinematic quality to it that extends past the three theater-type settings in which video content is projected, and to the less-lit surrounding spaces, which can then be used to underscore physical objects with lighting. Upon entering and being greeted by a bas-relief of the Mercury 7 astronauts on the façade of the building, visitors ascend a ramp where a seven-minute multimedia presentation (“What is a Hero?”) unfolds. A pair of ceiling-mounted Christie DWU851-Q projectors, sourced by a single 7thSense Delta Duo, displays live-action footage on two asymmetrical 16:9 screens, as well as diamond-shaped vinyl tiles around the room. These feature graphic imagery and hero portraits, including not only astronauts, but others who also fit that description, from Albert Einstein to Joan of Arc.
Together, the various images and screens create what Cooper called a video-mosaic effect. As the video progresses, lighting effects, synchronized through a Medialon server connected to the lighting control console and installed by Candela, progressively reveal three hidden items suspended in the darkness: a bicycle, a full-size model robot from the vintage television series Lost in Space and a school desk to complement the presentation.
“This required coordination between us, as the installer of the projection and media servers, the lighting integrators and programmers, and the show designer, Falcon’s Treehouse,” said Cooper. “But it was also an example of having timed cues like these made more reliable and easier to install because they can all work on a single Cat6 cable.”
The first theater acts as a batching station, forming visitors into manageable groups to facilitate picking up the 3D glasses they’ll need for the next theater, and sending them on their way. (Up to about 130 people can watch the videos simultaneously.) That next step is “Through the Eyes of a Hero,” a 4D multisensory presentation (the fourth “D” consists of puffs of air, reinforcing scenes such as an airplane takeoff, delivered by fans that are cued by the lighting system’s DMX controller). But the remaining three “D”s are quite effective: 14 Christie Boxer 4K30 projectors, in stereo (left eye/right eye) pairs, project a star field onto a roughly 220º screen before the show begins. Then the 7½-minute video show, complete with the wind effects, gives visitors a sense of the danger and excitement of the first manned space missions through the spoken-word experiences of astronauts Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong, John Glenn and Jim Lovell.
Electrosonic outfitted the Christie Boxers with custom lenses to accommodate the projectors’ placement close to the screen surface, as well as the wraparound, concave shape of the screen itself. Audio for the semicircular theater enclosure comes from 18 QSC AP-5122 speakers mounted above the screen in nine pairs, with each pair horizontally splayed for maximum coverage. Seven QSC AP-5102 speakers are hung on the rear wall, providing a full, discrete 5.1 effect. Two QSC GP118 subwoofers are paired in the center of the speaker arrays, with one more sub at either end of the horseshoe. The video and the audio, which incorporates both the content’s narration and spoken instructions to the audience about picking up and leaving behind the 3D glasses, are sourced through a 7thSense Infinity media server.
Cooper offered that a perforated video screen was first considered for this role, with the speakers placed behind the screens. However, “The proximity between the audience and the screens really determined this,” he said. “To get that many people in there that close to the screens comfortably, it made more sense to use a solid screen and place the speakers above the viewers.”
‘A Hero Is…’
Visitors then exit onto a mezzanine with a Mercury-Redstone rocket suspended above it from the ceiling. They descend to the first floor to “A Hero Is….,” featuring nine interactive exhibits and space program artifacts. Each interactive “pod” is self-contained for content and interactivity, and named after a trait that would be needed to become one these heroes, such as Courageous, Passionate or Disciplined. When a visitor comes within a 120º cone around one, an IR emitter mounted above it is interrupted and triggers activation of a Samsung 55-inch LCD/LED display mounted in portrait mode, and a 22-inch Samsung DirectLit touchscreen display.
Some of the pods have actual artifacts in them, such as helmets worn by some of the astronauts, as well as other personal effects that may relate to the particular exhibit, creating a multimedia effect. Visitors can choose from four tracks of related content in each pod, stored on a Dell PC underneath. When the programs are finished, the screens revert to a content loop.
Also in this area is the former Mercury Mission Control Center console, with a world map simulating the tracking of John Glenn’s first orbital flight in 1962. Two Christie DWU851-Q projectors light up screens flanking the tracking board with a loop of archival footage. Sound comes from four QSC AD-S8T surface-mounted speakers facing the audience, as well as a host of JBL AC15 speakers providing room chatter, that are hidden under the desks or control stations, which are actual artifacts.
“One interesting challenge is how, when mounting items such as these speakers, we have to stay mindful of the fact that these are artifacts,” said Cooper. “In instances such as this, we can’t drill holes or modify [these artifacts] in any way. This leaves us with having to get clever when it comes to mounting things, knowing that it can’t even mar the surface. If our elements ever had to be removed, there can be no sign we were ever there.”
As high tech as the systems and the networks are here, they are complemented by a special effect that dates back to the Victorian era. Astronaut Gene Cernan is seen taking a spacewalk courtesy of Pepper’s Ghost. Visitors look through the windows of an actual Gemini IX-A capsule: On one side, they look through a Plexiglas window to the interior designed for two astronauts; on the other side, they peer through a custom viewing portal to see a holographic-type effect showing astronaut Gene Cernan on a spacewalk. Working with the Nassal Company, which supplied the millwork and metal work, and Metal Masters, which provided custom projector stands and a custom frame for the 10½’x8′ MirrorView reflective-coated glass mounted at a 45⁰ angle, Electrosonic achieved the effect with a Christie DWU851-Q projector.
Pepper’s Ghost Limits
Pepper’s Ghost has its limits: To get the full effect, viewers have to stay within a sweet-spot viewing location. That’s enforced by the design of the viewing platform, whose railings carefully corral them for that purpose. “The projection looks like an astronaut coming out of the door of the capsule and floating by,” said Cooper. “In addition, archival footage and other media is mapped to the contour of the capsule and reflected off the glass.”
Audio for the effect comes from a pair of QSC AD-series surface-mount speakers recessed into the wall above the effect and painted over for camouflage. The Mission Control area uses JBL C65 pendant speakers, which are also used throughout the area in front of the Mission Control, as well as the areas surrounding the Gemini exhibit, to keep a constant distributed buzz of mission-specialist chatter underneath.
The last stop is the Hall of Fame itself, where visitors are greeted by a larger-than-life statue of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, around which the walls are covered with plaques recognizing the 93 inductees to date. The hall’s centerpiece is a 10-foot-diameter cylindrical rear-screen projection surface featuring five Christie DWU951-Q projectors connected to a 7thSense Delta Nucleus media server in the control room’s racks. (Cooper said that the brighter Christie model-951 projectors are used to help overcome higher ambient lighting in this area from the LED lighting illuminating the astronaut plaques than in most of the rest of the venue.)
Overhead, five 70-inch NEC monitors are angled downward and connected to a BrightSign HD1022 media player local to the monitor. These are accompanied by five Samsung 22-inch touchscreen kiosks, each with an Intel NUC computer. A montage of images comprises a loop appearing on all the screens; visitors at the kiosks can select their favorite Mercury 7 astronaut for a simulated photo op.
A small control room holds five full-size Middle Atlantic MRK series equipment racks for the global systems in use throughout the venue, such as the Q-Sys server, the Medialon PC and the network switches. And while locating so much of the individual exhibits’ contents in the interactive stations themselves reduced the amount of overall cabling for the attraction, Cooper said that their luck extended a bit further: They were able to forego the need for network and fiber extenders for the 14 Christie Boxer projectors because they could place the rack rooms quite close to the locations that require central systems management. “We were able to use just SDI coax connections between each projector and the 7thSense Delta and Infinity servers. “The other projectors used Extron fiber extenders,” he explained.
The next chapter in America’s space odyssey may turn out to be remarkably like its earliest ones. But instead of it being built around a core of testosterone-fueled test pilots and engineers who were the original Mercury 7 astronaut corps, it will be written by financial wizards like SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos. The risks, however, will not be diminished. The new Heroes & Legends attraction will remind them where they came from.