The future of space travel
‘Starship 2040’ exhibit launches campaign to share NASA’s futuristic ambitions

Should NASA’s Starship 2040 touch down at a university campus or community center near you, don’t expect a thunderous descent from the heavens. While this high-tech “spacecraft” hitches a ride inside an Earthbound tractor and trailer rig, space transportation officials from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL are confident the Starship 2040 experience will send the imaginations of tens of thousands of visitors a year thundering straight into orbit.

Developed at the Marshall Center and housed in a 48-foot (14.6-meter) trailer, the traveling exhibit is designed to share NASA’s vision of what commercial spaceflight might be like 40 years from now.  Visitors board the “ship” and move through a fully realized mock-up of the control, passenger and engineering compartments, where they’ll gain insight into technologies that eventually will make such an out-of-this-world experience as routine as air travel.

“The Starship 2040 exhibit will inform and excite visitors of all ages about possible future technologies and commercial opportunities in space,” says Dr. Row Rogacki, director of Space Transportation at the Marshall Center.  “More importantly, Starship 2040 illustrates real-world technology challenges now being explored by NASA and our partners in industry, academia and government.”

All the innovations suggested aboard the exhibit — automated vehicle health monitoring systems, high-energy propulsion drive, navigational aids and emergency and safety systems — are based on concepts and technologies now being studied at NASA Centers and partner institutions around the nation.  “This isn’t just science fiction,” Rogacki says.  “We intend to make a future much like the one demonstrated by Starship 2040 a reality.”

Audio effects — engine noises, computer and crew voices — filter down from hidden speakers inside the exhibit, adding to the realistic ambience of the experience. Starship 2040 recently visited Chicago for the annual National Manufacturing Week trade show and conducted a three-city tour through Middle Tennessee.  In coming weeks, it travels to Washington D.C., as part of NASA’s annual Turning Goals into Reality conference (May 16-18) and will make public stops at visitor centers at NASA’s Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, Md., (May 19-21) and NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., (May 23-25).  Future state tours are in the works.

NASA and public officials are particularly excited by the interest and enthusiasm being shown by school-age children, many of whom visit the exhibit as part of class field trips. "NASA's Starship 2040 exhibit is a wonderful educational tool for our children, and instills in them the importance of a math and science education highly sought after by today’s high-tech job market," says U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee’s 6th District.  Gordon is the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, which has oversight and legislative jurisdiction over the space agency. 

"Space exploration presents a unique fascination to millions,” agrees U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama’s 4th District, vice-chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Veterans Administration/Housing & Urban Development.  “Allowing communities an in-depth look at what we're doing builds support in our worthwhile efforts,” Aderholt adds.  “Starship 2040 provides a unique opportunity to show the nation what we are doing, and can still dream to do."

    Maybe you're traveling on an important business trip, or perhaps you're finally getting away for that vacation you've been planning for so long. After coming on board, you made your way to your seat, which is locked safely in the upright position, and buckled yourself in. kicks in. Next stop—Jupiter! Welcome to Starship 2040—a mix of a little bit of airliner, a little bit of cruiseliner, and a whole lot of the future. Starship 2040 is a traveling exhibit created at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center to show what a "spaceliner" might be like 40 years from now. But, while the concept may sound like science fiction, the exhibit is rooted firmly in factual science. Starship 2040 is a unique solution to an unusual problem faced by NASA—How do you explain the importance of developing technology that may be decades away from becoming a reality. John Dumoulin, a member of the Starship team at Marshall. "So, we got the idea of painting the future for them." He explained that Starship 2040 represents the hypothetical "final product" of the research being done by NASA's Space Launch Initiative (SLI), which is developing the technology for future generations of spacecraft.

  The entrance to the Starship 2040 exhibit. Developing the exhibit required quite a bit of creativity on the part of the designers to think through exactly how space travel will change in almost half a century. Although the exhibit was created by NASA, the future starship it depicts is not a NASA spacecraft. Instead, it's a commercial vehicle operated by a private company, just like the airlines of today. Speakers in the exhibit allow visitors to overhear conversations between the crew of the spacecraft and its computers, since NASA engineers believe that such a craft would likely have to have a small crew and rely heavily on automated systems. Likewise, a navigation control station in the exhibit was later modified into a spacecraft systems monitoring station when the designers decided that much of the "driving" would ac

Visitors of all ages enjoy the sights and sounds of Starship 2040. Starship 2040 designers also incorporated into the exhibit such features as a bathroom (combining modern space toilet technology with a vending concept) and a galley where passengers could get food, drinks, and snacks. Since passengers cruising through the solar system would spend long periods of time in their craft, Starship 2040 even features exercise equipment that people would be able to use to stay in shape while exposed to microgravity to help them keep their "land-legs" for when they eventually return to Earth.

The Starship 2040 exhibit is designed to help visitors understand the vastness of space, even just in our solar system, and the new methods of travel we will have to develop in order to cross those distances. In this particular area, Starship 2040 reflects the work of the SLI programs, one of the focuses of which is advanced propulsion concepts. Consoles in the exhibit show the status of a number of propulsion drives, indicating how such things as antimatter, nuclear fusion, laser-based propulsion, or ion drives, among others, could be used to propel a passenger and cargo spacecraft through the solar system. "Chemical propellants have mass. If you want to go much past Mars with a large spaceship, with chemical propellants (like today's rockets), you just can't carry enough of it. Every time you add more propellant to carry the mass, you add more mass!" Dumoulin said.

ually be run by computers.

The navigational monitoring station inside of Starship 2040. Visitors to the exhibit are encouraged to brainstorm about other changes that may develop by the time a spaceliner like Starship 2040 becomes a reality, using modern technology as a starting point for what may someday be. Children, in particular, are encouraged to think about why they themselves may one day be traveling through the solar system, since the exhibit theorizes that this may actually happen within their lifetime. "We try to get them to picture themselves in their future," Dumoulin said.

So even if you can't buy tickets to Mars today, you can at least know that scientists are already working on the technology for you to take an out-of-this world cruise in the decades to come.

Children's Museum website