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Where Science, Fiction Meet

Times Staff Writer

In 1947, Robert A. Heinlein published a novel called “Rocket Ship Galileo,” about a group of whiz kids who build their own ship and fly into space.

This summer, 57 years after the book, SpaceShipOne was launched from the Mojave Desert, becoming the first manned spaceflight by private citizens. The accomplishment capped a remarkable story about a group of whizzes who decided one day to build their own ship and fly into space.

If the stories sound similar, it’s because one inspired the other.

Science fiction became science fact. And now the stories of “Rocket Ship Galileo,” SpaceShipOne and the connection between the two occupy the same display case as the newest exhibit in the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame.

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The museum, which opened in June, is the $20-million brainchild of billionaire sci-fi buff Paul Allen. He happens to be one of the whizzes behind SpaceShip- One and the owner of a yellowed paperback copy of Heinlein’s book. He read it when he was 11.

“Science fiction is a big inspiration for creativity and for thinking out of the box,” Allen said in an e-mail exchange. “It forces you to think about the world and about future possibilities, and it reinforces the idea that creativity can be expressed in new ways through science and technology.”

The museum shares space in the same hyper-modern psychedelic building, under the Space Needle, with another of Allen’s creations, the Experience Music Project, a rock ‘n’ roll museum that opened four years ago.

Touted as the only one of its kind on the planet, the Science Fiction Museum is 13,000 square feet of history, schlock, interactive gadgets and paraphernalia, from Frankenstein to “The Matrix.”

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A mural-sized timeline traces the evolution of science fiction from its earliest pioneers in the 19th century -- Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells -- through its transformation into a pulp genre, with stories of bug-eyed Martians, mutant 50-foot women in miniskirts and indestructible superheroes. For many people, science fiction, in the words of sci-fi writer Octavia Butler, was “kid stuff.”

But then something happened: Science fiction became not just respectable but respected, according to Eric Rabkin, professor of English at the University of Michigan. Science fiction is now a mainstream genre, spanning the range of artistic endeavor from the cartoonish to the prophetic.

“As recently as 10 years ago, people [in academia] thought of science fiction as beneath consideration,” Rabkin said.

Today, major universities such as Rabkin’s offer courses in sci-fi literature. Science fiction writers, such as Butler, now win MacArthur fellowships, the so-called “genius grants,” and some have their works turned into blockbuster movies. Five of the 10 top-grossing movies of all time are science fiction. “Star Wars: Episode IV,” and “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” rank second and fourth on the list.

The final seal of respectability has come from the group with the reputation as being the hardest to convince: scientists.

The museum’s board of advisors includes not only writers and movie directors (Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron) but accomplished physicists and aerospace engineers with Ivy League affiliations. Two board members conduct research for NASA.

The museum director, Donna Shirley, spent three decades as an aerospace engineer and led NASA’s billion-dollar Mars Exploration Program.

If there’s a salient theme in the museum, it is the symbiotic relationship -- some might even call it a collaboration -- between science fiction and science. The SpaceShipOne exhibit, which stands in the lobby just outside the museum’s formal entrance, sets the tone for the mind-expanding stuff inside.

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Shirley gave a recent tour. She is 63, with rosy cheeks and a speckling of gray hair. She speaks with authority, like a school principal, but occasionally erupts in childlike exuberance.

“See the prints?” she said, gesturing to the three-toed, glowing “alien footprints” on the floor that serve as a tour path through the museum. “They’re for people who don’t know where to go.”

The museum has two levels. The first is designed to feel like the cosmos: black walls that simulate outer space, twinkling with stars and galaxies. The second is supposed to be the main deck of a spaceship, with giant computerized screens like windows looking out at spaceports and cities of the future.

There are more than two dozen exhibits. Some are comical, like the one entitled “THEM!” which showcases some of the most famous monsters, androids and aliens in the science fiction world. The biggest, the original Alien Queen from the 1986 movie “Aliens” -- 19 feet of latex and fiberglass -- crouches inside a glass case.

“You wouldn’t want her standing all the way up,” Shirley said.

Other exhibits are more serious, including one called “Not-So-Weird Science,” which examines the historical interplay of science fiction and science and technology. The basic message is that science fiction has inspired, and in some ways shaped, the development of many scientific accomplishments, and science has continually provided new material for fiction.

Physicist Leo Szilard, who first explained a nuclear chain reaction, got the idea from H.G. Wells’ 1914 sci-fi book, “The World Set Free,” said Gregory Benford, a plasma physicist at UC Irvine and author of a dozen sci-fi novels. Benford is an advisor to the museum. He said the term “atom bomb” was invented by Wells in the same book.

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A website -- Technovelgy.com -- lists more than 675 inventions inspired or shaped by science fiction.

Shirley offered a simple example. Walking past a window display of fictional communication devices, she took out her flip-style cellphone and held it up next to a space communicator used on Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” television series in 1966. The resemblance was uncanny, a case of life imitating art.

Rabkin, the English professor, brought up comic-book detective Dick Tracy, who in 1931 wore a futuristic wristwatch phone. In a recent paper, Rabkin described a similar-sized gadget now available at the local mall:

The device is “a telephone, alarm clock, calculator, scheduler, text messenger and camera. It’s also an email client that gives us access to global digital libraries or our own business documents, serves as private device or speakerphone, and beams business cards and applications to nearby colleagues.... It can use plug-in modules to reveal our exact position on the planet, suggest alternate travel routes, and offer games to play alone or with friends scattered far across the Net.”

A case of life exceeding art.

“We live in a science fiction world,” Rabkin said.

A more complex example is the concept of “space elevators,” electric cars that travel on cables from Earth to stations above the stratosphere, first described in technical writings in Russia in the early 1960s. In 1979, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, one of the godfathers of modern science fiction, wrote “The Fountains of Paradise,” which described such a system in elaborate detail.

“In the last couple of years, companies have been formed to build real space elevators,” Shirley said. Art imitating life imitating art.

The line between fact and fiction becomes more blurred in an exhibit called “The Changing Face of Mars,” which traces the evolution of humanity’s engagement with the Red Planet: from a place imagined to a place actually visited.

Shirley played a big role in that leap and is featured in the exhibit, talking on video about her journey from rural Oklahoma to the highest ranks at NASA. A journey that began at age 12, when she picked up Clarke’s 1951 book, “The Sands of Mars,” about earthlings who travel to the Red Planet.

“I remember thinking: ‘I can do this. I can build spaceships and go to Mars,’” Shirley said.

In 32 years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, she worked on missions to every planet in the solar system except for Pluto.

The pinnacle came when she led a team of scientists that built the first planetary robotic rover. Sojourner was a 25-pound, six-wheeled, microwave-sized machine that landed with the Mars Pathfinder probe on the surface of Mars on Independence Day 1997.

The exhibit includes a half-scale model of Sojourner, which looks as farfetched as anything else in the display.

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Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, has his fingers in all sorts of speculative science projects.

He’s the main financial backer for a former government project called SETI -- the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence -- which in part uses giant antennas to probe space for signals from other planets.

He’s funding research on the genetics of the brain, as well as a project that explores the potential for artificial intelligence.

“Science and space exploration and technology are in my blood,” Allen said.

The museum was a billionaire’s impulse, conceived and constructed in 18 months. More than half of the items come from Allen’s personal collection. Employees joke that Allen just wanted a place to store his things.

Now that it’s built, Allen said the museum must become self-sustaining.

That cause was recently given a boost with donations of undisclosed amounts from Microsoft pal Bill Gates and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, both of whom live in the Seattle area.

Shirley said she was confident the museum would get what it needed to support the small staff and keep the facility running at a cost of between $3 million and $5 million a year. The $12.95 adult admission will help -- about 103,000 people have visited since the June 18 opening.

On a recent rainy Friday afternoon, about a dozen people wandered the museum’s labyrinthine corridors. Not all of them seemed wowed by the high technology. A few appeared downright glum.

That may be because science fiction is only partly about progress and the advancement of humankind. Much of it explores our species’ demise. The apocalypse makes up an entire subsection of the genre.

Judson Ocana, 44, stood wordlessly in front of an exhibit called “Out of the Ashes,” which chronicles a few of the countless fictional scenarios in which humans manage to wipe themselves out. Ocana was driving from Alberta, Canada, to the Bay Area with his girlfriend and decided to stop and see the museum. The girlfriend, waiting in the lobby, wasn’t interested.

“Definitely, I think it could happen,” Ocana said, referring to the end of the world. “The whole message of this place is, at any given minute, we only know a fraction of what there is to know. It’s what we don’t know that will kill us.”

In the display case, a movie poster shows clothed and gloating primates from the 1968 movie “Planet of the Apes,” in which a nuclear Armageddon leads to a new supreme species that enslaves what is left of the human race.

Other stories tell of plagues, famines and technological disasters.

Ocana, lingering by the apocalyptic literature, glanced at J.G. Ballard’s book, “The Drowned World.”

Its cover depicts a world enveloped by a dark green sea with only the tops of buildings visible above the water. There are no people.

“It’s depressing if you dwell on it too much,” he said. He then rejoined his girlfriend and headed for the museum gift shop. The couple spent half an hour picking out souvenirs.

As a remedy for gloom, Ocana said, “it always works.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Take me to your needle

A few examples of technology first described in science fiction, which are now reality.

Then and now

Then: Space communicator, “Star Trek” television series in 1966.

Now: Flip-style cellphone

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Then: Wristwatch phone, comic-book detective Dick Tracy, 1931.

Now: Similar-sized gadget that is a combination telephone, alarm clock, calculator, scheduler, text messenger and camera.

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Then: “Space elevators,” electric cars that travel on cables from Earth to stations above the stratosphere, first described in technical writings in Russia in the early 1960s.

Now: NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts program is providing grants to researchers to study the feasibility of space elevators.


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