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NASA appeals to science nuts, dancehall ravers

Yuri's Night report

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Maybe it was a shared love of science that lit the faces of those attending the NASA party commemorating the first human spaceflight. But maybe it was just the alcohol and freaky-deeky psychedelic light shows. It's hard to tell when you're blotto.

On Friday, NASA opened up a hanger at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View to celebrate the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's spaceflight in 1961. Dubbed Yuri's Night World Space Party, it was just one of 126 such events in 35 countries around the world. NASA's take on the festivities was a tribute to "our global heritage of space exploration," which it accomplished through techno-rave music, avant-garde dance routines and various displays pulled from last year's Burning Man.

Nothing says extra-planetary science like a jeep covered in LEGO bricks, a fortune-telling Buddah kinetic light sculpture and solar-powered sunflower robots.

The event did have the occasional science-related booth such as one showing off NASA's World Wind software; a free 3-D satellite imagery program, and there was a 20-inch telescope on the far side of the lot pointed at Saturn —but its hard to attract much of a crowd when you're competing against dancers in bathing suits gyrating with glowing hoola-hoops. It just can't be done.

Not that NASA didn't have a strategy to appeal to its audience. When the throbbing techno stopped at 10 PM so NASA planetary scientist Chris McKay could address a warehouse of bleary-eyed rave fans about biological ethics in space exploration, he could have faced what those in the lecture biz call a "hard sell."

McKay gingerly engaged his audience on the scientific importance of sending a plant to Mars by explaining NASA wants to "grow its own" on the red planet. This went over splendidly — even to those not engrossed enough to assume the space agency was taking blurted-out suggestions of what plant should be grown there. (Three guesses).

An earlier presentation by the first female private space explorer, Anousheh Ansari also did well if the catcalls were any indication.

Under a metal geometric dome there were video presentations such as "What's Going On Up There!" a documentary examining the sacrifices made in the space industry. Whether a person could actually hear any of it over the music is anyone's guess. The cushion-covered dome was best served for more visual presentations such as "Zero G. Art," where artist Pierre Comte explored what it's like to paint in the reduced gravity environment of a plummeting vomit comet. (Really, really awkward and messy.)

It's not difficult to see why NASA took the rave approach. You've got to lure those flies in with honey before you start to ask them for billion-dollar project funding. And it's sometimes difficult for a science organization to get the public excited about what it does (which is why NASA doesn't ring doorbells for money).

We see through your plan, NASA. All the hypnotizing light shows in the world aren't going to make us think terraforming Mars is a good idea.

But maybe if you bring back those hoola-hoop girls...®

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