Britain's Space Race exhibition

From Imagination to Reality!

In July, we opened our newest exhibition at the National Space Centre, Britain’s Space Race. The exhibition tells the story of early British rocket design, through to British rocket development in Australia, satellite development and the stories of the British engineers who worked on the Apollo programme.

It was unusual for us in many ways – it was the first opportunity in the time I’ve been at the centre to develop a brand new story, and to develop a new gallery space. We are more often working in the existing galleries, creating smaller pieces, reinterpreting and changing the spaces gradually. For this piece, we were using an unused deck in our rocket tower, and adding a new chapter to the story of the Space Race which we tell in there.

One of the themes that emerged from the story was of imagination and invention. The exhibition begins by telling the story of the British Interplanetary Society, who imagined and visualised early rockets, space stations, moon landers and bases, and astronaut’s space suits. Their motto is ‘From Imagination to Reality’, and this felt like the perfect way to treat the exhibition development and creation.

I was keen to reflect this attitude in the elements we made for the exhibition, and wanted to focus on the ideas of making, inventing and prototyping. As well as designing the cabinets and furniture for the space, and creating the interpretation designs, I created a number of tactile and interactive pieces to highlight the spirit of making and creativity involved in the early design and creation of rockets.

Tracing and touchscreens

One of the pieces I created was a simple drawing interactive, built into a mid 20th-Century desk and drawing table. The interactive used a touch screen to allow a user to draw a rocket, either using an on-screen template or of their own design, and launch it. It was inspired by one of the objects on display, a tracing of the Blue Streak rocket schematic by Sheila Wilkes. I wanted to create something that reflected the idea that these drawings were done by hand, rather than made in a software package.

The templates ranged in complexity, so that the piece was accessible to a wide range of users, and could be understood and completed quickly and easily. It was a lot of fun to develop, and I felt it added to the theme of the exhibition. The programming element was fairly simple, which meant I was able to have a playable version available to test early on. Through testing, I was able to remove unnecessary complexities from the interactive, making it much easier to enjoy and interact with. I was also able to add playful elements and animations, which helped bring the piece to life.

Secret silos

The next piece we made was a relief model of a never-built silo for the launch of rockets from British soil. I used original drawings from the National Archive to create a cross-section view of the silo and top-down views of the interior levels. I wanted to create something tactile, to mirror the idea of an architectural model, and to give a sense of the depth of the silo. Once I’d traced the drawings, I laser cut and etched each part of the silo, and created an artwork with cut holes to embed the pieces in. I feel it invites more exploration of the silo, rather than simply creating a graphic, and again echoes the themes of making, creativity and prototyping.

Tactile interpretation

The final pieces were 3D-printed models of the rockets and satellites on display in our rocket tower. One of the decisions we made early on was to install a large glass wall on the deck, to create a viewing deck and show more of our larger pieces. On the deck are plinths which interpret each piece. I felt it was really important to create a visual link between the interpretation and the objects, so there was a clear connection. I was inspired by tactile maps and interpretation I had seen at other venues and conferences, so I decided to create 3D half models of the pieces, so that visitors were able to experience them in a new way. They are large suspended pieces, so visitors aren’t able to have touch them, so I think the models add a real sense of connection, and help people understand the structures of them.

I’m pleased we were able to introduce these made objects to the exhibition, and that we developed them in house. It gave me a much richer understanding of the work we were developing, and challenged us to think about interpretation and storytelling in new ways.

We also commissioned a model-maker, Stephen Wisdom to create a space suit using Ralph Smith’s design for the British Interplanetary Society. The final result is spectacular, and is a great focal point for the exhibition. It brings to life the excitement and imagination of the time, and looks like something from a B-Movie or Dan Dare comic! You can read more about it here, and find out more about the process and challenges of recreating it.