Betthauser: bringing science & technology to life

It's not hard to tell where Jon Betthauser's passion lies. As executive director of the Columbia Memorial Space Center, his job is to oversee an operation that celebrates the past, present, and future-with the emphasis on the future-of man's scientific and technological exploits, limited only by the poverty of his imagination."I've been a subscriber to the Scientific American since I was 12," he said. He attributes his deep interest in aerospace and space exploration to his father, who as a senior electrical engineer worked on the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and the Shuttle programs for General Electric and Rockwell in Florida, and whose career he followed in his childhood. "The defining moment of my life," he went on, "was when from 3 miles away my father and I, I was about 14 at the time, watched Apollo 11 lift off from its pad. There was this puff of smoke and this roar and this blast of wind that seemed to cause a concussion. It was such a powerful launch!" Born in Washington, D.C., Betthauser grew up in nearby Maryland, and moved back to D.C. when he was 15. Always a good student, he took an interest in microbiology in high school. His studies at D.C.'s Corcoran School of Art included drawing, design theory and photography, and all the while he dabbled in geology and technology in general. "I was into computers even then, and I used this facility to teach people how to draw using a computer," he said. College was spent in New York City where in 1979 he received a bachelor's in industrial design with honors (with a minor in filmmaking) from Brooklyn's Pratt Institute. Elected by the senior class, he was to serve on Pratt's board of trustees from 1979 to 1981. "Thus my courses in architecture and industrial design pulled me into choosing a career in exhibit design," he said. His 30-year career has spanned stints with various firms and institutions, including Ralph Appelbaum Associates in New York City, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, as well as The Tech Museum in San Jose, working in many roles on museums and visitor centers related to cultural history, technology, science and natural history found in various parts of the world. These roles, he said, have included vital functions in his various capacities as design director, project manager, exhibition planner and exhibit designer. As a consultant, he worked on a number of projects for firms whose projects included the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the Phillips Corporation Museum in the Netherlands, and the Hong Kong Science Museum. He was consulting for the burgeoning Columbia Memorial Space Center when he was chosen to be its head. Thus no one questions his expertise in the development and design of interactive science exhibits, and the management of exhibit designs and their implementation. It is this brew of knowledge and skills that he has brought to the Space Center. "It is this, and my lifelong curiosity about complex subjects in science and technology, that have fueled my career," he said, "and being in a position now that I consider a happy culmination for me of a lifetime of curiosity about space and space exploration, I am eager to convey my understanding of, and enthusiasm for, these things to who should be our primary target, our kids." His own 23-year old son has done engineering studies, and is currently a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. The 18-ft. tall Columbia Memorial mosaic adorning the lobby of the 20,000-sq. ft. two-story dynamically-shaped Space Center, the exhibits, programs and simulators both ready and planned, are of course aimed at the general public, but particular attention and emphasis are being made to attract the kids. Thus visitors can create and test their own space landers at a two-story tall "Soft Landing" exhibit, try their hand at a Flight Simulator, and otherwise get engaged in a full-size Apollo program test capsule (patterned after Command Module BP-19), a Robotics Lab, and the Challenger Learning Center. Succeeding phases of the exhibits/programs will include a high definition media wall, to show live events, a two-way communication with the international space station, as well as a HD direct feed from a NASA satellite. The youngest visitors, meanwhile, will have a special space-themed exploration area which includes a padded Mini Shuttle and a Mars Crater, along with lots of activity bins. Other visitors can check out the Spacesuit exhibit, or discover their weight on other planets at the Gravity Scale exhibit. "Our main intent is to teach young kids about careers in space exploration and our planet Earth," said Betthauser. "We are a career-oriented space science learning center for students of all grades, particularly middle school and high school kids. Our subjects focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)." "The main challenge is to make science and technology come alive for them, make them exciting for the kids. We will show them how relevant careers in many areas of science and technology can mean satisfying lives." "For these kids, the future will be unlimited," Betthauser said. "People will love it. It will be a lot of fun!" (The Columbia Space Center's grand opening celebration includes opening its doors to the general public on a time-limited basis this weekend, Oct. 24 and 25, from noon to 6 p.m. both days. One-hour free tickets (limited to four per person) are available at the city manager's office located on the third floor of City Hall, 11111 Brookshire Ave. For ticket information, call (562) 904-1895 or (562) 904-7286).

********** Published: October 23, 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 27