The Chabot Space and Science Center at night. Credit: Pete Rosos

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Eugene Tu knows how access to inspiring educational and career opportunities can be life-changing for young people. 

Tu graduated from Berkeley High School in the 1980s with “okay, not stellar” grades, and enrolled at UC Berkeley with a fuzzy sense of academic direction but a love of planes and flying. Cal faculty pointed him to internship opportunities at NASA’s Ames Research Center, located near Mountain View, one of 10 NASA field centers across the U.S. 

The impact for Tu was enormous. While working summers at Ames, he completed his BS in mechanical engineering and then earned master’s and doctorate degrees in aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford, with financial support from Ames. Almost 40 years later, he is at the helm of Ames as center director, leading a staff of 3,000 who constantly push the boundaries of knowledge in fields such as nanotechnology, space biology, biotechnology, and more. 

Tu’s personal experience is one reason he is excited about Ames’ robust new partnership with Oakland’s Chabot Space & Science Center. The just-announced collaboration—detailed in a five-year “Space Act Agreement”—will transform Chabot’s interior, enhance its community education programs, and increase science-based career-development opportunities for Bay Area youth. 

“I started at Ames as a volunteer, as a student, and I’ve been at Ames almost my entire career,” Tu said. “I know firsthand how inspiring that path was for me. I want to give that back.”  

Bringing NASA to Oakland

While Chabot and Ames have collaborated on content and programs at various points since Chabot first opened in Redwood Park in the Oakland hills in 2000, the new partnership was seeded six years ago, when Tu met with Chabot Space & Science Center’s executive director Adam Tobin shortly after both had become directors of their respective organizations. 

“We had a great meeting,” said Tu. “I was intrigued by what Adam described as the vision for Chabot moving forward, particularly being much more than a science-based museum, the connection with education. That felt very complementary to and in line with NASA’s goals. That’s how it started.”

“We found an immediate opportunity for collaboration,” Tobin said. “We collaborated on exhibitions, speakers series, and significant events. And through all of that, we realized there was potential for the broader partnership we’ve put together now.” 

The new partnership’s most visible component will be the overhaul of Chabot’s public exhibitions to create “The NASA Experience.”  Of equal if not greater importance to both organizations are the enhanced community education programs and career development opportunities for Bay Area youth with NASA. 

“Both institutions have ingrained in our being a belief in the importance of sharing what we do with the community,” said Tobin. “Education is a throughline. Research is a throughline. So there’s an intersection of cultures.” 

The top-to-bottom remodel of Chabot’s 86,000-square-foot campus, which is still in the design phase, will be the center’s first full refresh. The first phase is slated to be completed by November 2021, at which point Chabot will reopen to the public after 20 months of what were originally pandemic-induced closure. 

While details are still being worked out, “The NASA Experience will transform every corner of Chabot,” said the center’s Marketing and Communication Manager Mary Catherine Frantz. This includes redevelopment of Chabot’s entrance, rotunda, and large gallery spaces. 

“We’re opening up spaces physically to make larger areas that can house testing and prototyping adventures,” said Chabot Director of Visitor Experience Liz Austerman, who is leading the physical redesign. “There will be something for everyone, of every age, to engage with. And what’s key is that the content will be ever-changing. Nothing will be static.”

New hands-on studios will enable visitors to run experiments and participate in challenges drawn from current NASA Ames research; and an onsite Ames visitor center will showcase the stories of NASA scientists and researchers—like Yvonne Cagle, who grew up in the Northbay city of Novato.

Cagle, who describes herself as “an African American woman of color and ambassador of aspiration,” is a retired “full-bird” Air Force colonel, NASA astronaut, and flight surgeon who did part of her medical internship at Oakland’s Highland Hospital. Now advising engineers at NASA Ames, Cagle is thrilled to also be helping shape the Chabot-Ames partnership. 

“Adam Tobin graciously invited me to serve as a technical ambassador to build out the outreach and the interactive experiences that will serve as the launch pad for so many marginalized youth of all ages to participate in this journey of exploration and discovery,” she said. 

Cagle said she became interested in flight and aviation as a 10-year-old in July 1969 during the first Moon landing. She climbed up an old oak tree in her neighborhood to get “a great vantage, a bird’s-eye view” of the sky during that historic event. “Immediately, my dreams took wing,” she said. 

But with that era’s still-limited opportunities for girls and Black people who wanted to jump into careers in the sciences, her next move wasn’t immediately clear.  “I thought about leaping for the stars, but gravity weighed on me literally and figuratively. I had to chart my own pathway.”

By way of contrast, she said, “Imagine what can happen if we provide amazing tools to students at early impressionable ages—tools that allow them to experience robotics, coding, medicine, 3D printing—no later than middle school. That will allow our next generation of explorers to shimmy up the tree of their dreams, to imagine how far they can launch.”

Chabot’s NASA Experience will provide exactly those types of tools and inspiration drawn from Ames researcher’s drawing boards, labs, and lives. Beyond what visitors will experience in Chabot’s new exhibition halls, the partnership will infuse NASA research and researchers into Chabot’s existing “Learning Everywhere” initiative, which takes science education out of the museum and into the community through partnerships with the Boys and Girls Club, the Oakland Public Library system, OUSD, Oakland rec centers, and other organizations. Oakland and East Bay youth will also have the opportunity to intern at Ames. 

“One of the most exciting parts of this partnership is that we see NASA and Chabot working together to break down the well-documented opportunity and diversity gaps in STEM fields,” said Tobin. “If we can open the doors to more equitable STEM education, and expand workforce skills and opportunities, that’s the big benefit of the partnership.”

Chabot’s remodel will be its first full makeover since it first opened over 20 years ago. Credit: Darcy Brown-Martin

Finding light in a dark period

Like most audience-serving institutions, Chabot suffered deep pandemic-related losses. Closed to visitors since March 13, 2020, the science center saw its revenues drop and laid off 75% of its staff across all departments, asking remaining staff to work reduced hours with a paycut. 

Nevertheless, staff stayed busy over the last year. One major focus of their work was pivoting to produce programming in virtual spaces. 

“We created online content and resources that schools and households could use during the pandemic,” said Tobin. “We put a camera on our telescopes and were able to create virtual live telescope viewings [that were enormously popular]. We had two women scientists from Ames talking online about their work in ingenuity. We had a half million views for that, which was a big leap forward for us.”

A second focus during the closure has been planning the new partnership with NASA, which is being underwritten by community support and a gift of $1.5 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

“What the pandemic showed Chabot, as it did many of our sister organizations, is that we can’t go it alone,” said Tobin. “We feel very fortunate that we will be able to not only survive the pandemic but to come back strong, and have the impact that we anticipate having, with this new partnership.”

Both Tu and Tobin are filled with optimism for the partnership and its potential to create opportunities for East Bay youth. 

“It’s so exciting to bring the people of NASA’s Ames to Chabot and Oakland and the East Bay,” said Tobin. “When a young kid can see a scientist that looks like them and is so excited about their work, which has so much meaning, then that kid will be lit up and can see themselves as a scientist. I hope with all my heart that through this partnership, a lot of kids—who otherwise would not—can picture themselves walking on Mars, and then will actually do it.”