PEORIA — The vintage helmet and boots may be the most low-tech components of a decidedly high-tech affair. But Keith Feinstein wouldn't part with them for all the stars in the galaxy.

The Feinstein-designed "Be the Astronaut" is the new traveling interactive exhibit launched last weekend as the summer blockbuster attraction at the Peoria Riverfront Museum.

In a pioneering interface of advanced video game technology and NASA-sanctioned professional simulators, the exhibit recruits visitors to take control of an interstellar mission to one of four destinations: the Moon, Mars, Jupiter and/or, for the really adventurous, an asteroid belt encounter with dwarf planet Ceres.

Along for the ride: a virtual crew (scientist, doctor, navigator, engineer) to provide able guidance and assistance should things go awry.

Which, rest assured, they can, and do. 

It's no coincidence that the exhibit premiered last fall at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where NASA went gaga, as did the public.

Several days before the Peoria opening, a visitor passes a cart that, at first glance, looks slightly out of place amid the banks of video monitors and, over along one wall, a working robot named A-Eye No. 9, who looks like the love child of Robby the Robot and the "bubble-headed booby" from "Lost in Space" ... and who seems to be eyeing the laden cart with his two camera-sensor orbs. 

On that cart are are the prized possessions of Feinstein's youth, to be displayed on the sidelines: a well-loved collection of vintage space-themed toys and games, from a Marx-made Johnny Apollo action figure astronaut to a sleek metal rocket ship from some Cold War-era Soviet toy shelf.

But the ones that really sent Feinstein into orbit as a child of the '70s, he says, are the Ideal-branded S.T.A.R. (Space Travel and Reconnaissance) Team items.

"They were begun in the 1960s, so I probably got them as hand-me-downs at a garage sale. But even in the 1970s, they were very cool ... the helmet, the remote gripper, the moon shoes."

Not much there to impress a child of the pre- or post-millennium, perhaps, but for Feinstein, these items were among the triggers of his passion for all things space-related ... a love consummated by "Be the Astronaut," and the high praise bestowed upon it by NASA folk last fall.

"I remember I'd put the boots on and that golden dome helmet on over my head and stand there, feeling like I was walking around the slopes of the Moon, or imagining I was on another world," says Feinstein, who is partnered with operations director and CEO Mark Kirby in the New Jersey-based Eureka Exhibits.

Fuse that pre-virtual reality escape from Earth's gravity with a mind-blowing encounter, circa 1974, with Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," and the mold was cast for "Be the Astronaut."

"I couldn't have been more than 7 or 8, but, you know, I think I got it, basically," he says of the infamously elliptical narrative line that has confounded many a moviegoer, then and now.

There's more: "My folks recently moved out of the family home, and my mom told me she found a story I'd written in kindergarten about how me and my friend Timmy went to the moon ... so that proved there was such a connection to space travel that early on."

"Be the Astronaut" is actually the second interactive exhibit creation by Feinstein and Kirby, who cut their teeth with "Be the Dinosaur," which played Peoria to huge crowds at the former Lakeview Museum, where it was the last exhibit there, notes the museum's Ann Schmitt, vice president of programs.

Kirby says the dinosaur exhibit was tackled first, to work out the interactive technology that has allowed the leap, a la Kubrick's famous "2001" jump-cut, from prehistory to an epic space journey (one that, not by chance, involves "2001's" touchstone Moon and Jupiter locations).

"We got into the business to pioneer the video game approach to museum exhibitions and bring them into the 21st century as a non-passive experience," adds Feinstein.

In addition to the banks of simulators that will allow visitors to pilot their own space missions, each patron will receive a magnetic swipe ID card that tracks their progress through the exhibition's array missions and other variables.

The card will be usable over multiple visits, so that visitors can continue their missions where they may have previously left off, notes Cathie Neumiller, the museum's vice president of marketing and communications.

Throw in Feinstein's vintage space toy collection, a display of authentic space suits and other artifacts, and, of course, the robotic assistance of A-Eye 9 and his partner A-Eye 3, and you have something more than just out of this world.

Knowing how "2001: A Space Odyssey," S.T.A.R. Team toys and other close encounters as a child impacted the direction his life took, Feinstein said he'd love to be partly responsible for planting a similar seed in some young person's fertile mind.

"Every adult working in the space program was once an inspired child," he says. "It's those earliest dreams some people never give up on." 

Follow Dan Craft on Twitter: @pg_dcraft


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