Inside the first museum show by DARPA, the 'Pentagon's brain'

By STEVE JOHNSON | Chicago Tribune | Published: May 12, 2016

With a new show spotlighting drones, robots and space-based weaponry, the Museum of Science and Industry is doing something unprecedented: It's presenting an exhibition made by and recruiting for DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The sound scientific reasons for mounting "DARPA: Redefining Possible" are legion: Technology developed in part by DARPA, sometimes referred to as the Pentagon's brain, makes your cellphone possible. The steady march of robotics into our lives, led by drone aircraft, has DARPA roots, as do weather satellites and the common computer mouse. And many readers probably hear "DARPA" and think right away about the Internet: The massively disruptive global digital network was called in its infancy ARPANET, ARPA being the original name of DARPA.

"Pound for pound, it's probably the most innovative organization in the world that you've never heard of," said Kurt Haunfelner, the museum's vice president of Exhibits and Collections.

Wearing an American flag pin in his lapel, Haunfelner was standing amid the DARPA exhibit as it was being installed last week: panel after information-rich panel, like a high school science fair writ large, but featuring projects that would allow any high schooler who conceived them to write her own college ticket if not be spirited away to some underground laboratory.

These adult versions of tri-folds were punctuated, periodically, by examples of the tech being talked about. There was Atlas, the space disaster-relief robot that greets visitors as they enter the exhibit. The "Air Legs" exosuit, a kind of robo-backpack, can help humans -- soldiers -- move more efficiently by supplementing their natural leg strength. A case showed a model of the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vehicle, a sort of advanced ocean drone, scheduled for sea trials off San Diego this summer.

And, of course, there was Spot the dog-robot. In case after case, DARPA made what an agency executive called "the early sizzle investments," including funding the first two launches by Elon Musk's SpaceX company.

Museum specialists became intrigued by DARPA while researching the current "Robot Revolution" show. "Virtually every place we looked, we saw innovation that went right to our core mission," which includes STEM education and being a "21st-century science and technology center," said Haunfelner. "These are the breakthrough areas of the future."

Seeing a larger version of the exhibit at "Wait, What?", a DARPA-led tech conference last year in St. Louis, "at the end of the day, I said, 'We need to talk to DARPA about bringing this story to MSI,' " he said.

The agency, which has top secret realms but also looks to get out what word it can via a YouTube channel, was receptive to becoming even more public-facing.

"We thought it was a good fit with Chicago," said Steven Walker, the agency's deputy director, who was on hand for the installation and opening last week. He cited the nearby presence of Argonne National Laboratory and Boeing, plus such universities as Northwestern, Notre Dame and the University of Illinois and all the school kids who come through the museum.

"How do YOU become a DARPA program manager?" asks one of the wall panels.

"Lots of people, we hope, will decide, 'Hey, DARPA's the place to come and make something happen, have an impact on national security," Walker said. "We certainly want to attract the best and the brightest folks to DARPA. I think, too, it's an important story to tell about how technology plays an important role in national security."

DARPA began, as ARPA, in a national security panic. The Soviet Union caught America off guard in 1957 by launching Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, orbiting Earth every 96 minutes. President Dwight Eisenhower started the agency the next year with a stated aim of not being caught by surprise, technologically, again.

The timeline of achievements through the years is fairly stunning, especially when you consider the agency's modest size, currently about 200 government employees.

It functions a little more like a tech company than the rest of government, bringing in its "project managers" for just a few years, Walker explained, and sometimes letting them capitalize on technologies they've developed when they go or return to the private sector.

But while the exhibit tells much of the DARPA story, it certainly isn't telling the whole story.

"The truth has many parts to it," Annie Jacobson, the author of "The Pentagon's Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA," told an audience at Google late last year. "It has many points of view, and whenever you're dealing with government secrecy, there's always the sense that more will be revealed."

This show is not about revelation. But it is, Haunfelner said, "a story about the best spirit of innovation."

And if the military overtones or anything else about it rub some people the wrong way, that's all right by him.

"We certainly know that it's going to provoke a conversation," he said. "That's an appropriate thing for a museum like this to do."




When: Through Sept. 5

Where: Museum of Science and Industry, 5700 S. Lake Shore Drive

Tickets: Included in $18 general admission. 773-684-1414 or www.msichicago.org; 

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