Sharing his passion for planets, stars and huge, powerful rockets is what fuels Joe Bruce's mission to educate

click to enlarge Joe Bruce - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Joe Bruce

"We're on this shoreline called Earth, looking out into space, wondering what's beyond the moon? What's beyond Mars? What's beyond that next star? And we're going to explore. That's part of who and what we are," Joe Bruce says.

Bruce has built a life as an artist, explorer, collector and most importantly a teacher, and he loves everything related to the study of space. In fact, there's a giant toy rocket in Bruce's yard. It serves as a gateway to the astonishing collection of space memorabilia in his basement.

The collection has pieces from every era of space exploration — it includes a wide variety of parts from rockets, elements from command and control, and even three complete spacesuits. "Joe's Museum" as his wife Kathy calls it, also showcases Joe's own flight and space related artwork.

click to enlarge A lithium hydride canister with Buzz Aldrin's signature. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
A lithium hydride canister with Buzz Aldrin's signature.

There's a scale model Bruce built of a SpaceX Rocket, and a corresponding photo of Bruce standing beneath the real one. Astronaut gloves hang from the ceiling near a light fixture featuring planets aligned around the sun.

Though "Joe's Museum" looks like a professional facility, it's a museum on the move. Bruce regularly takes parts of his collection out into the community. Each piece of memorabilia also comes with a story.

Take the prized lithium hydroxide canister with Buzz Aldrin's signature on it. When Bruce got a chance to meet Aldrin in Seattle, he handed the astronaut the canister to sign. "He said, 'What's this? A battery?'" laughs Bruce. "So, I had to go through and explain to Buzz Aldrin what he was using," Bruce remembers. The canister was key to the astronauts' survival as it was used to suck up the carbon dioxide the astronauts breathed out.

Through decades of presentations in libraries, senior care facilities and classrooms with students of all ages, Bruce has shared his passion for space. It all started 29 years ago when Bruce's son told his teacher about the collection his dad happened to have stored in the basement. Bruce has been returning to Moran Prairie Elementary ever since. "There's not anyone really like Joe," says Moran Prairie kindergarten teacher Debby Smith. "He's exciting for the kids, he's hands on... Joe doesn't just stay in my room for 30 to 40 minutes. These kids are sitting and engaging with Joe up to two hours."

Bruce is modest about his school visits.

"It doesn't take much especially with little kids — you've got dinosaurs, and you've got space."

Bruce's presentations include showing and explaining the parts of his collection — the two pieces of Mars and the spacesuits are always popular. And he reads new books, explains how space food works and leads in games that painlessly teach lessons about science-y topics like friction. If the room is full of older kids or adults, who might not be automatically interested in space, his program typically focuses on the history of space flight.

In addition to giving space talks showcasing his collection, Bruce also enjoys sharing his love of astronomy through informal evening programs to "tour the sky" with one of his many telescopes. Smith recalls a "Star Party" at Moran Prairie Elementary. "We had probably 150 people there," to look at the moon and several different planets. "Parents and kids really enjoyed that," she says.

In fact, it's the kids that motivate Bruce to offer up his knowledge. Since 2003, Bruce has worked as the director of Children's Ministries at Hamblen Park Presbyterian Church in Spokane, but he also carries the title of NASA/Jet Propulsion Labs Solar System Ambassador, a volunteer position. "My hope is that with these kids ... something is sparked there. An interest. Or something's ignited. And one of these kids might go on and have an interest and go on and be the next Neil Armstrong, the next Sally Ride, the next Mae Jemison. Or who knows? Maybe even a future president."

To schedule a Space Talk with Joe Bruce, search NASA Solar System Ambassadors and click on the directory.

21st Annual Small Artworks Invitational @ Art Spirit Gallery

Wednesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Continues through Jan. 5
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