The director of Seattle's (search) new science fiction (search) museum wants to get people thinking about "What if."

"What if your best friend was an alien?" Donna Shirley asks. "What if you could erase things from your past? It gives people permission to speculate. ... We want to get kids thinking about what could really happen."

In other words, the museum is going for more than geek appeal, though it has plenty of that.

Among the exhibits are Captain Kirk's original command chair from "Star Trek" (search) (no, you can't sit in it), an interactive space station exhibit, fan magazines, posters and a ray-gun collection that could get the NRA excited about galaxies far, far away.

The Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame (search), created with $20 million from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (search), opens Friday in a remodeled section of his other museum — the Experience Music Project.

Appropriately, the museum's shiny, twisted, futuristic building designed by Frank Gehry is at the foot of the Space Needle, and the Monorail — a 1960s conception of future travel — runs through it.

Exhibits track the genre from Mary Shelley's 1818 novel "Frankenstein" through the prescient atomic war stories of the early 1940s, TV's "The Jetsons," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Star Wars" and "The Matrix." (search)

For most of her adult life, Shirley has been involved in real-life space travel, working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on missions to every planet except Pluto and helping put a rover on Mars.

Now she's returning to the stuff that first fired her imagination at age 11.

"That's what science fiction is about," she said.

Allen, ranked by Forbes magazine as the world's fifth-richest man, says he began reading sci-fi in grade school. As his wealth grew, so did his collection of sci-fi pulp fiction, and many of the museum's artifacts, including Kirk's chair, come from his private stash.

He echoes Shirley when talking about science fiction.

"It gives people an unfettered ability to look at the future and think about the future ... and thinking about the future in interesting ways has always been something I've tried to do."

Indeed, Allen and buddy Bill Gates started building Microsoft in an era when regular people didn't even dream of owning their own computers.

One museum section, "Not-so-weird Science," shows how technology has advanced to nearly fulfill concepts devised by sci-fi writers.

"Frankenstein" and Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" are conceptual cousins of today's genetic engineering, the exhibits suggest, and "1984" seems more relevant as governments and businesses develop new ways to track their citizens and customers. Sex-change operations and cosmetic surgery could be out of the gender-bending writings of Theodore Sturgeon in the early 1960s.

One of the coolest sections is the interactive, computer-animated display that mimics a space station. Ships float past, from the Enterprise of "Star Trek" and the Millennium Falcon of "Star Wars" to the goofy Planet Express of the TV cartoon series "Futurama." Visitors can see images of the ships from any angle, and learn about their dimensions and features.

Another highlight is a globe-shaped projection screen developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Using four projectors, it can accurately display the surface of planets — from Jupiter to the ice world Hoth from "The Empire Strikes Back."

The museum hopes to attract 100,000 visitors in its first year.

"If you read a thriller, it's pretty much: 'here's the way things really are,'" Shirley says. "Science fiction says 'here's where things could be.' That's what endeared it to me. It's a very powerful medium."