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The BBC's Fergus Walsh
reports from the National Space Science Centre
 real 56k

Tuesday, 19 June, 2001, 18:09 GMT 19:09 UK
UK space centre prepares for launch
BBC
A rare sight: looking down on a rocket
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

The next best thing to going into space is soon to be available to the public in Britain when the National Space Science Centre (NSSC) opens its doors on 30 June.

Situated in a space-age building in Leicester, the NSSC offers one of the most remarkable days out anywhere on the planet.

Four years in the making, it contains five main exhibit areas surrounding a state-of-the-art planetarium that produces out-of-this-world special effects.

BBC News Online was given an exclusive preview of the centre, during the final stages of preparation.

Space place

BBC
The tower that houses the rockets can be seen for miles
The NSSC was born in 1995 when a group of enthusiasts bemoaned the fact that there were few places to go in Britain where the excitement and drama of spaceflight was available to the public.

In 1997 the proposal for a purpose-built space centre received 26m from the National Lottery allowing the idea to get off the ground, so to speak.

"Then the hunt was on," says Alexandra Barnett, Programmes Director of the NSSC. "We wanted to make it the most amazing space place in Europe and we began searching the world for rockets, satellites and space capsules."

A sign of the successful search dominates the entrance hall: a complete Russian Soyuz space capsule, identical to the ones in use today.

"Isn't it magnificent?" she asks. "It had been lying in the corner of a car park in Russia for ages before we heard of it. Now it's one of only two Soyuz capsules in the West, and look, [she points to various devices jutting out from the capsule], it has all the components it needs to go into orbit."

BBC
NSSC Programmes Director Alexandra Barnett
"Space is such an exciting subject," says Alexandra Barnett. "We have to live up to that."

By the looks of the centre, in its final stages of construction when I saw it, it will do just that.

Its five main galleries contain innovative displays and interactive exhibits that show the visitor what it would be like to go into outer space and what the Universe is like beyond that.

The centrepiece of the exhibits is the huge, six-storey, tower that contains two rockets. Visitors can stand beneath their nozzles and peer up into the rocket motors, or take an elevator along them looking at the fuel tanks, the electronics bays and the docking collars between stages.

'Good day out'

There is a full-scale walk-through of part of the International Space Station as well as a sit-in Mercury capsule where you can go through a simulated launch and you can take the test: "Have you got what it takes to be an astronaut?"

I ask Alexandra if she has taken it. "Yes, but I don't think I'll make an astronaut just yet," she laughs.

But it is not all rockets and satellites by any means. The "Space Connections Trail" is a surprising collection of different items that are connected, in some way, to space.

It ranges from a crisp packet (metal deposited on plastic, a technology developed for satellites) to a sports bra (designed using engineering techniques developed to measure stresses and strains on rockets).

There is also a section called "Orbiting Earth" that looks at how we use space in our everyday lives - telecommunications, broadcasting and navigation.

"We even have a weather forecasting studio for anyone who wants to try their hand at that," says Alexandra Barnett.

"We really can take you on a trip to the edge of the Universe and back again. It will be a pretty good day out."

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