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26 October 2010
The National Space Centre is near Leicester sign-posted from the M1. This is the second time that I've visited. The first was with a toddler, but this time I visited with two 5 to 6 year olds. We visited on a wet day during the autumn half-term holiday which was predictably very busy. There was a long queue to buy tickets which can be avoided by taking advantage of the online advance purchase. Entrance fee is expensive, but if you gift-aid the entrance fee as a donation it includes a free upgrade to an annual pass which makes it excellent value if you plan to visit again, and there's certainly plenty to do to warrant a return visit.
The National Space Centre is very much a hands-on attraction. There are some original historical exhibits in glass cases, but almost everything else has some kind of interactive feature from lifting question flaps and playing with buttons on replica capsules to interactive computer games and simulators. Most of the interactive features were very well designed with an excellent use of technology and educational games.
There is something for everyone at the Space Centre. Older children will benefit most from the astronomy and physics in the hands on experiments, but younger children can still learn through play and association with the various exhibits and there's even a Lunar Jim interactive play area for very young children (under 5s). There is also plenty for adults from an opportunity to recap on some of the science behind space exploration or reminisce about the first moon landing (although that's before my time). Depending upon schedule there may also be presentations from guest speakers. On the day we visited it was Dr. Lewis Dartnell talking about the search for alien life and about the ExoMars Rover Robot (see picture below).
Included in the admission fee is a ticket to a film showing in the theatre. The time is allocated depending upon the time you arrive at the museum (in our case it was about 11.10am by the time we'd got through the queue and we got a ticket for the 12.30pm showing). If using the gift-aid and returning on a subsequent visit then you have to pay an additional £3 to see the show.
We didn't see the show on our previous visit as our daughter at the time would have been unlikely to sit through the show especially as the theatre was very dark on occasion. Our son is not much older though and I am more likely to take him in future as I think it's down to the individual child. This time we did see the show and I was very impressed.
The show was called "We are astronomers" narrated by David Tennant (of Doctor Who fame). It's basically a video on the advances in Astronomy including a unique look at the VLT (Very Large Telescopes) at the European Southern Observatory in Chile and a representation of what it could be like as a proton in the Hadron Collider near Geneva. The subject didn't sound too interesting unless you are into Astronomy in which case it's probably too basic; to be honest had this been a documentary on BBC Two I'd have probably turned over, but the special effects were truly amazing and made this into a great show. Now it wasn't that the computer generated characters were any good, in fact the CBeebies' Alphablocks are far more realistic, but the 3D effects were breathtaking and it was all achieved without needing to wear any glasses thanks to the Fulldome technology.
The kids came out asking to watch another show which is not what you usually expect after a documentary. In fact they really enjoyed the show and said it was their favourite part of the visit and I can see why.
We ate lunch in the cafe. Choice was limited to sandwiches or soup, but there were sandwiches suitable for both children and adults. The queue for the cafe was very long and I think it would have been better to have taken our own sandwiches just to avoid the queue. They did however have a good selection of cakes and doughnuts. There is a dedicated area for anyone bringing their own sandwiches, but many people were sitting on the benches or floor in the main museum area to eat their own sandwiches.
Unfortunately by the time we had finished our lunch the museum was very busy and many of the exhibits had long queues. We were still able to get onto some of the hands-on activities, but we skipped some of the interactive exhibits and the Tranquillity Base because I could see that the children were getting restless. I expect that this was partly due to this being during a school holiday week and the fact that we can go back again for free meant that I'd rather finish the day on a high rather than trying to do everything in one day.
The vast majority of the museum is indoors (just a few display items in the car park) and so it was ideal for a wet day.
I'd definitely recommend a visit to the museum especially if you can make the most of gift-aid and subsequent free return visits. We had a great time and can't wait to go back, hopefully when it's a bit quieter.