Monday, February 20, 2006

Journey into Space... and slurry...

We had a trip out down to Leicestershire on Sunday, or “Adrian Mole Country” as the County signs ought to proclaim in celebration of Sue Townsend’s anti-hero.

Our destination was the National Space Centre which is a Millennium Project funded museum located just north of Leicester. The most prominent feature of the building is a large tower which looks from afar as though it is made out of air filled packaging, there is a certain inflatable feel to it.

It is rather expensive to visit, £9.99 for adults, £7.99 for kids. There are certainly some fascinating exhibits but much of the detail is not of interest to primary school kids. There are diversionary items for that age range, however, with assorted tunnels and rubber gloves for smaller kids to interact with, as well as the ability to build soft play rockets and watch videos of Mr. Sunshine in an under 5’s area.

The main attraction in the museum is the space theatre, which is a cross between a Planetarium and a Cinema where you sit in comfy recliners under a huge dome not much smaller than the Madame Tussauds in Baker Street (which apparently has now abandoned planetarium shows in favour of entertainment videos.) We saw a show called “Big” that attempts to put the size of the Universe into perspective, i.e. absolutely massive and enough to shake a religious person’s belief somewhat. Lets face it, in the scale of things mankind is absolutely trivial and if there is a God/Allah/Jahweh/Grand Architect/Great Green Arkleseizure, the likelihood of them being interested in the antics of individual carbon based lifeforms is a total nonsense and the ultimate conceit of mankind.

The show is well made and includes humour in the form of animated plasticine figures as well as stunning views of other galaxies, although it could have done with being somewhat louder, especially with a couple of ignoramuses behind me discussing something I wasn’t interested in during the show. The use of LCD projectors to cover the dome is well done and whilst not entirely seamless (the joins do show as slightly darker areas forming a giant fuzzy tent frame) and not too bright strike the right compromise between being of Cinema intensity and spoiling the effect of the starfield and milky way.

The tower houses two large rockets, as well as various other artefacts and items, including a replica of Sputnik, the first Satellite to be launched. The tower is indeed inflatable, with a triple skinned pressurised membrane giving the bulbous look beyond the concrete core. The promised views of Leicester were lost in fog somewhat as it was a very misty day.

There is a gallery devoted to training for space missions that is interactive with probably the biggest queues, being the newest addition. It includes a simulator that seats 17 (five rows of 3/4/3/4/3) and bumps you around whilst you visit Jupiter and one of the moons (possibly Europa). You get to wear 3D specs for this ride and it is nicely done, but not to Disney standards.

I personally enjoyed the living in space gallery the most, where you learned about astronaut food, exercise and hygiene, including space toilets…

…next to the museum is another one, the Abbey Pumping Station which is basically a tribute to excrement being the remains of a former sewage works that pumped the slurry onwards after being sand filtered. (The Space Centre is built on brownfield land, literally so!) The displays aren’t just about sewage, however, there being items about trams, Victoriana and even a mockup of a vintage cinema projection room. The crowning glory is the pump hall, where four huge magnificent beam engines sit cold and static in an ornate Victorian Engine Hall, but fully restored and in steam on special occasions. The biggest interest to children, however, is a demonstration flushing toilet and associated drainage plumbing, complete with plastic turd to see how it works!

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