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N.H. Space Museum Honors Shepard, McAuliffe

First, a rocket landed gingerly outside the door. Then, a huge space shuttle model took form inside.

Now, New England's first air and space science center is opening to carry on the legacy of two New Hampshire space heroes: Alan Shepard and Christa McAuliffe.

The McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center is four times the size of the original Christa McAuliffe Planetarium, opened in 1990 in honor of the Concord High School teacher who died in the space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986.

With its observatory dome and 92-foot full-scale mock-up of the rocket and capsule that carried Shepard into space in 1961, the center, opening March 6, dwarfs the original planetarium. Its programs do the same.

"It's not just an expansion," said Director Jeanne Gerulskis. "It's a transformation of how we operate."

The new programs build on the planetarium theater presentations, interactive space and science displays and teacher and student workshops to offer fun ways to inspire kids and adults to learn about science and other careers.

The key, said center astronomer Kathryn Michener, is to make sure exhibits are more than just something to look at.

"We want people to have an amazing, immersive experience," Michener said. "When you enjoy what you are learning about, you will remember more of it."

For instance, the new "Expedition to Mars" exhibit allows families or school groups to plan their own 18-month mission to Mars - designing living space, deciding on what provisions to take and how to protect themselves from the dangers of space.

"And they take a quiz to see if they would actually be able to survive emotionally and mentally a six-month trip one way, spend six months there and six months back in a very small enclosure with a bunch of other people," Michener said.

Other exhibits explore Earth's environment, energy use and even interesting jobs.

The "Real People, Amazing Jobs" interactive display allows visitors to learn about the daily lives of people including scientists, engineers and TV meteorologists.

The message for kids: "Maybe I could do something like this," said Gerulskis. "Here is this person right in front of me who has figured out how to do it."

The center's first "Real People" award will go to the country's latest aeronautic hero: US Airways pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger for landing his crippled airliner safely in the Hudson River in New York Jan. 15. He will accept via a taped video message at the center's opening ceremony March 6.

Gerulskis says Shepard, the first American in space, and McAuliffe, the first teacher in space, were courageous pioneers.

She points to the Redstone rocket and Mercury capsule. At just under a fraction under 6 feet wide, it's much smaller than it looked on TV blasting into space - appearing almost fragile as it sways slightly in the wind.

"Would you climb into that little capsule at the top?" Gerulskis said. "That was really brave."

The rocket is the centerpiece of Redstone Rocket Plaza outside the center's front door. An interactive exhibit surrounding it tells the story of Shepard, his historic flight and the race with the Soviet Union to land the first astronauts on the moon.

McAuliffe's mother, Grace Corrigan, said McAuliffe would be proud to be linked with Shepard.

"I just remember Christa saying when somebody said 'Oh, you are such a hero,' she laughed and she said: 'No. I'm not a hero. Alan Shepard; now that was a hero.'"

Gerulskis said planning began for the $15 million center shortly after Shepard, from Derry, died in 1998 at age 74.

The center will open in phases: interactive exhibits and the cutting edge observatory this week, with future phases over the next several years. They include a Challenger Learning Center for space and science studies, an aviation center including mock-ups suspended from the atrium ceiling of the Mercury capsule that carried Shepard in 1961, the Apollo spacecraft that took him to the moon a decade later and a jet he flew as a test pilot.

As good as the displays are, Gerulskis said, another key is finding employees who retain a kid's sense of wonder.

"It's the only place where I've worked that I found other people still have Star Trek toys," she said.

Planetarium educator Robert Veilleux has something better.

"Every day, when I come up here, I always bring along with me a little hunk of space," he said, reaching into his pocket for a heavy piece of pockmarked metal about the size of a thick arrowhead.

"It's an iron meteorite, it fell over in Russia in 1947," he said. "I let the kids hold a piece of space. Some of them, their eyes just light up."

Mission accomplished.

Veilleux, 66, was the New Hampshire runner-up to McAuliffe for the teacher-in-space spot on Challenger. He's been to five shuttle launches and uses his planetarium job to share his enthusiasm about space travel.

"I come here to play," he said.

Another way to play will be the interactive shuttle displays, including one on sleeping in space.

But Gerulskis suspects there will be a lot of interest in one "not-so-interactive" display that helps answer a common question about space travel: "How do astronauts go to the bathroom?"

"We have a shuttle toilet," she said with a laugh. "We'll have to block it off - the seating arrangement at any rate."

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If You Go...

McAULIFFE-SHEPARD DISCOVERY CENTER: 2 Institute Drive, Concord, N.H.; http://www.starhop.com or 603-271-7827. Opening March 6. Hours: Monday-Wednesday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Thursday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. with Friday evening shows at 6:30 p.m., and Sundays 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults, $9; children 3-12, $6; students and seniors, $8. Planetarium shows are an additional $3.n accomplished.

Veilleux, 66, was the New Hampshire runner-up to McAuliffe for the teacher-in-space spot on Challenger. He's been to five shuttle launches and uses his planetarium job to share his enthusiasm about space travel.

"I come here to play," he said.

Another way to play will be the interactive shuttle displays, including one on sleeping in space.

But Gerulskis suspects there will be a lot of interest in one "not-so-interactive" display that helps answer a common question about space travel: "How do astronauts go to the bathroom?"

"We have a shuttle toilet," she said with a laugh. "We'll have to block it off - the seating arrangement at any rate."

—-

If You Go...

McAULIFFE-SHEPARD DISCOVERY CENTER: 2 Institute Drive, Concord, N.H.; http://www.starhop.com or 603-271-7827. Opening March 6. Hours: Monday-Wednesday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Thursday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. with Friday evening shows at 6:30 p.m., and Sundays 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults, $9; children 3-12, $6; students and seniors, $8. Planetarium shows are an additional $3.